Kamilla Seidler is a force to be reckoned with. The young Danish chef, who has had an illustrious career in some of the most respected world kitchens — Mugaritz, Manoir Aux ‘Quat Saisons, Paustian and Geist — took on her biggest challenge when Danish entrepreneur Claus Meyer of the Melting Pot Foundation, which empowers poverty-stricken communities by galvanizing their younger population through food initiatives, appointed Seidler as the chef to lead its Bolivian initiative. The story has been well documented but the short version is that Seidler, a newbie to South America, headed to La Paz and started a culinary revolution, the result of which was Seidler’s much-lauded restaurant, Gustu, food movement (MIGA), and a culinary educational program (Manq´a).
Now, Seidler’s efforts, talents and skills are on being recognized on a world stage as this morning she was named Latin America’s Best Female Chef as part of Latin America’s 50 Best Program for 2016. She will accept the honor at the 4th annual Latin America 50 Best Awards Gala being held on September 26th in Mexico City.
In 2013, Gustu opened on the idea that the food, culture, and geography of Bolivia could open a new world of entrepreneurial possibility and sustain a people, not dissimilar to the way that Gaston Acurio infused Peru with an international culinary identity. To that end, Gustu uses exclusively Bolivian products, and much of Gustu’s profits are reinvested into the country’s continued growth. In Gustu, she has created a contemporary, inventive approach to food, highlighting native Bolivian products with elegant plating and flavor combinations. Her dishes celebrate both a country and the smaller, local communities within it, using the restaurant as both a vehicle and comment to incite social change. The project has been significantly recognized, most recently by the Basque Culinary Center, who honored Seidler and CEO Michelangelo Cestari as finalists.
Entering the Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurant list in 2014 at #32, Gustu rose to #17 last year in 2015. While waiting to see where it will land on the 2016 list later this month, we caught up with Seidler in her native Copenhagen, to talk food, kitchen politics, and being a woman in a male dominated profession.
New Worlder: First of all, big congratulations on this honor. You took a different culinary road in Bolivia and, in turn, changed the outlook of a country. And…as a foreigner. And a woman.
Kamilla Seidler: Thank you so much! I’m blown away, and really really thrilled by this.
NW: What does an award like this mean? Your restaurant was #17 on the Latin America 50 Best list in 2015. Now, Best Female Chef in Latin America for 2016.
KS: You know, I don’t even think we knew what the hell we were doing. We had a one-year contract, we thought we’d build a small culinary school, and then we’d go back to what we knew, cooking in kitchens around the world. It’s incredible. We never expected this. But the work has been a collaboration of the whole team from the beginning. It’s not for me. It’s for Michaelangelo, my partner in crime. For the 68 people who work with us, the 400+ people who have passed through Gustu in past two years. All the groups that have been recognized in Bolivia. This is a huge prize for the community.
NW: We’ve read a lot about how you had to work hard to penetrate Bolivian society when Gustu opened. What do think has been the biggest challenge in that process?
KS: Logistics – is one of them. But also, being female.
NW: Tell us about those challenges — being a foreign woman in Latin America?
KS: In the beginning, it was hard. We were doing something very different and people didn’t know the restaurant or us. For example, if people wanted to congratulate the chef, they would often ask me to call the chef and I would say, “Oh, I am the chef.” And their response would be, “But you’re a woman.” My reply would always be something like “Yes, but I’m the chef. I’m in charge.” They were always taken back. That idea took some getting used to. In the beginning, some of the students didn’t know how to deal with having a woman as their boss in a chauvinist society. But because I’m a foreigner, people were a little more accepting. Most especially, I saw this with the girls at the school who wanted to pursue cooking as their life’s work. The parents would say things like, “That’s good for you, but not for my daughter.” It seemed okay for me, because I’m a foreigner. While they would accept me, they wouldn’t accept the same path for their kids. That was a challenge.
NW: How do you react to parents saying that to you?
KS: That we should all do what we want, because we do best at what we want to do. It doesn’t really matter what it is – being a doctor or electrician, or a chef. You just need to be happy. That’s important, and it’s that simple.
We saw that change in a lot of the parents’ perspective, though, when we brought them into Gustu. That was a turning point for many of them – the quality of the restaurant and quality of equipment. Seeing what we were building, showing them we were actually serious about what we were doing. Here in Bolivia, after school, a lot of people just get a job as a waiter, a busboy. They considered such jobs small jobs, people didn’t take them all that seriously. Showing them what we were doing inside of Gustu showed the community that we were doing something different than that. Slowly, they began to understand this was serious business and you can build a real career from cooking, restaurants and from food.
NW: How has that changed?
KS: It’s changed a lot. It’s never been an issue in the business, among colleagues, my good friends, and serious culinary people. They understand it. But on the client level and with the parents of the students, it has definitely changed. It’s something we don’t really talk about it, though. Just something to notice. Now, people are more like “amazing, cool” and it’s become very normal, the idea of a female head chef. It’s kind of like seeing a male nurse.
NW: It’s fair to say that Bolivia didn’t have a world culinary presence until Gustu. How has doing this against stacked odds, added to being a woman, enhanced the awareness you’ve created?
I feel more proud winning the prize in Latin America, certainly, where we had to overcome commonly held misconceptions about what we were doing. I really feel that it’s the whole team winning a prize, though, and it’s especially awesome for the girls. There were so many that came to us convinced that this is what they wanted to do and now…well, they can do it. My team, but the girls in particular, are now working in Gustu and in local restaurants in La Paz; they’re doing stages all over the world and standing up to the stigma of being a female chef. That means a lot. I’m so very honored, as a Danish girl, to win a prize in Latin America: this is not my turf. Let’s be honest, I don’t look Latina, so I appreciate my colleagues, my co-workers, and my fellow chefs to even think of me for this honor. Though I’m Latin at heart and I’m super super proud.
NW: The culture of male chefs in food, it’s a topic. Do you ever feel outside of the culture in which you’re a leader? If so, how?
KS: No, actually. I never feel outside of it. If you do feel outside of a community that you’re a part of, well…that’s on you; you’re creating that feeling. I’ve always worked in restaurants and never seen it as an issue. It’s an issue in parts of the world where it’s an issue on a larger scale, in places where you hear horrible stories about beatings of women and the demonization of women. But that’s a global and cultural issue, not a culinary one. Growing up in Denmark, working at Mugaritz, with Bo Bech at Geist, I have seen equality. At those places, there’s been 50-50 split on the team between men and women, and I was never put in the situation where women were minimized or disrespected.
Lists are important to newspapers. They’re dominated by men, all over the world, in every profession – that’s not just a culinary thing. So, I think women need to change the broader culture, not just a culinary culture. Stop saying things like “Boys don’t cry.” Women need to stop labeling themselves as different or holding men to a different bar. It’s a way bigger issue and it’s not going to change tomorrow. It’s something that needs to be worked on daily. It’s a cultural shift that needs to happen and when the world outlook changes, culinary change will follow.
NW: With this recognition, how do you help change the culture? You’ve been involved in women’s solidarity movements like Parabere Forum, how do they fit into the larger culture? How do you help move them forward?
KS: It’s actually something we’ve been doing since we came to Bolivia. For me, it’s just normal human respect, treating everyone as equals. Granted, not everybody is on board, so we have to keep talking. Be open but don’t cry about it; fighting for equality needs to be handled in a respectful way. If women go out and scream “we want equality” and all these things – that doesn’t work. I mean, men and women are not the same – that’s a fact — but we should always always have the same rights. We don’t have same interests always, and we should be comfortable with the differences. Women will still buy more shoes; men will still watch more football. But when it comes to decision making, to economics, to basic human rights – we all should be equal. So we will push as much as we can.
For me, I will continue to work with Parabere Forum, and with something like Mario Castrellon is doing with girls in Panama. I would rather support existing causes and programs than reinvent the wheel. If we can implement the progress and change in those cases and work to build those programs, we can create change. I don’t need an organization in my name to push forward on this issue.
NW: For the Latin America 50 Best 2015 list, it’s you, Leo Espinosa, Roberta Sudbrack, Elena Reygadas, Martha Ortiz, Helena Rizzo. That’s over 10% of the list, compared to the Worlds 50 Best, which only features Elena Arzak. If you look at the top 100 of the 50 Best List, you can add Daniela Soto-Innes to the tally. The best female chefs in the world, on both lists, are of Latin/Spanish descent. And there’s a higher percentage of female chefs on the LatAm list. Is there something about Latin America being more open to female chefs? Has anyone talked about that before?
KS: Amazing. That’s so amazing. Really? I didn’t realize that. No, nobody has ever pointed that out before. I feel honored as the first non-Latin, Latin person in this group. It just goes to show… Latina girls have a lot of balls.