Colombians do not need a Jennifer Aniston fan club to dislike Mr. and Mrs. Smith, the 2005 Brangelina film that depicts Bogotá as a warm-weather tropical suburb in “Columbia.” The real Colombian capital is a sprawling NYC-style metropolis with 9 million inhabitants, and its mountainous 8,500-foot elevation mocks every word of “warm-weather tropical suburb.” The same movie scribe penned Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, so factuality is not necessary his forte, but Colombian frustration is not with a single movie. Rather, it is the widespread stereotypes that cast Bogotá as the capital of cocaine and kidnapping. The city certainly experienced dark times for a quarter century, but modern Bogotá is a cosmopolitan capital with boutique hotels, designer stores and an educational culture that inspired its Athens of South America nickname. The city also boasts a world-class restaurant scene.
Consider Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants for 2014, an influential list compiled by Restaurant magazine in England. More than half of the entries belong to only four cities: Buenos Aires (11), Lima (8), Mexico City (6) and São Paulo (6). Indeed, these cities claim epic restaurants like the Amazonian-sourced D.O.M. in Brazil and the elevation-themed Central in Peru, and their food scenes are recognized around the world. Chile is another respected food destination, but surprisingly, it is Bogotá (4) and not Santiago (3) that claims the next-most entries on the list. Just as Lima was the fast-rising newcomer at the turn of the millennium, Bogotá is on the rise now, and notable similarities exist between the two food scenes.
Is Bogotá becoming the next foodie destination a la Lima? The answer is a mix of yes and no, but positives can be found in both the similarities and the differences.
The similarities between Peruvian and Colombian gastronomy start with biodiversity. Peru excelled by applying French and Japanese techniques to its immense natural resources, yet Colombia boasts an even higher level of biodiverse abundance. The World Resource Institute ranks Colombia second (behind Brazil) globally in biodiversity, while the Convention on Biological Diversity claims the “megadiverse” country has more than 300 different ecosystems. Natural forests cover the majority of the mainland, including its Andean and Amazonian regions, and Colombia is the only South American nation with Pacific and Caribbean shorelines. Tayrona National Park near Santa Marta epitomizes the abundant ecology with the jungle-clad Sierra Nevada Mountains crashing into the Caribbean Sea. Mother Nature is a major motivator for tourism with jungle lodges, coffee regions, mountain hikes, diving and fishing, but it also provides a culinary bounty that the nation is only now able to appreciate.
Colombia struggled with Pablo Escobar drug cartels in the eighties and guerilla movements (e.g., FARC and ELN) in the nineties and aughts, but the iron fist of President Álvaro Uribe (2002 to 2010) helped improve security during his two terms in office. Government programs included eradicating coca plantations and replacing them with agricultural commodities such as cacao beans, palm trees and different types of peppers. In fact, Colombia is no longer the top cocaine producer, a distinction that ironically goes to Peru, followed by Bolivia. During the decades of internal conflict, Colombians often kept to their own towns and cities, but safer streets reopened the door to national travel, and it helped unify the country in unexpected ways.
“A big reason for the improving food scene is that Colombia is finally together,” says Gaeleen Quinn, co-founder of the Bogotá Food and Wine Festival. “We were divided by war for many decades, so in terms of gastronomy, we did not know about other cultures in Colombia. Some people could not drive from one city to the next, so bringing ingredients was impossible. With the festival, we bring traditional cooks from all around the country to feature dishes and ingredients that we might not know we had several years ago that are also Colombia. All of a sudden, we started to have amazing hearts of palm from the Amazon and Putumayo, and we are able to enjoy delicacies grown here in our backyard. It is not part of our culture in terms of Bogotá, but it is part of another culture inside Colombia that we are just starting to know. I actually think this is just the beginning.”
Celebrity chef Leonor Espinosa, or Leo, epitomizes the use of Colombian culinary biodiversity with Leo Cocina y Cava in La Macarena neighborhood. Her famous dishes include seared tuna with fat-bottomed Santander ants and ice cream made with the red-tinged Colombian soda Kola Román. Meanwhile, musician-turned-chef Tomás Rueda takes a similar small-farm approach a few blocks away with Donostia and the family-style Tabula. Mini-Mal, an innovative restaurant and design store in the Chapinero Alto neighborhood, even made it the restaurant’s mission to showcase as much Colombian biodiversity as possible.
“Colombia has 10 percent of the world’s biodiversity, and its cultural diversity includes African traditions, indigenous, Spanish and even Arabic,” says Manuel Romero, a partner at Mini-Mal. “We want to raise awareness for lesser-known flavors like tucupí, an ají [pepper] from the Amazon; piangua, a clam from the Pacific coast; and the purple potatoes from Boyacá. For example, Arrullos is an entrée made of coconut cookies, or cocadas, topped with Pacific coast basil leaf and a mixture of octopus, white squid and tiger shrimp cooked in coconut milk, spicy green curry and juice from the Amazonian fruit copoazú. Our idea is that visitors experience a broader notion of our natural and cultural wealth.”
Another similarity with Lima is the number of chefs who returned home after seeking experience and opportunities elsewhere. As the U.S. and European economies sputtered in the late aughts, the Colombian economy soared, and Bogotá became a stylish destination that even claims a Dolce & Gabbana martini bar. Many young chefs thought they would find fortune working international kitchens, but Colombian opportunities inspired many homecomings accompanied by high levels of culinary training. For example, El Cielo is the city’s most innovative restaurant with Juan Manuel Barrientos channeling gastro-geniuses like Ferran Adrià and Wylie Dufresne. The 31-year-old chef trained at the revered Spanish restaurant Arzak in San Sebastián and under famed sushi chef Iwao Komiyama in Argentina. Similarly, the young couple behind the Grazia café returned from NYC where they worked at Daniel, the same restaurant where Dominique Ansel (The Cronut) made his name. Down the street, the almond croissants at Masa are legendary, and founder Silvana Villegas previously worked in NYC with Jean-Georges Vongerichten whose namesake restaurant claims a triple Michelin star.
In terms of differences between Lima and Bogotá, the proverbial chicken and egg came in different orders. Whereas the restaurant scene drove the spike in tourism to Lima, tourism and business came first in Bogotá helping drive its culinary boom. Per government statistics, approximately 500,000 foreign tourists visited Colombia in 2002, but the number grew to 1.4 million in 2010 and nearly 2 million last year. Between 2013 and 2014, the country experienced a 14 percent increase in international tourism, which is impressive considering the global increase is 4.7 percent and South American overall increased 5.7 percent. Thanks to improved security and stability, international business and investment flooded the country, and Colombia now enjoys a free-trade agreement with the U.S. that took effect in 2012. In this sense, Bogotá bares a closer resemblance to São Paulo whose own business sector created the demand for fine-dining establishments.
Another difference is Bogotá’s growth in all forms of international cuisine. While Lima primarily focuses on Peruvian food, Bogotá showcases cooking styles from around the world. Criterión, the most acclaimed restaurant in the country, claims to serve French-influenced Colombian, but the dishes are arguably more Colombian-influenced French. Matiz, meanwhile, is an elite newcomer with Peruvian artist-turned-chef Nicolas Quintano putting modern Latin twists on Italian cuisine. European-style restaurants are abundant in the Colombian capital, but U.S. influences are now big with NYC-themed spots like Gordo and Upper Side, southern-style barbeque like La Fama and the Ugly American Bar & Grill offering wings, fish tacos, lobster rolls, fried chicken & waffles and most every other American comfort food.
Photo courtesy of Criterion
Bogotá is the comeback capital, but the rapid transformation left several signature venues behind, and the travel press has largely failed to stay current. Andrés Carne de Res, whose original location in Chia (45 minutes outside the city) is superior to its newer Bogotá location, is a perfect example. Andrés Jaramillo, a Colombian hippie who opened the restaurant in 1982 as a roadside grill, claims what might be the most famous party restaurant in the nation’s history. The venue accommodates about 2,000 diners and another 1,000 partiers, and it was popular enough to inspire an unaffiliated NYC rip-off, Andrés Carne de Tres. Andrés Chia, which imagines a Steve Rubell-remake of a House of Blues, drew the most attractive and affluent crowds for more than two decades, including celebrities like Shakira and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Every magazine and guidebook calls Andrés a must-visit, and while the Chia location still has its moments, the current vibe is more fairgrounds heritage act than Coachella headliner.
What happened? The answer is unclear. Jaramillo certainly did not help himself two years ago when he blamed miniskirts for an alleged sexual assault in the parking lot, which inspired several women to stage miniskirt protests. (Yes, in Colombia, even the protests are sexy.) Furthermore, Jaramillo arguably diluted his brand with additional incarnations, including a massive food court in El Retiro mall. The real issue, however, might be the economic boom. It made the venue more accessible to the common Colombian, while the restaurant and nightlife surge in Bogotá provided new options with more allure. Why travel all the way to Chia when newer, hipper venues now exist in the city? As evidence of the decline, Andrés Chia ranked No. 24 on Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants list for 2013, but it was cut entirely from the list last year.
The other questionable press darling is Harry Sasson, the eponymous restaurant by one of the nation’s most important chefs. Sasson has several affiliate restaurants, but his namesake location certainly fits the image of restaurant royalty with a first-rate wine cellar and Tudor-style mansion setting. Strong flavors are a signature trait of the kitchen, but sauces and other toppings tend to overpower the flavor of the meat and seafood. Likewise, the service has started to slack, and the atmosphere is losing its buzz. Sasson set the culinary standard in Colombia for nearly two decades, but his old-school approach is a bit of a relic in the increasingly food-forward city.
What is next for culinary Colombia? Quinn, whose culinary festival returns to Bogotá later this year, expects more huge strides. She explains, “I see that Colombia has started to connect with the rest of the culinary community around the world. We are finally out there, we are talking, and we are traveling. We are starting to appreciate our ingredients more, and I feel we are going to use old-fashioned ingredients more like potatoes from the Andes and different types of seafood from the Pacific. All those ingredients will be the main force for all these creative people traveling the world, getting to know techniques and then coming back to Colombia to develop that knowledge with local ingredients.”
Bogotá tourism already has mounting momentum, and if Quinn is correct, the growing food scene might soon take Colombia to Lima-like levels of culinary tourism.
David Jenison is a Los Angeles native and the Content Editor of PROHBTD. He has covered entertainment, restaurants and travel for more than 20 years.