From the world’s highest navigable lake to a salt flat which can be seen from space, Bolivia has more than its fair share of natural wonders to attract tourists.
But few visitors are drawn to Bolivia for its food. In fact, as Latin American countries go, it’s near the bottom of the list for gastronomes.
That could be about to change. Claus Meyer, the Danish co-founder of Noma – three times voted the best restaurant in the world – is opening his second eatery in Bolivia’s de facto capital, La Paz. Gustu will champion the little-known cuisine of South America’s poorest nation, blending Meyer’s avant-garde cooking methods with local ingredients including llama steak and giant runner beans.
The project aims to create more than just a destination for globetrotting foodies: the $1.4m restaurant includes a cookery school to train a new generation of young chefs and restaurant professionals from poor backgrounds, and all the earnings will be ploughed into a non-profit foundation.
“I believe in the power of food to change things,” Meyer told the Guardian at the restaurant’s launch on Thursday.
“Maybe Bolivia is the country in the world with the largest undiscovered, unexplored biodiversity.” Meyer listed 10 fruits he had seen nowhere else, thousands of varieties of potatoes, high jungle coffee and even exquisite red wine from the landlocked country’s eastern border with Argentina.
Kamilla Seidler, one of the restaurant’s two head chefs, said Bolivian cuisine had been a victim of the country’s own cultural prejudices: people wealthy enough to eat in top restaurants were likely to turn their noses up at indigenous food. But traditional Bolivian food is as varied and exotic as its landscape, including such delicacies as llama steaks, charqui (a kind of beef jerky) and pacay (a kind of enormous runner bean in which the beans are surrounded by a soft candyfloss pulp). In Gustu, the bean is replaced with chocolate as a dessert.
“Bolivia had this third-world-country stance which it has only just shaken off. It surprises me that we’re the first from outside to have taken advantage of this because there’s an extraordinary bank of products. Until now there’s never been a movement to turn Bolivia into a brand,” she said. For Gustu, street food is as important as haute cuisine, from chicken hearts coated in tomato puree and quinoa to ham sandwiches with chopped onions and chilli sauce.
Anticipating the small budgets of many Bolivians, Seidler said prices at Gustu had been set just below other high-end restaurants in the city. A 15-course meal with a cocktail, wine and dessert for one person costs $135 (£89) but the cheapest dishes start at $7 (£4.59), she said.
“We’re counting on the growing middle class,” she said.
Bolivia’s economy has grown at 5% for the past four years but per capita income is still the lowest in South America. The monthly minimum wage stands at 1,100 bolivianos (£105). While poverty is on a downward trend, 45% of Bolivians are still poor.
But poverty is no obstacle to the enthusiasm of student chefs such as Estephanie Morales, 22, who works in Gustu’s kitchen. “People are begging to be part of this culinary movement,” she told the Guardian. “We’re realising that we took our flavours and colours for granted.”
Students such as Morales have also been trained across the border in Peru, where the culinary boom is in full swing with some 66,000 restaurants and 800,000 young people learning to be chefs. The Spanish food critic Ignacio Medina said Gustu had the potential to be one of the top three restaurants in Latin America. “It’s an extraordinary challenge,” he said. “They’re starting from zero in Bolivia but they could bring a new dynamism to the gastronomic sector for the whole region.”
Meyer discusses the potential of indigenous food cultures in the following TEDX video: