Gustu in La Paz: Biodiversity, social engineering and fine dining in 3600 metres

The food world did a collective double-take when Gustu opened in La Paz, Bolivia in April 2013. Not only was it a Dane, Claus Meyer, who launched the restaurant – the man who helped propel Denmark from a nation reared on stodgy gravy to the gastronomic vanguard – but Gustu also had a Danish head chef, Kamilla Seidler. Was this Noma in the Altiplano? Would applying the Nordic cuisine’s fiercely locavore approach to one of South America’s poorest countries be a fairytale too far?

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The Face of Gustu

There were plenty of distorted preconceptions, yet Gustu is still up and running more than three years later, many awards, accolades and experiences richer. This was never about where people came from – about Nordic or Meyer – but about where this restaurant could take the local food culture. “What we have been saying from the beginning is that Gustu is not meant to be a Bolivian restaurant,” says Kamilla Seidler. “It’s meant to be a restaurant in Bolivia.”

Gustu is a fine-dining restaurant, but it is also part of a project with a much more altruistic aim: to rediscover and develop the indigenous food culture in a country where half of the population live in poverty, but where the rich biodiversity offers huge culinary potential. In collaboration with the Danish NGO Ibis, Meyer’s charity Melting Pot launched a cooking school in La Paz where they train underprivileged young people to work at the restaurant and become food entrepreneurs in their own right.

The nutty, sweet smell emitting from the ovens at Gustu around midday when the breads and pastry are done might be the only sensory link back to Denmark. Everything else, from the drinks to the design, is distinctly Bolivian. The striped Andean fabric on the cushions is made from blankets bought at La Paz’s L’Alto market, discarded doors from Colonial time have been turned into wine cabinets, and a row of hand-carved wooden columns hail from Jesuit missions in eastern Bolivia.

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Kamilla Seidler and her crew

The menu at Gustu explores the diversity that can be sourced from the Amazonian jungle a few hundred metres above sea level to the cool plateaus of the Altiplano in more than 4,000m elevation. One of its signature dishes is a slow-poached egg yolk from an organic farm in the Yungas valley. The yolk rests in a nest of smooth ribbons of palm marrow and crispy charque jerk made from alpaca, which is freeze-dried in the Altiplano. Trout is served with shredded Huaycha potatoes and a fragrant oil made from the herb coa, whose flavour pitches in somewhere between eucalyptus and rosemary. They have served rehydrated cherries with buttery walnuts and quinoa on slabs of black stone that were surplus from the kitchen construction work.

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Banana vinegar and Bolivian coffee

It is food full of all the contrasts, textures, depth and experimentation you would expect of a restaurant with ambitions in the higher echelons of gastronomy; it’s just that you would not have expected this in Bolivia.

And neither would Kamilla in her wildest dreams have imagined this type of adventure when she grew up in the Copenhagen suburb of Glostrup. She ran a design shop with her mother before enrolling at culinary college. A chance meeting during a cooking competition led to an internship at Mugaritz in Spain, before she moved on to Geist in Copenhagen.

Now, she runs the kitchen at Gustu together with Michelangelo Cestari, a Venezuelan-born chef whom she met when they worked together at Mugaritz. Seidler handles the cooking and Cestari takes care of the administrative part (“He loves the maths,” says Seidler, “and I prefer to geek out over something on a Silpat”.) Since they arrived in Bolivia in October 2012 their reconnaissance missions have taken them around the country, from the Altiplano to the national park of Madidi where they visited the outskirts to feast on braised monkeys (Kamilla says it looked and tasted like ossobuco) and fluffy-haired wild boar called hochi. Our restaurant has an idea, and that idea is a whole country,“ says Michelangelo. “So we are travelling the Amazons, the mountains, everywhere so we can develop as chefs and at the same time help a country develop.”

If Bolivia’s biodiversity gifted the chefs an impressive larder, the altitude in La Paz handed them a curveball. Cooking food 3,600 metres above sea level alters pressure as well as tastes. Potatoes have to be cooked for up to 40 minutes because water boils at 86 degrees, and while the clean air may intensify the sense of smell, you often need more salt to season the food. Bread was another conundrum in a country where quinoa is the star and wheat often of low quality. Meyer decided to fly in a baker from Copenhagen who eventually battled through collapsing sourdough starters and struck the right balance between gluten-free varieties and wholemeal.

In Gustu’s vast basement prep kitchen, there are no longer signs of teething problems. Snazzy gadgets line the worktops, and the hot and cold sections are separated by a large window panel where chefs scribble notes with marker pens. In one of the square plastic boxes stacked on the shelves are infused coca leaves which they use for their take on salteña, a traditional meat-filled pastry. “Everything with coca is legal”, says Kamilla, “as long as it is not processed into cocaine.”

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Another of the boxes contains chuno. What may look like shrivelled dog excrement is the result of an intricate conservation technique. Potatoes are “washed” for about a month and then taken to the Altiplano where they are laid out to freeze overnight. During the day they are left in the sun where people trample on them to release the rest of the juice and break the peel without distorting the shape. This process is repeated for about two weeks before you are left with the chuno. Gustu has been working on their own variety made with a yellow root called oca, which one of the students grew at home. “You cook it like a traditional potato and then we caramelise it in banana juice and serve it with lama fillet,” says Kamilla. “Kind of Altiplano meets the jungle.”

Waiting months for a trampled freeze-dried potato seems like small beer compared with the logistical challenge of building a restaurant in a country where time is hardly of the essence. “Here in Bolivia and the Andean area in general you have this pachamama way of thinking that Mother Earth is not there for you,” says Michelangelo. “You are there for her. So when you have that concept of life then space and time are completely disturbed.”

Kamilla says she has only cried a few times since she came to La Paz. One time in the beginning of the project when it all became too much; the pressure, the obstacles, the pachamama way of thinking getting in way of their ambitions. The other time it was tears of joy. Gustu had organised for 26 students from the cooking school to travel to Lima in Peru to complete internships – stagiaires – at the city’s best restaurants. Some of the students headed to Astrid y Gastón, the celebrated Miraflores restaurant run by Gastón Acurio, whose pursuit of a regional cuisine has brought Peruvian food to the world’s attention.

As the group of students waited to board the bus in La Paz, some of the parents grabbed Kamilla by the arm, begging her and Michelangelo to look after their children. Other parents cried, overwhelmed by the idea that their children would get to do something they themselves could never have hoped for: to see the world outside La Paz. When the bus crossed over the hills on the west coast of Peru everybody onboard were in tears. The students cried and shouted. None of them had even seen the sea before. “That was insane,” says Kamilla. “Then you are like, ah … that’s why I am here.”

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Three years on from that bus journey, there have been plenty of reasons for her and the local chef students to shed tears of joy. In 2013 and 2014, Gustu won best restaurant in the Como Sur awards celebrating south American cuisine, while Kamilla was crowned chef of the year. The restaurant is currently ranked 32 on the Latin American edition of the World’s Top 50, but the awards pale in comparison to the inroads they have made in training young people from the local area. The first group of 10 graduates from the cooking school all work at Gustu now. In August, another 15 will graduate; some will stay at Gustu, others will travel around the world to begin their apprenticeships. These are the people that will shape not just Gustu’s future, says Kamilla, but that of Bolivian food culture.

“I really look forward to seeing our chefs, waiters and bartenders take charge of the movement that has started and become ambassadors for the countless possibilities in their country.”