Karlos Ponte: Cooking for a planet of cultural diversity
Maybe we cannot only explore nature through food, maybe we can travel and explore the micro cultures of a planet through fine dining and ambitious food. Maybe we can use fine dining also to communicate the immense diversity of this planets food cultures. Meet Karlos Ponte: In the Taller-restaurant in Copenhagen a young Venezuelan is adding another layer.
Many chefs associated with the Nordic food movement have been adamant about using the eating experience to preach biodiversity and natural preservation. The idea is that if you through experience and appreciate the many things nature has to offer you’d be more inclined to support political agendas of nature and wild life protection and diverse agriculture. When you see the Worlds great cities the culture is mainstreamed. Istanbul, Singapore and Paris have the same Zara stores, Converse-sneakers and the same “ethnic” street foods. Globalization is mainstreaming every piece of culture. Pontes kitchen is a counter reaction to that, bringing food thinking of far from modernity food cultures and original food cultures unknown to most on the plate to celebrate a planet of immense diversity.
”It seems the major trends have been shattered, dissolved or mixed with another. The world doesn’t have one agenda in food anymore. In the past two decades the Nordic movement followed the Spanish revolution. The Nordic represented a great rediscovery of nature and returned the chef to someone tied to agriculture, seasons and the untamed nature. The Spanish revolution gave us so many new techniques. Every chef has to be grateful for that. Now it seems we have entered a stage of cooking where it’s the personality of the chefs and their individual visions that are the inspiration to the Worlds food community. So it’s not so much: Are you a technical wizard. Are you down with every original plant in your terroir. It’s more: Do you have your own vision of what food should be? Karlos Ponte explains.
Karlos is helmsman at Taller where 8 or 9 nationalities cook their own global and yet strangely Nordic local food. Taller is one of the most praised new restaurants in town. It’s both a restaurant made by ex-Noma staffers bringing with them that intense desire to succeed and to shape food culture, and it something that you’d have to call in some way not Nordic or Danish at all – there’s strong Venezuelan and South American flavors and a different food language all together; even thought it’s tucked in behind the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen a stone throw from the epicenter of Nordic food. It’s a restaurant that breaks the mold of the Copenhagen dining scene. You can’t really label it. Maybe the food is a Venezuelan-dash-nordic-dash-avantgarde-dash-something cuisine. It’s Karlos take on what’s next in culinary exploration.
From the rainforest to Copenhagen
”Well I like the cold. I’m from the mountains so the whole thing with South American heat doesn’t work for me. Winter is coming here. And that’s just fine”, Karlos says. Being an exchange student in his teens in Denmark made him familiar with Denmark and the language of the hobbit-nation. But Karlos Ponte too is one of those young super talents that went on from Noma to open his own vision of food in Copenhagen.
When he was in culinary school studying hospitality management Karlos and his father made a short video-project on original food cultures of Venezuela. Eventually the idea got picked up by television and Karlos ended up doing 24 episodes travelling through the country exploring the food culture of indigenous people in al and with mountains, indians, rain forests with both poverty and great natural wealth.
”We met people that lived in symbioses with one special river palm; they drank its juice, they ate it, they made houses and clothes from the trunk and the fibres. When the plant decayed they eventually at the special worms that grew in the rotting remains of the palm. We filmed this woman who everyday prepared incredible smoked cheese in an altitude of 3500 meters. There are communities where the ritual preparation of bread is very important in the process of coming of age as a young woman. I found out, that society evolves, develops – is shaped – by it’s food culture. It is like a framework or skeleton for our culture. So now I travel a lot. I always visit micro cultures away from the mainstreamed kitchens of the Worlds large cities. I aim to make my cuisine a cultural exploration of the planet I have seen, explains Karlos Ponte.
One of the dishes Ponte is currently serving is a lobster with blood sausage. You think he is nuts, but the blood sausage is not the sweet, cinnamon flavored sausage you’ll see across Northern Europe, it’s more a dry and earthy olive-like paste, that makes the lobster-dish an umami punch and a trip to some place else, to somewhere they’re experiencing other flavors. The idea comes from a special village in Venezuela that is the best place in the country for lobsters – and blood sausage – both are being sold in street stands. “Another thing we have on the menu right now is blackberries in a papaya-based dessert. These things grow side by side in Venezuela. To me they kind of belong together. I emulate the blackberry wine that is a local tradition in a particular region in Venezuela”, says Karlos.
I want you to go someplace else
“I want you to travel. When you sit down here, that’s the thing I aim to give my guests. That they travel through the medium of food. Off course I don’t do a strict ethnic food, but ideally I want the food on my plates to give that perspective that it’s a huge planet, and that the cultural diversity is immense, and that there are so many food languages. You know, Redzepi and Noma always aimed to demonstrate the immense biodiversity though their cuisine. I’m very much a fan of that. Maybe the thing I try to do is exploring and curating cultural diversity on the plates also,” he analyses.
In love with the comradery of the Copenhagen cooking scene
In that way Pontes food is shaped by his own life as a traveler and an expatriot, from the mountains of Venezuela through the kitchens of the El Bulli Hotel in Seville and the food scene of Denmark.
“You see I ended up staying here also because of the community. There’s a great brotherhood of chefs here trying to expand what it means to be a chef. There’s an honest approach to cooking, a comradery where we cooperate rather than compete. The city has been a magnet for people that are truly ambitious about cooking. And actually – I loves the Danes. I find them to be really lovely people, and I like the values here. But in the end I stayed here because there’s a great scene to be working in, and the audience of the city are really educated,” The Venezuelan says.
Dishes in the story
Pickled scallops and hokkaido pure and sourdough flakes, dried and powdered scallops and cocoa
“A dish inspired by a preparation in Venezuela called Vuelve a la Vida. It ended up being a very different thing, but that’s usually what happens. A dish inspires you and then you end up doing something else.
The traditional dish is a pickle of seafood and vegetables served with salty biscuits. We simplified this by using only scallops, both pickled and dried, pickled pumpkin in a spicy pure, and instead of the salty biscuits we use some sour dough flakes. Everything dusted with raw porcelain cocoa and powdered scallops that throw in bitterness and an aroma that I think brings together the sweetness of the scallops and Hokkaido.
Lobster, blood sausage and tomato crisps
The village of Rio Caribe in the Sucre state in Venezuela is very famous for its amazing blood sausage and is in this coast where the best Venezuelan lobster is picked. I have been there many times and in my mental palate both aromas have always been entangled. Our blood sausage is spicier, earthy and onion flavored, so we just put it together in a dish.
Papaya ice cream, powdered blackberry & yoghurt
One of these dishes where it is not that much a play on tradition. It kind of grows out of my mental palate.
Papaya is a must in Venezuelan gastronomy, we have many sweets made of it. Sometimes you drink papaya with coffee and it works pretty well. So we put a sorbet of papaya with a cold brewed coffee. Aafter some testing we decided we liked a Kenyan coffee for this – it brings some berry flavors out. So we put some imitated frozen black berries made of black berry wine in there. That wine is very common in my hometown of Merida. We needed some creaminess with acidity that can work as a connecting element in the dish, we used a sheep milks yoghurt.