It’s my first day of travel from New York to Bogota, and it was a long and tiring one. After a pre-dawn flight, a layover, an endless line through immigration, not to mention the notorious Bogota traffic, I arrived in-country ready for a nap. Instead, we were quickly shuttled to lunch, and to what would be a great introduction to traditional Colombian fare.
Once our table of a dozen visiting and local chefs was complete, family-style portions began flying out of Club Colombia’s kitchen: a flight of arepas, each one different from the last, hit the table and suddenly I was wide awake. And hungry.
Next to appear were empanadas of various size, shape, and filling. Small and pleasantly salty roasted potatoes gave way to a platter of traditional salchisas, which included a blood sausage with the faintest hint of cumin. Its richness was cut only by the novel addition of chickpeas. It reminded me almost of Middle Eastern fare.
Just when we assumed we’d finished, my colleagues and I were confronted with a massive helping of rice and beans, topped with a fried egg. Somehow we made it through. If this was where the week was going, it was going to be a good trip.
In and Out of the Kitchen
I’m staying at El Nogal, the exclusive private club in the city center. It is also where I’ll be cooking in preparation for the various festival events I’d been assigned.
Everyday tasks that I’d normally breeze through always take longer in a foreign kitchen, and even with my own sous chef at my side, I had plenty to do. We did manage to sneak out for lunch most days; with busy schedules at night, it was at lunch that we could truly relax.
I have long been familiar with sancocho from my travels in Puerto Rico, which is the complex stew that is often said to represent one of the first fusion dishes on record. It marries the techniques and ingredients of the old and new worlds. Finding myself at a tiny alfresco table in some out-of-the-way alley near the foot of Monserrate — the city’s highest point at over 10,000 feet — it seemed apropos to sample the Colombian version. It was a DIY affair: a bowl of hot broth was flanked by piles of chicken, plantain, avocado, and a yucca-like starch, all to be added at whim. At that altitude, there’s a constant chill in Bogota’s air, and that warm and spicy soup hit the spot.
Sancocho was a taste of Colombia’s past, lunch today gave us a glimpse of its future. Bogota is fairly remote on a map, but it’s as cosmopolitan as any major city, drawing influences form Europe and North America. That influence is perfectly embodied by Harry Sasson, who is among the most successful restauranteurs in the city. His eponymous restaurant had the air of a Hollywood hotspot. In fact, Harry himself seemed to command the kitchen — and the dining room — with the attention to detail and jovial sincerity of Wolfgang Puck. He seemed to know the guests at every table in the packed room, but to me and Francis Brennan (Chef of Chicago’s L20), he paid extra attention, showering us with course after course of his novel spin Mediterranean cooking as expressed through local ingredients and executed by an army of cooks as impressive as any I’d seen. Halfway through a massive cut of Colombian beef, Francis and I declared Sasson’s restaurant would be right at home in Chicago or New York. Though Harry splits his time between Bogota and the States, the locals are indeed lucky that he calls his native city home.
Whenever in a foreign country, I always try to set aside time for a market tour, and it’s usually a highlight of the visit. Our early morning trek to one of Bogota’s was no exception. With me were good friends David Myers and Christopher Kostow, who decided to actually create this evening’s gala dinner dishes on their market discoveries. From fairly familiar fruits like guanabana to bizarre roots and tubers, each aisle presented a wealth of local produce. While David and Chris urgently poked, prodded, and haggled, I wandered and tasted, quietly cataloging inspiration for later use in the Le Bernardin kitchen. I was sorely tempted to buy fresh cocoa pods for my dish, but they would have gone rancid by the time I would use them. The meats available at market were cut a bit differently than in the States, and it revolved a lot around goat, pork and beef. I could see entire pig skins hanging in the alleys. It’s impossible to fully understand a culture and its cuisine in such a short time frame, but one does learn a lot about a people by what they eat. Seeing the bustling market from a chef’s perspective is a humbling learning experience; the sights, sounds and smells are small seeds that will slowly germinate over time and influence my cooking in subtle ways.
Our days in Colombia are drawing to a close. Hurricane Irene is bearing down on the Mid-Atlantic coast back home, throwing travel plans into disarray. The storm brushed New York City. I am boarding a plane for Miami, though still unsure how or when I would be able to fly into JFK. Our last stop before the airport, however, was a brunch marking the end of the Festival. Though rushed and stressed, my final taste of Colombia was a vibrant stew of shrimp and lime and spice — a perfect distillation of everything I was lucky enough to see and savor. Culinary adventures like this remind me that the world is much bigger than we think and that there is always more to discover. Yet they also make the world a smaller place, with new friendships forged and the realization that we’re all so much alike.