As you walk through the door of Bogotá’s Mesa Franca, you’re immediately hit with the unmistakable smells of a Colombian kitchen: toasted corn, tropical fruits, fresh herbs, grilled meat. If it weren’t for the decor — modern lines, bare wood tables, hanging plants, and pops of red — you’d swear you’d wandered into the home of somebody’s mamá.
At the bar, a gigantic local melon, just arrived from the market, is ready to be broken down and worked into the day’s lineup of dishes and drinks. There’s raw tuna with goat’s milk yogurt and creamy avocado; grilled hearts of palm and feijoa (guavasteen) zest; and a sea bass ceviche with trumpet mushrooms and grapefruit in a tomate de árbol (tree tomato) and green mango leche de tigre, scented with elderflowers.
Helmed by chef Iván Cadena, Mesa Franca is just one example of a new culinary movement that’s sweeping through Bogotá, along with other Colombian cities like Medellín, Cali, and Barranquilla, electrifying a young generation of curious diners who are eager to be challenged. Colombian chefs have been reluctant to give this movement a name, but it’s marked by a shared mission to find a delicious balance between tradition and innovation, to embrace the full range of local ingredients, and to answer a fundamental question that still looms large for many in the restaurant industry: What is Colombian cuisine?
“There is no such thing as a New Colombian Cuisine,” says Alejandro Gutiérrez, co-owner and chef of the wildly experimental Salvo Patria, one of the trend’s earliest and most notable adherents. “It is just that we are finally starting to discover the bounty of our land and its products.”
The traditional food of Colombia’s Cundiboyacense region — the technical name for the high plateau in the Andes mountains, of which Bogotá is a part — is based on the caloric needs of peasants doing hard agricultural work in inhospitable, high-altitude terrain. Think starchy soups, rich stews, and lots of fresh fruits — it’s filling and satisfying, though many Bogotanos still regard their classic dishes as too humble to warrant an upscale restaurant setting.
Not everyone feels that way, though. Over the last decade or so, visionaries like Noma’s René Redzepi and others have spurred a global obsession with locavorism and the embrace of local culinary heritages. Colombia is now riding the wave, and the latest crop of Bogotá cooks have become emphatic about celebrating their country’s edible identity, rediscovering local ingredients and pre-Hispanic recipes, and reinterpreting them for contemporary palates.
“There are young chefs moving things in the right direction,” says Harry Sasson, one of the pioneers of experimenting with traditional Colombian flavors. “They’re disciplined, passionate, committed, and feel love for what they do. But the main goal must be to showcase the variety of our products beyond what people might think of as Colombian cuisine.”
This modern take is exactly that, characterized by hearty grilled meats and deep slow braises; amasijos (traditional starchy foods like empanadas, arepas, and some baked goods) that feature alternative whole grains and natural leavening agents; native vegetables and tubers; tropical fruits and leaves; bright and nourishing soups; fermented and distilled beverages; and flavorful hints of the Arabic, African, and European-influenced Creole cuisine that arrived with the Spaniards centuries ago. When talking about this kind of cooking, some like to throw around the word sabrosura — something with an irresistible, carnal, almost sensual spirit.
At the industrial-looking El Chato in the buzzy Chapinero neighborhood, a similar provocative spirit appears in chef Álvaro Clavijo’s flavorful, locavore-driven dishes like beef tartare with rose vinaigrette and nasturtium-flower mayo; crab with rice chips and charred corn husks; and a lulo (local citrus-like fruit) granita with milk-powder meringue and soursop. For all of his dishes, Clavijo sources as many ingredients as possible from within 100 kilometers of the restaurant.
Not far from El Chato, in a smartly converted townhouse, Salvo Patria shares this dedication to highlighting local foodstuffs, from specialty Colombian coffees to meats and produce. Here, it’s through dishes like albacore tataki pan-seared in native achira (Indian shot) leaves, served in a smoked-trout stock and finished with pineapple vinegar, macadamia nuts, and pickled onions. There’s also slow-braised pork with boronía (a puree of sweet plantains and eggplant), arugula oil, and a fermented sauce made from local coffee husks.
Compositions like these weren’t created in a vacuum. Before chefs like Gutiérrez and Clavijo, there were trailblazers like Leo Katz, the prolific restaurateur of the 1980s and 1990s whose easygoing restaurants with an emphasis on quality ingredients, fashionable aesthetics, and excellent service exposed a whole generation of Bogotanos to a new style of dining out. And there’s Sasson, whose passion for mixing European techniques with Colombian flavors marked a tipping point for the country’s restaurant scene in the late ’90s and early 2000s.
Perhaps no chef has had a bigger influence on Colombia’s culinary vitality than Leonor Espinosa, who opened her eponymous tasting-menu restaurant Leo in 2005. Together with her daughter and sommelier Laura Hernández Espinosa, Leonor Espinosa has dedicated her life to researching the Colombian ecosystem and native foodways of the country’s rural communities. Using ingredients and recipes from deep within the Amazon, every one of her modernist dishes tells the story of a particular people and a place.
In 2017, her work was rewarded with the Basque Culinary World Prize, and the title of Best Female Chef in Latin America by World’s 50 Best. “Leonor, Harry, and even newer chefs like Antonuela [Ariza] and Eduardo [Martinez] from Mini Mal were all of our starting points,” says Mesa Franca’s Cadena. “But more than any new wave, I see a generation of cooks working off of a shared philosophy: cooking with the best ingredients possible, communicating closely with producers, and helping to make food consumption sustainable.”
In the kitchen of Ocio, an inventive restaurant not far from Leo in the so-called International Center of the city, chef Alex Salgado is cooking pulled pork in an achiote paste with marjoram and fermented cassava juice before steaming it in plantain leaves. The curing, smoking, and fermenting that go into many of Ocio’s dishes are coincidentally trending worldwide, but Salgado is looking less to Copenhagen than to ancient Colombian cooking techniques, which also develop flavor through controlled aging.
With colorful dishes like a guatila (chayote) and tofu ceviche marinated in sour coconut milk, Ocio’s menu bears little resemblance to the type of food most Bogotanos grew up eating. But Salgado hopes that soon his countrymen will recognize these colorful specialties for being as authentically Colombian as ajiaco, the city’s signature soup. And he knows he’s not alone. “Many of us are pulling the rope in the same direction,” says Salgado, “and it should involve all of us. That’s the way we want to tell our culinary story to the world.”
Where to sample the new wave of Colombian cooking:
Mesa Franca: Carrera 6 # 55-09, Bogotá
Salvo Patria: Calle 54A # 4-13, Bogotá
El Chato: Calle 65B # 3B-76 77, Bogotá
Harry Sasson: Carrera 9 # 75-70, Bogotá
Leo: Calle 27B # 6-75, Bogotá
Mini Mal: Transversal 4A # 57-52, Bogotá
Oculto: Calle 75 # 20C-21, Bogotá
Ocio Cocina Autóctona: Calle 28 # 6-65 Local 1, Bogotá