What if you could not only experience, but give back to, the most remote regions of a country through your dining choices? From the dry, rolling hills of Bogota, you can be transported ‘Deep in the Jungle’ with succulent braised beef neck, fried cassava, and starch casabe bread. This signature dish at Mini-Mal, a pioneer in Colombia’s farm-to-table movement, is paired with crunchy lemon-seasoned ants and tucupi: a paste made by the elderly women of a small Indigenous community that the restaurant regularly supports. Adventurous, patriotic, and altruistic, ‘Deep in the Jungle’ is the embodiment of Colombia’s locavore movement, and it is restaurants like Mini-Mal that are offering visitors the opportunity to engage in a more meaningful type of travel.
Dine with Impact: The Best Restaurants In Bogota Leading The Farm-to-Table Movement
While farm-to-table cuisine is hardly a new trend, in Bogota, the locavore movement means something more. With the country’s civil war coming to a close in 2016, a new wave of chefs dedicated to improving rural incomes and promoting small-scale agriculture are taking advantage of access to farmlands previously unreachable due to the conflict. Instead of relying on international imports and emulating European techniques, as they have for decades, Colombian chefs are now celebrating their country’s rich biodiversity and blend of Indigenous, Spanish, and African cooking traditions. “Before ten years ago, we didn’t have access to a lot of the country; we were trying to see what was out of the country to bring in and we weren’t seeing what was on our doorstep,” says Juan Manuel Ortiz, co-owner of Salvo Patria, a locavore hotspot in Bogota. “Now we have access to new territories with amazing cultural backgrounds, produce, and people. It’s a rediscovery of our own territory, and that’s what’s exciting about it.”
You can taste the excitement as restaurants throughout Bogota are transporting flavours from the diverse ecosystems of Colombia to the plate. At W Bogota’s Market Kitchen, chef Sneider Molina encourages diners to sample ingredients that are commonly found in rural communities, such as cubios habas (similar to a sweet potato), but unfamiliar to the average city-goer. He believes, “It is our social responsibility to take advantage of the biodiversity in Colombia.” Similarly, Mini-Mal’s chef Eduardo Martinez has been relentless in his pursuit of educating diners on his country’s biodiversity. When the restaurant first opened in 2001, at a time when most restaurants focused on international cuisine, Martinez says people thought he was crazy to promote farm-to-table. But he was adamant, “no, we need to make people understand and appreciate our [country’s] products.” It is no surprise then, that dishes at Mini-Mal challenge long-held negative stereotypes of peasant food. Such as the ‘Cassava Dog Ears’: yucca tacos filled with stewed rabbit, or the ‘Pumpkin Salpicon’: five different types of pickled pumpkins in a sweet sauce made of native ginger. Dishes not only surprise the diner, but provide an educational experience by offering unknown ingredients in innovative ways.
The educational aspect of Bogota’s farm-to-table cuisine is not to be taken lightly. Many of Bogota’s most esteemed chefs, such as Martinez, who refers to himself as an “agricultural engineer”, and celebrity chef Leonor Espinosa, work with local biologists and producers to research traditional agricultural systems and the cooking traditions of disenfranchised indigenous, afro-descendent, and peasant communities. At Espinosa’s restaurant Leo, the menu serves as a mini-lesson book as each ingredient is illustrated, color-coded, and labelled on a map of Colombia. Leo’s 15-course tasting menu pairs Indigenous wines and fermented drinks with wildly creative dishes such as the Ponche (a local rodent): mashed native red bean in a gravy of ponche collagen topped with crispy ponche skin and Santamaria de anis: a medicinal plant from the rainforest. With dishes like these, a farm-to-table culinary experience in Bogota may eliminate any need to travel the rest of the country as flavors from the most remote regions are brought to the plate in imaginative form.
But a culinary journey to Bogota is about more than experiencing Colombia’s biodiversity, dining at the city’s farm-to-table restaurants is a way to help reduce rural poverty and improve the livelihoods of those displaced by the FARC conflict. The promotion of Colombian ingredients by restaurants signals to farmers that they no longer need to depend on coca or illegal activities as a means of income. Instead, the farmers find stability in knowing that the restaurants will support them in the long run. Ortiz of Salvo Patria describes, “When you’re doing something illegal, you don’t have peace of mind. It’s great when they know they can have a regular income where they can save to buy more land or send their kids to school.” Bogota’s locavore chefs prioritize building long-lasting, trusting relationships with their producers; ensuring they receive fair prices and giving them the financial security they need to invest in a better future.
What makes dining at Bogota’s farm-to-table restaurants so impactful is that by shifting perceptions of Colombia’s forgotten ingredients, they increase demand for new crops, and farmers respond by diversifying the products they sell. Take for example a small coconut milk producer on the Pacific Coast. While most restaurants import coconut milk from Thailand, Abasto sources their milk from a particular local producer, and now Colombian coconut milk producers at large are seeing a greater demand for their products. The influence of the restaurant industry extends to hotels as well. At W Bogota, chef Molina encourages his farmers to revisit traditional crops such as cubio, a native potato. Since W Bogota is a trendsetter in hotel cuisine, other Colombian hotels draw inspiration from the ingredients W Bogota uses, and may start asking their own suppliers to produce native ingredients as well. The promotion of a single forgotten ingredient has the potential to improve the incomes of producers on a large scale, simply by increasing demand for new products.
Bogota’s locavore chefs not only believe the restaurant industry has the potential to relieve rural poverty, they also recognize the environmental benefits of maintaining close relationships with their farmers. At Prudencia, chef Mario Rosero shapes his menu around the products that farmers are not able to sell anymore. While he often ends up with mass quantities of certain ingredients, it forces him to get creative. The educational nature of Rosero’s relationship with farmers goes both ways as he teaches them that selling a product at its prime can be just as, if not more, valuable than selling at its greatest size. By purchasing food that the farmers would otherwise throw out and encouraging them to not overproduce, Prudencia prevents food waste and inspires their producers to do so as well.
Similarly, Mini-Mal spotlights forgotten ingredients to mitigate the over-harvesting of certain crops by expanding the types of products demanded by restaurants. With the restaurant name translating to “minimum bad”, Mini-Mal recognizes that humans will inevitably have an impact on the environment, but believes that they should aim to cause the least harm possible. Subsequently, they exclusively work with farmers that only take from the forest what is naturally produced. They also collaborate with government environmental organizations and biodiversity research centers to promote environmentally-responsible farming and improve the livelihoods of disenfranchised rural communities. Over the last two decades, Mini-Mal has become seen as a leader in protecting Colombia’s biodiversity, suggesting that restaurants, and the diners that support them, have the power to improve economic, social, and environmental outcomes in their country.
Bogota’s farm-to-table movement benefits farmers and the environment, but it also provides employment for Colombians that have been negatively affected by the FARC conflict. In 2014, Colombia had an estimated 400,000 migrant victims from the armed-conflict, with Bogota being the largest receiver of these migrants (Zurita, 2016). Several of Bogota’s locavore restaurants have responded by using the kitchen as a means to uplift the marginalized. At Abasto, the kitchen staff is largely made up of former coca leaf pickers and women who had to flee their towns because of violence. Take for example, Jannet, who came to Abasto three years ago when her family had to abandon their farm when a guerrilla took over her town. The farm-to-table philosophy at Abasto has introduced Jannet to many new ingredients, and while she says she misses her town, she finds comfort in working with some of the products she used to produce on the farm. The encouragement of staff growth is also seen at Prudencia, where the blending of roles provides the restaurant’s 13 employees with opportunities to learn new skills.
Like any trend, the fear is that farm-to-table cuisine in Colombia will eventually go out of style. “If it’s a trend, it will break, and we will leave the farmers abandoned,” says Antonuela Ariza of Mini-Mal. Similarly, Salvo Patria’s Ortiz says in regards to the demand for locally-sourced products, “It’s starting, it’s exciting, but we have a long way to go before it’s actually a cultural thing.” Regardless of how hard restaurants work to promote Colombia’s biodiversity and improve the livelihoods of their producers, farmers, and employees, the social and environmental benefits of farm-to-table cuisine will only endure if the cultural demand is sustained. While Colombian residents may be hesitant to steer away from long held preferences for particular ingredients or cuisines, visitors can increase local appetites for native Colombian products through their own dining choices. A social impact trip does not always have to involve volunteering, travellers can give back by participating in local movements and trends that are improving the countries they visit, such as the locavore movement in Colombia. As Ariza says, “A restaurant has the power to change culture and change the economy,” and so the next time you want to travel with impact, consider experiencing the best restaurants in Bogota leading the farm-to-table movement.
Sources: Zurita, C. A. (2016). Restaurants Challenging the Global Food System in Bogota-Colombia(Unpublished doctoral dissertation). The Hague.