Gustu, Bolivian renaissance

The story of an Italian-Venezuelan and a Danish woman who are revolutionising the production channel of an entire country

09-06-2016
Danish Kamilla Seidler and Italian-Venezuelan Mich

Danish Kamilla Seidler and Italian-Venezuelan Michelangelo Cestari, respectively head chef and ceo at restaurant Gustu in La Paz, Bolivia, opened in 2012 and today at number 17 in the World's 50 Best Latin America. Born from an idea of Danish entrepreneur Claus Meyer, co-founder of Noma and the New Nordic Cuisine, Gustu is a project that goes much beyond the restaurant. This is why it’s in the finals of the Basque Culinary World Prize, an acknowledgement created to reward the chefs who want to improve society

As we mentioned, there’s lots of Italy among the 20 finalists in the Basque Culinary World Prize, the prize created to reward the chefs who want to improve society. Today we focus on one of the 20 projects in the finals. Its authors call it «crazy» but it is very sensible so much so it could become a model for many other realities. It’s called Gustu and it’s based in La Paz, in Bolivia. It is signed by an Italian-Venezuelan entrepreneur, Michelangelo Cestari, a Danish cook, Kamilla Seidler. Here’s our interview.

What is Gustu and how did it start?
Gustu, the Quechua word for “flavor”, is a high-level restaurant and cocktail bar born in 2012. It applies the “Kilometer 0” philosophy. We only use products planted, grown and/or processed in Bolivia by Bolivian hands. We seek to provide producers across the country with the tools needed to improve their living conditions, which helps their families and their communities. On top of the restaurant there’s an ambitious program of culinary training and many other activities that aim to ignite a national food movement in this country. Behind all this, there’s Melting Pot.

What is it?
It’s a non-profit organisation founded in Bolivia with the goal of promoting biodiversity and the country’s cultural heritage. It was founded Claus Meyer, a Danish food entrepreneur, activist and famous for having co-founded Noma.

Kamilla and Michelangelo with Claus Meyer, a famous Danish food-activist (co-founder of Noma and the New Nordic Cuisine) and manager of the entire Gustu project in La Paz

Kamilla and Michelangelo with Claus Meyer, a famous Danish food-activist (co-founder of Noma and the New Nordic Cuisine) and manager of the entire Gustu project in La Paz

He’s one of the founders of the New Nordic Cuisine.

Since 1989 Meyer has been promoting products while trying to give a face to their producers. He did not limit his activities to promote producers and their products, but devoted himself to the production of food: a gourmet line made from apple and other fruits (from juice, vinegar, jam, etc.) and started selling it in small shops, these small shops became small restaurants called "Meyer Dely" which were also supermarkets. After the success of Noma and the extension of the principles of the New Nordic Cuisine manifesto, he wanted to apply the same ideas to a country with economic or development issues. The choice fell on South America and Bolivia. And in 2012 we started to work at Gustu.

How so?
Initially the idea was that of including traditional food from Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, Brazil and Chile. We later realised that in Bolivia alone there’s such a variety of different ecosystems that we decided to focus only on the development of the traditions of this country. Like at Noma, at Gustu even furniture and plates are “Kilometer 0”. Together with the restaurant there’s the Gustu Gastronomic Training Center: we offer totally free training to young Bolivians. After the experience with us, the most talented have already started to open their restaurants. The challenge is transforming national cuisine into a source of development, equality and pride for the locals.

Was it very hard?
Establishing Gustu and all of its associated programs did not come to be without obstacles. There was no manual or guidebook for starting a gastronomic movement or a fine dining restaurant and training center in a place like Bolivia. All the team learned to be adaptable to the local culture and to listen to everyone —from the plumber repairing the restaurant’s drains to the pepper supplier who requires two days of travel to get from the countryside to La Paz, to understand the external factors that you can’t find in a report about the country, and adapt to a different pace of doing business. We are very proud of what our programs are accomplishing: connecting people with jobs, creating demand for local products (enabling producers to grow healthy foods instead of coca), improving the hygiene and practices associated with food in Bolivia and, most importantly, igniting a movement that gives people pride in their local produce and cultural heritage. There is still a lot of work to do, but certainly this shows we are in the right path.

How did locals react at first?
At first nobody believed us, they questioned what we were doing. Then people began to understand that we worked only with local products and that we had a social main focus. The restaurant began to grow thanks to the connection we have with small Bolivian producers, to the fact that we respect them and understand their needs. Gustu is not a traditional restaurant: we are a family looking for the growth of its producers, the development of its human capital, the training of new generations, the fair pay for all the links in our production chain. Now, three years after the opening of Gustu and Melting Pot in Bolivia, I think Bolivians believe in what we do and support us, they feel proud and share our achievements.


Gustu’s facade in La Paz in Calacoto, Calle 10 Nº 300 casi Costanera, tel. +591.0(2).2117491

Gustu’s facade in La Paz in Calacoto, Calle 10 Nº 300 casi Costanera, tel. +591.0(2).2117491

Are there results already?
While it is too early to measure significant change, all over La Paz restaurants are beginning to incorporate the “Kilometer 0” philosophy. Sometimes, restaurants are claiming to be using exclusively local products even when they aren’t actually doing so. In addition, a major publication in Bolivia, La Razon, recently launched a gastronomic critic column for the first time.

How do you divide your tasks?
Michelangelo is the CEO of Gustu Group. He’s in charge of all the corporative matters: business, strategies, etc. Kamilla is the Executive Head Chef, in charge of the kitchen and the creative process that leads to the products offered by Gustu. We’re both personally focused in the social projects and initiatives that are being implemented.

Kamilla, what ingredients are there in Bolivia that you can’t find elsewhere?
In Bolivia I found a new world: an incredible biodiversity, immense and almost unpopulated areas and developed cities that keep alive ancient knowledge and traditions. Here biodiversity is not just a buzzword: it is a stunning reality that surrounds you daily. When producers bring you 60 kinds of peppers or 100 types of potatoes. Upon arriving I found many products that were unknown to me, an incredibly alive cultural richness, but especially the human quality of the people and their warmth amazes me, since the caseritas in the street markets to the students of our school. With them I learn something new every day, and I love that. They feel passionate about what they do and dream of showing the world the potencial of their country. They will be giants some day.

What is your approach to products?
Our cuisine is based on a deep respect for the land, the product and the producers that makes the products possible with their hard work. Therefore we use a combination of ancient and highly innovative techniques, oriented to highlight the qualities and characteristics of each ingredient with simplicity and elegance.

Do you believe your model could be extended to countries in other continents?
Our aim is to enhance future opportunities and improve the quality of life for the people by focusing on food, food craft, and entrepreneurship. Our model and programs are based on three bases: sustainable development, immediate replicability and propelling of national industry.  What we are doing goes beyond social action, we hope to be able to reach several countries with our vision: empowering entire nations, entire societies, to believe in themselves.

On top of the restaurant and the training centre, Gustu includes other important projects: Suma Phayata (training in hygiene, preparation and sales for street food sellers, in the photo), Manq’a (12 schools of fine dining have already been opened in El Alto and in the rural communities on the plateau, with around one thousand graduates already) and Q’atu (packaging of high quality local ingredients sold in shops)

On top of the restaurant and the training centre, Gustu includes other important projects: Suma Phayata (training in hygiene, preparation and sales for street food sellers, in the photo), Manq’a (12 schools of fine dining have already been opened in El Alto and in the rural communities on the plateau, with around one thousand graduates already) and Q’atu (packaging of high quality local ingredients sold in shops)

Did you expect to get into the finals of the BCC award?
We always believed in our work and that this great privilege was something possible, but to share a nomination with so many great initiatives worldwide and be finalists is a privilege that honors us. We hope this is an impulse that motivates more people in the culinary world to focus on social initiatives, that many young people dedicated to gastronomy follow the same path to ensure that social commitment in the kitchens of the world become the rule rather than being an exception.

Michelangelo, have your Italian roots influenced you somewhat?
Of course they have. There will always be an Italian foodprint in everything I do. I grew up watching the example of my father, a World War II Veteran, his ethics of hard work and deep commitment with everything in his life, his love for our family and his faith in human beings. This has guided every step in my life. There is always a dream of going back to my roots. Right now I am focused in achieving the goals and dreams we (me and my team in Bolivia) have, but I am always open: maybe in some time you will have to deal with this Italian-Venezuelan and his crazy projects.

New plans for the future?
About Gustu, what we want first of all is to remain open, to maintain the quality and to constantly improve what we do and what we offer. We want to be truly sustainable so we can continue with the projects that allow us to keep growing. We want to expand Gustu’s philosophy, so we have many projects like opening a bistro, Ara, in La Paz in the next couple of months. We also hope to expand Q’atu opening several coffee shops / micro markets all around Bolivia. There is a lot of work to be done in order to make Bolivia a gastronomic destination, and we will maintain our focus in doing it.


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