Jaime David Rodriguez Camacho, chef and patron at restaurant Celele, the main signature cuisine restaurant in Cartagena de Indias, Caribbean Islands, Colombia
To have a proof of the gastronomic renaissance that has been enlightening Colombia in the last decade, you need to go to Bogotá, as we were saying. To further confirm this, however, you should fly from the capital and land in Cartagena de Indias. One million inhabitants now, the Caribbean pearl of Colombia is what remains of half a millennia of slave trade, bloody battles, and raids. The tragic events of post-colonialism of which we are aware as never before.
Only a few fragments of all this drama can be perceived while walking the crowded alleys of the characteristic old town, in the shade of the imposing murallas overlooking the sea: splendid networks of roads and courtyards, wisely restored Italian and colonial palaces, the murales of the Gethsemane, loud music that resounds more or less everywhere after sunset.
But if tourists, local and international, are spending more and more time in Cartagena it is also because of the growing web of restaurants that make it an important culinary destination. Because of the cooks and entrepreneurs who finally give value to this country’s Caribbean biodiversity, a mezcla that revolutionises a unique tropical biodiversity with techniques expressed by the local, the African, Arab, Creole and Hispanic communities. The nth proof of the fertility of hybridization in the kitchen.
Calle del Espíritu Santo, Cra. 10c #29-200, +573017420389
The word Celele has 3 meanings: in the champeta language, the local music, it means “making love” or “a person of heart, intense”. But Celele is also a popular pork soup typical of the cartagenera tradition, even though perhaps not as much as mote de queso, the ubiquitous arroz de coco, hen sancocho or arepa with a heart of egg yolk. The most creative and famous restaurant (91st in the 50Best LatAm 2021) in town is the product of two fearless young men under 40. For two years Jaime Rodríguez Camacho from Boyacá and Sebastián Pinzón Giraldo from Bogotá have explored the Caribbean coasts and the inland of Colombia, opening this small, colourful and very crowded restaurant in 2018 on the edge of the Gethsemane neighbourhood.
Aside from the sensational appearance in the menu of ingredients we didn’t know about (it’s a constant looking up in the vocabulary to find out the alien meaning of words like guandù, boronìa, corozo…), we were struck by the pleasant repetition of the wafer (crispy or humid)/sauce format, the presence of sour and fruity notes that are hardly banal, and the creativity with which they use ingredients that to us seem almost unchangeable like bananas (platano), coconut, avocado or watermelon. They roast, powder, dehydrate and ferment them. Tricks that are the result of the cuisine of the last two decades. The obsessive attention to pairings comes instead from the latest decade. It stands out with ease, from the Caribbean craft beer to the Chilean Sauvignon Blanc, from the cocktail with lacto-fermented products to palm wine(!).
They pay lots of attention to historical and social themes: the Mama Africa cocktail comes with a QR code linked to a video titled “Me gritaron negra” on YouTube. Colombia abolished slavery in 1851, 15 years before the United States. But its very numerous indigenous and African communities were only acknowledged in the Constitution in 1991.
Celele. In the heart of the Gethsemane neighbourhood, it has two services, both at lunchtime and in the evening
Celele. Burrata with buffalo milk from Planeta Rica, gazpacho of flower of Jamaica, roasted watermelon, sorrel, white cucumber, sorbet and oil of moringa (a sort of horseradish)
Celele. Escabeche costeño with molluscs with mashed avocado, oil of Mexican coriander, portulaca, preserved aji dulce chilli pepper, ivory palm vinegar, puffed pork skin
Celele. Home-smoked ham from Marlin, chimichurri of Creole herbs, seeds of orejero, cream of Creole sesame
Celele. The soup after which the restaurant is named includes a terrine of pork confit, dehydrated banana purée, preserved sweet chilli pepper, kale, Caribbean beans, pork stock
Celele. Lots of herb teas and lacto-fermented products. Their reference? Noma’s book on fermentation and the work of Sandor Katz
La Cocina de Pepina, well-made traditional cuisine, seating around twenty people
La Cocina de Pepina. The pinwheel of soups/stews at the beginning of the meal
Carmen. The restaurant in Medellin with a branch in Cartagena, offers an elegant 98% Colombian cuisine (2% is made of foie gras and caviar)
Carmen. Grilled robalo, risotto with arroz de coco, fresh palmito from Putumayo and sweet and sour chontaduro, palm from Quibdó, Colombia
Casa Cruxada. At the entrance of the courtyard, it looks like a boutique (to the left). Inside, there are 3 restaurants and a nightclub/cocktail bar (in the photo to the right, the deejay’s console)
Casa Cruxada. Mote de queso soup with grilled aubergines and ceviche. The ubiquitous chips of platano maduro
Donjuán. The dining room
Donjuán. Fried prawns with cream of lemon on vegetables and arroz de coco (the popular coconut rice)
Donjuán. Ceviche of robalo and prawns, coconut milk, coriander and corn
Alquimico. Cocktail bar with only autochthonous ingredients and club/disco spread over 3 floors
Gabriele Zanatta’s opinion: on establishments, chefs and trends in Italy and the world
born in Milan, 1973, freelance journalist, coordinator of Identità Golose World restaurant guidebook since 2007, he is a contributor for several magazines and teaches History of gastronomy and Culinary global trends into universities and institutes.
Leonor Espinosa at Identià Milano 2023
Leonor Espinosa and Fatmata Binta, both special guest speakers in the Auditorium at Identità Milano 2023: the Colombian chef will give a talk with her daughter Laura Hernandez on Sunday 29th January at 3.40 p.m.; the Sierra Leonean chef on Saturday 28th at 4.20 p.m.
Chef Alvaro Clavijo and Ivan Cordoba with his wife Maria. Right, Envuelto with curd and plantain, one of the dishes capable of telling the story of Colombian ingredients and traditions. Photos: Annalisa Cavaleri