November 2011

Danish celebrity chef launches food school in Bolivia

The famous, Danish chef Claus Meyer and the Danish organization IBIS are about to launch a food school in La Paz for marginalized, young Bolivians. The school will include a restaurant, a cafeteria, a coffee shop and a bakery. But the ambitions do not end there; the goal is to bring a gourmet revolution to Bolivia.

By: Tanja M. Andersen
Projects Abroad Volunteer
Copenhagen - Denmark

Claus Meyer at the Rodriguez market
Photo: Christina Smedegaard Jensen, IBIS

He is the owner of a food empire in Denmark including a restaurant, deli shops and bakeries. He is the co-founder of the restaurant NOMA in Copenhagen, which has been chosen as the world’s best restaurant for the past two years by Restaurant Magazine. And he has been the driving force behind the New, Nordic Cuisine in Europe.

Now, he is investing his time and energy in Bolivia to foment a culinary revolution.

The starting point for the revolution is a “food school” – not just a cooking school, because the concept goes far beyond cooking – that is planned to open in 2012 in La Paz. The school will later be accompanied by a Bolivian restaurant, a cafeteria, a coffee shop and a bakery, that together will provide everything from gourmet cuisine to affordable meals and products.

The main purpose of the school is to offer young Bolivians from underprivileged backgrounds an apprenticeship that will teach them how to make the most of local, Bolivian ingredients. “There is talent in Bolivia, but too few get a chance. Especially many indigenous people are poor with no chance of getting a job. Our ambition with the food school is to encourage the marginalized, young people in Bolivia to get a career in gastronomy. Food is the universal language of mankind and with that as a tool, we can give unskilled and disadvantaged young people a reason to be a generation of grassroots entrepreneurs, who will be able to lift their families and communities out of poverty and hunger,” says Claus Meyer.

Bolivia is the poorest country in South America, but it has an amazing abundance of ingredients due to the different climates and variety of landscapes. This is one of the main reasons why Claus Meyer has chosen to open a food school here, of all places in the world.

Ethical food revolt coming up

In Bolivia there are over 36 different indigenous groups gives Claus Meyer and the coming students plenty of history and traditions to build on. However, the idea is also to reinvent Bolivian cuisine within the philosophy that it should be local, fresh, healthy and produced in an ethical way, with the environment and the producers considered.

“We will work towards a sustainable agriculture and to preserve biodiversity. With the food school we want to open up for new market opportunities and promote small-scale producers. Our goal is ambitious. Not only do we want to fight poverty, we also want to fight the dark side of modernity’s food culture like obesity, diabetes, excessive centralization of production, lack of respect for nature and international food concepts undermining of the local cuisine. We want to promote Bolivia’s status as a food nation,” says Claus Meyer.

Claus Meyer has succeeded with similar ambitions in Denmark, but doing the same thing in Bolivia requires a lot of know-how about Bolivian culture and society. He is therefore cooperating with the Danish non-governmental organization IBIS that has almost 30 years of experience working with education, governance and indigenous people’s rights in Bolivia. IBIS’ role in this project has mainly been to select the coming students and to bring indigenous producers and the gastronomic sector together, which is not as easy as it may sound.

“There is a big gap in the different sectors that we want to bring together. In Bolivia, people tend to be close together in the communities, but when it comes to the big cities, there is a more individualistic way of working. One of the ways that we are going to bring people together is by organizing a national symposium to ask the different sectors how they want this project to work. We are also going to organize the first national gastronomic and producers fair alongside with the launching of the restaurant and the food school,” says Martín Dickler, Director of the Meyer Project in Bolivia. Despite the challenges, Martín Dickler’s optimism is invincible. He knows that a project like this is doable. Not only has he seen it succeed in Denmark; the neighboring country Peru is also a great example of how a reinvention of a national cuisine is possible, and even advantageous.

Claus Meyer at the Rodriguez market
Photo: Christina Smedegaard Jensen, IBIS

The leading, gastronomic star in Peru, a chef called Gastón Acurio started his own culinary revolution about 15 years ago by serving Peruvian dishes in his French restaurant in Lima - even though his colleagues in the gastronomic sector were laughing at him.

At that time, Peru was in the exact same situation that Bolivia is in now; the best restaurants were not the ones with national cuisines. But Gastón Acurio was as stubborn as a llama; he kept serving national dishes, his guests loved it, and other restaurants started following his example.

“Gastón Acurio turned the situation around in 10-15 years, and now all the best restaurants in Lima are Peruvian. Tourists go to Peru to eat Peruvian food, and you’ll find Peruvian restaurants in France, Spain, Italy, Manhattan and all over Latin America. And that is what we want with this restaurant as well. We want a multiply effect. These days, the gastronomic sector of Peru counts for 17 percent of the economy,” says Martín Dickler. The intention with the food school is to train the students in entrepreneurship, so that they will be capable of opening their own restaurants when they graduate.

Eventually, Martín Dickler hopes that the project will expand to other parts of the country as well. Next stop Cochabamba? If Claus Meyer and IBIS succeed with the food school in La Paz, Cochabamba might be up for another go. Cochabamba is already known for its passion for food and its variety of Bolivian restaurants.

“I would hope that a few years from now, we will open a food school and restaurant in Cochabamba. People in Cochabamba remind me a bit of people from Rome and Paris, who spend most of their time talking about what they are going to be eating, what they ate last week, and what they will be eating the next week. They are eating all the time. So I’m pretty sure, that in some time in the future, we will probably be talking about doing things in Cochabamba and other parts of Bolivia as well. We are already working with producers and with the gastronomic sector in Cochabamba in this project,” says Martín Dickler.

Classroom - Fundacion Ichuri
Photo: Tanja M. Andersen

Meet the potential students

Right now, 50 potential students at the food school are following basic food courses in two different foundations in La Paz; “Fundación Cuerpo de Cristo” and “Fundación Ichuri”. Out of these 50 students, 30 will go on to be apprentices at the food school.

We have met some of the students and asked them about their own ambitions.

> The school, the restaurant etc. will open in 2012.
> There will be 30 students at the school.
> The facilities are not established yet.
> The education will tak e 1/2 to 2 years.

Daniela Moyra Alarcon Viscarra, 22 years old, from La Paz
”I started studying graphic design, but my mother couldn’t pay for my studies, so I had to quit. Then I heard about this course on the radio, and I applied. I’ve always wanted to be a chef, but I didn’t think that I had the abilities. On this course I’ve learned that I can do it if I have the will. My goal is to qualify to Meyers’ food school, but if I don’t, I would like to open a little snack store to earn money to support my family. My wildest dream is to become a chef for my favorite band, Backstreet Boys”.

Alfredo Rafael Daza Rivas, 18 years old, from La Paz
“I started studying engineering, even though I wanted to be a chef. My family never encouraged me to work with food, because there’s no gastronomy tradition in Bolivia. But then, I heard about Meyers’ food school, and I wanted to give it a try to grant my whishes. My wildest dream is to launch a chain of restaurants with good quality and low prices all over the world and to expand the Bolivian cuisine internationally”

Carol Gutirrez Arze, 25 years old, from Cochabamba
”It has always been my dream to become a chef, but for the last couple of years I have been working as a seamstress to support my family. In Cochabamba, where I’m from, we are known for how much, and how often, we eat. My mother used to have a little restaurant where I’ve been helping since I was 7 years old. Here, I learned to cook all kinds of different dishes. I love to cook and I would really, really like to get an apprenticeship at Meyer’s food school. But if I don’t, I will apply for a job in a restaurant and get experience, so that one day, I will be able to open my own restaurant”.

Jorge Mauricio Loayza, 19 years old, from La Paz
“I used to study electronics, technique and communication at the university but I had to move out of my home because of family issues and therefore I couldn’t finish. Instead, I started working in a restaurant because it’s been my calling to become a chef since I was little. In the beginning I did the dishes, then I became a waiter and eventually a kitchen assistant. It was a colleague and my boss at the restaurant, who encouraged me to apply for this course. My dream is to become a chef and to open restaurants in all nine departments of Bolivia – and maybe one in Argentina”.

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