Good things come to those who wait. Jaime Rodríguez and Sebastián Pinzón certainly didn’t rush when it came to Celele, spending years exploring the Caribbean coast of Colombia to perfect their proposition before opening.
The pair put in the miles as they travelled from the island of San Andrés to the Guajira peninsula and across the Alto Sinú department, meeting indigenous people and discovering flavours and ingredients they had no idea existed. They researched techniques and documented recipes that were in danger of being lost in a bid to capture the authentic identity of the region.
The research initiative was dubbed Proyecto Caribe Lab and its goal is to push the boundaries of what Caribbean food can be and prove it is much more than just fried fish, rice and patacones (fried plantain). The talented chefs showcased their experimental take – which melds Spanish, African and indigenous influences – on the region’s culinary heritage at regular pop-up dinners in Cartagena de Indias before finally opening Celele in the port city’s bohemian Getsemaní neighbourhood in December 2018.
Despite still being in its infancy, Celele has become the jewel in the crown of Cartagena’s burgeoning culinary scene, with the 30-cover restaurant a must-visit gastronomic stop for the legion of tourists who flock to the colonial city. Diners can choose from the à la carte menu, but for the full experience a ten-course tasting menu explores everything the Caribbean has to offer, accompanied by a thoughtful drinks flight of regional craft beers, cocktails made with exotic Colombian fruits, fermented spirits and wines.
Casabe bread, made from cassava (yuca) flour, gives way to a variety of seafood dishes, including sea snail with corn textures and melt-in-the-mouth goat (stewed in coconut milk and served with sundried shrimp rice) from the arid plains of the Guajira peninsula in the northernmost part of the country, before finishing on a trio of desserts that includes traditional Caribbean candies.
The opening of the restaurant hasn’t signalled the end of the innovation for Proyecto Caribe Lab – in fact, it has only just begun. The menu will continue to evolve, with Rodríguez responsible for creative development and research and Pinzón the chef for sustainability and product research.
The pair are indicative of the blossoming food scene all across Colombia, whether in Bogotá, Medellín or Cali. The end of hostilities between the government and the far-left military group known as the FARC – signalled by a peace accord signed in 2016 – has opened up parts of the country that have been inaccessible since the 1960s. And with it, it has given chefs access to previously unknown ingredients and the freshest produce from the coasts.
Rodríguez and Pinzón, like many of their peers, left the country for the US and Europe to escape the violence and learn their trade. From the central Colombian department of Boyacá, Rodríguez spent years in Spain working in fine-dining restaurants and hotels in Madrid, as well as the renowned Michelin three-star Akelarre in San Sebastián. Pinzón, from Ibagué in Tolima, had internships in the Tartine Bakery in San Francisco and World’s 50 Best regular Azurmendi in Bilbao, Spain, as well as working in Lima’s Rafael and, perhaps most importantly, Gustu in La Paz.
Rodríguez and Pinzón met when the pair returned to Colombia and were cooking in different kitchens in Cartagena. A common dream set the two of them on the long road to Celele as they began exploring the possibilities of transforming traditional Caribbean produce and recipes into a fine-dining proposition – and staking a spot on that culinary world map for the region in the process.
Social causes were always at the heart of the project, with the aim to improve the lives of farmers, peasant families, artisans and micro-producers they met across Caribbean Colombia by sourcing all ingredients locally, as well as promoting bio-diversity and sustainability. The opening of Celele, though a long time in the making, is just the beginning for Rodríguez and Pinzón.
Meet the chefs and discover Celele in the video:
Now read the interview with the chefs on the 50 Best website.
The Miele One To Watch Award celebrates a restaurant that is likely to enter the Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants list in future years. The winner is chosen by the Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants organisation from a list of restaurants outside the list that have received votes in the most recent round of voting.