Fine dining with Caribbean flair: Cartagena’s best restaurant Celele is ripping up the rulebook

Giulia Sgarbi - 03/12/2021


From Colombia’s vibrant coastal city of Cartagena, restaurant Celele found new and innovative ways to serve its customers during the pandemic and is pioneering a style of service that earned it the Gin Mare Art of Hospitality Award at Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants 2021: Pasado y Futuro. Discover what makes the Celele experience truly one-of-a-kind

From Cartagena’s historic city centre – a maze of narrow streets flanked by colourful buildings in pink, blue and yellow hues, leafy parks and sun-filled plazas – the 15-minute walk to restaurant Celele is as picturesque as it can be arduous in the Caribbean heat. As you enter the restaurant, a bright blue house with ivy growing on its roof and windows, a waiter greets you by name before taking you to your table, where a large glass of ice-cold water awaits. Then it’s time for the amuse-bouche: homemade indigenous bread (casabe) served with butter whipped with sesame paste.

This is how the Celele experience begins, balancing elements of fine dining hospitality with a style that is unashamedly Colombian-Caribbean – but as it continues, the fine equilibrium struck by co-chefs and co-owners Sebastián Pinzón and Jaime Rodríguez becomes even more evident. In between bites of beef tongue pastrami with roasted pineapple and cured fish with lacto-fermented corozo skin, it’s not unusual for local clients to stand up and wind their hips to the rhythm of the carefully curated folkloric playlist.
Fish cured and seasoned with lactofermented corozo skin moringa yogurt kiwano ralish and purslane
Cured fish seasoned with lactofermented corozo skin, moringa yoghurt, kiwano relish and purslane

You might discover that the spatula you’re using to spread your butter on the delicious cassava tostaditas is made from bull horns according to traditional craft methods, while the plates are hand-carved from soapstone in the isolated Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. The list of discoveries continues throughout the meal, as the young and cheerful front-of-house team carefully tends guests while ensuring a smooth experience.

“Celele is a small restaurant and we want people to feel as if they’ve come to someone’s house,” says Pinzón, who today takes the call from 50 Best to chat about the venue’s latest accolade while co-chef Rodríguez is away cooking in Ecuador. “We’re a fine dining restaurant without the white tablecloths. We have a more relaxed vibe, but it’s still formal and respectful, it’s about making people feel important and cared for. But it’s also more casual because, after all, this is the Caribbean.”

The Gin Mare Art of Hospitality Award 2021 – part of the retrospective edition of Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants 2021: Pasado y Futuro, sponsored by S.Pellegrino & Acqua Panna – recognises a restaurant that has gone above and beyond to support its customers and deliver a new model of hospitality through the recent crisis. So Pinzón takes a trip down memory lane, back to the dark days of March 2020.

“When we had to close the restaurant, we went through all the stages: at first denial, then acceptance that this was a global pandemic, and after a month we decided we had to do something. We created a cheap, five-dollar menu of delicious lunches called Los Criollitos de Celele, and for a month and a half we cooked, packed and delivered everything with our own small team.
The Celele restaurant team pivoted during the pandemic with their lunch deliveries called Los Criollitos de Celele

“But in Cartagena, energy, gas and water are very expensive. We were losing as much money doing delivery meals as we would have lost keeping the restaurant closed, so we went into a period of hibernation. But of course, we didn’t want to just do nothing. We had always had the idea of creating a little shop selling some of the incredible products we receive from our suppliers across Caribbean Colombia, which many people are not familiar with. The pandemic finally made Celele’s shop a reality.”

Pinzón and Rodríguez thus came up with the concept for Proyecto Caribe Box, named after the research project the chefs ran for over two years before opening Celele, when they explored the Colombian-Caribbean region, researched indigenous recipes and techniques, and sought to protect the culinary heritage of the people they met. Each curated box, sent from the restaurant twice a week, included 10 products – some for cooking, some ready to eat.

With the likes of the chefs’ house-made cured duck ham, their vinaigrettes, local honey, beans, cheese and cassava bread, the box became an instant sell-out in Cartagena for anyone who fancied some unique, high-quality ingredients during the lockdown. Pinzón and Rodríguez started receiving requests from across the country: ‘can you send a box to Bogotá, Medellín or Cali?’
Beef tongue pastrami roasted pineapple creamy purple yam gallito flower and purslane
One of Celele's popular dishes: beef tongue pastrami wth roasted pineapple and creamy purple yam, garnished with gallito flower and purslane

“It was crazy,” says Pinzón. “Every day, we produced mountains of boxes. Our producers were so happy, because it was so successful that we were able to order from them again. We even drove to Montes de María on the northern coast of Colombia and picked up seasonal fruits to send. The project allowed us to survive until finally, in September 2020, restaurants in Colombia started being allowed to open again, and we decided to dedicate a corner of the restaurant to host the shop permanently.”

Even after September, recovery was slow and difficult. Pinzón recalls that from 120 daily covers they served before the pandemic, they went down to only 15 or 20 diners a day. But the chefs were just happy to be able to open and pushed through the difficulties. It wasn’t until a year later, in September 2021 – after two more lockdowns – that they started to get closer to pre-pandemic levels and were able to bring back about 80% of their team.

With their staff coming back, Pinzón and Rodríguez doubled down on the importance of training. “In Latin America, being a waiter and serving people is not considered a profession. Many people go into hospitality because of life circumstances or because they can’t find another job. So we’re always looking for ways to motivate people to love what they do and to understand that they can grow. You will not always be a waiter, you can become a sommelier or maître or learn mixology and one day run your own bar. You can build a career in this profession,” he emphasises.

“We’re also changing shifts and improving people’s timetables. If the pandemic taught us anything, it’s that we all need to have a bit of space to live and enjoy life, it can’t all be work, although in the hospitality industry this is very common. We have realised that any day, a virus might arrive and change our whole lives. So we have to enjoy life and also enjoy what we do, with enough time for both.”

Pinzón is extremely proud of Celele’s cheerful atmosphere and especially its music, which he curates himself. His playlist features Caribbean and Afro-Colombian rhythms, along with salsa, son cubano and vallenato – folkloric and local sounds that perfectly complement the gastronomic experience, strongly anchored in Colombian-Caribbean flavours, ingredients and techniques.
The vibrant interior of Celele's dining room is accompanied by Caribbean and Afro-Colombian music

As a counterpart to the music, one of the restaurant’s latest initiatives has been to invite local artists to exhibit their pieces inside the restaurant for a few months at a time. They have already featured the art of Jared Buschang, which are colourful abstract paintings inspired by his life in Cartagena, as well as Diana Herrera, whose show-stopping pieces are inspired by the colours of the city and beach scenes. For the chefs, it’s a way to let the restaurant transform every few months, and also to support the city’s emergent art scene.

Reflecting on the last two years and Celele’s recent new award, Pinzón feels hopeful: “For a moment, we almost saw our dream collapse,” he says. “Many times I thought we would have to close, I thought we couldn’t do it anymore. But we had to be strong and keep trying. So an award like this, it brought us a lot of joy.

“We were also very happy for the team, because they are all people who have grown a lot and are very committed. On the night of the [Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants] awards, we closed the restaurant and let them enjoy and have a party. It’s not a recognition just for Jaime and me, but also for every person behind Celele; for the producers, the artisans, our partners, everyone. Without them, this dream called Celele would have never been possible.”

Now watch the video of Celele, the winners of the Art of Hospitality Award 2021: 

Browse the list of Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants 2021: Pasado y Futuro, sponsored by S.Pellegrino & Acqua Panna, 
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