Header images: Mark (left) and Jorge Rausch (right) with corn cappuccino from Criterión's tasting menu
Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants is moving to Colombia in 2017 and 2018 – and the country’s top chef says it’s the perfect moment for a gastronomic revolution.
Colombia’s peace agreement will help pave the way for growth and positive change across the food and restaurant scene, says Jorge Rausch, co-owner of Criterión in Bogotá and one of the nation’s most influential restaurateurs. The accord, signed in November between the government and leftist FARC rebels, ends more than 50 years of conflict, making the country more attractive for tourism and, Rausch hopes, as a dining destination.
“We’ve been trying for a long time to promote Colombian tourism and gastronomy, but it’s tough when the country is at war,” Rausch says. “That has now changed.”
Rausch, who co-owns eight restaurants across the country with his brother Mark, is convinced that Colombia will be Latin America’s next gastronomic destination, following in the footsteps of its southern neighbour, Peru. As the region’s third-largest economy after Brazil and Mexico, it is well placed to attract the kind of tourists who, for the last few years, have been travelling to Lima purely for the ceviche.
Rausch is part of a group of 50 local chefs and restaurateurs called Fogón Colombia, which represents the interests of the food industry to the government. Together with fellow Latin America’s 50 Best chefs Harry Sasson, Leonor Espinosa, Juan Manuel Barrientos and some of the country’s other most recognisable cooks, Rausch is committed to showing what the country has to offer in terms of its biodiversity and the vast amount of local ingredients that come from the Amazon, the Andes and the adjacent ocean.
Valle de Cocora in Colombia's coffee region - one of the most beautiful places on earth, according to Rausch
Part of the country’s effort to grow gastronomy and aid the transition into peace is its crop substitution programme, where illegal coca production is replaced with viable food crops. While the guerrillas are committed to supporting the substitution plan as part of the peace accord, Rausch says that producers need all the help they can get to put it into action.
“As chefs, we have a social responsibility to show farmers that there are other options [beyond drug production] to substitute their crops and still prosper,” says Rausch. “The peace process will leave a lot of farmers who’ll need to find something else to grow, so we have to help them.”
The Rausch brothers – the most famous faces in Colombia’s restaurant scene, thanks to appearances on Masterchef and other TV shows – are doing their bit by putting their name to Pacari chocolate, produced from Colombian cacao that has substituted illegal crops. They are also teaching cattle producers in Caquetá, a deprived area previously dominated by coca production, to make cheese and butter, which they use in their restaurants.
In preparation for the anticipated boom in the local food scene, the brothers have also teamed up with Verde Oliva, the only cooking school in the country to focus on local cuisine, in the hope that their reputation will help attract young talent to a burgeoning industry.
Colombia is a couple of years behind the likes of Peru and Mexico in terms of international gastronomic movements. It is now catching up on the ‘introspective’ revolution – whereby chefs celebrate local ingredients, ancient recipes and indigenous traditions.
“We want to show what Colombia has to offer,” says Rausch. “We’re in a privileged geographic position with two oceans, the rainforest, the Andes, and all of that is reflected in our gastronomy.”