Daring desserts and brilliant biodiversity: Pía Salazar is putting Ecuador on the plate

Laura Price - 18/01/2023

Ecuadorean Pía Salazar was the latest to be crowned Latin America’s Best Pastry Chef, sponsored by República del Cacao, at Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants 2022. 50 Best meets the Cuenca-born cook transforming her country’s diverse fruit and veg into surprising sweet creations

Pía Salazar is still basking in the glory of being named Latin America’s Best Pastry Chef 2022, sponsored by República del Cacao, but she hasn’t always felt so confident or celebrated. In the early days of experimenting with vegetables and fruit in her desserts, she was often doubted and even criticised by her peers.

“People told me I was crazy,” she says, recounting a time not long after opening Nuema with her husband, chef Alejandro Chamorro, in 2014. “They said: ‘you can’t put mushroom in a dessert! Add chocolate instead’.”

Still, she persisted, experimenting with savoury Ecuadorean produce like onions and seaweed, convinced that she could think outside the box and still make desserts that people would love. She was right – people now flock to Nuema to try her avant-garde creations, like coconut with umami-rich yeast and black garlic, or leek and vanilla with cedrón, a herb resembling lemon verbena. Salazar is confident that people now understand her work, and the award is proof that it pays to be daring and different.
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One of Salazar's signature desserts: yucca with orange blossom and mandarin

An Ecuadorean exploration

These days, Salazar and Chamorro are full speed ahead with plans for 2023, launching a new menu in January that explores the mountains, then changing in three months’ time to another degustation exploring Ecuador’s coast, before moving on to regions like the Galapagos. In March, they plan to open an as-yet-unnamed patisserie in Quito offering homely, savoury and sweet creations like quinoa pie and colada morada, a spiced berry drink made with corn. Later in the year, they will also open a casual, family-style restaurant just outside the capital in Cumbayá, inspired by their eldest son, Martín.

Like Nuema, both new openings will focus on the rich biodiversity of Ecuador, which has much to offer beyond its reputation for some of the world’s best chocolate. Among the country’s best offerings, Salazar cites everything from paiche fish to potatoes, pork, corn and salprieta, a condiment made from corn and peanuts.

This exploration of Ecuador’s biodiversity is a huge part of what makes Nuema special and what helped it become the first Ecuadorean establishment in Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants, breaking into the list in 2020 and rising to No.24 in 2022. It’s a point of huge pride for Salazar and Chamorro, and an accolade they say comes with great responsibility.
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The bar inside Nuema, located in Quito, Ecuador

“We take it very seriously,” says Salazar. “It’s something to be proud of, and it’s also a responsibility. It’s a recognition for our country and all the work we’ve been doing. We are now seen as a reference for future generations, so we have to teach people that this didn’t come easily. We also have a responsibility to support the other restaurants and chefs.”

While Ecuador’s culinary scene hasn’t yet gained the international recognition of its more celebrated neighbours like Peru, it is growing apace, with chefs like Salazar and Chamorro leading the way. But the Cuenca-born cook is in no rush to see Ecuador claim its place among the world’s greatest gastronomic destinations; she says her fellow chefs need to create a strong identity first.

“We’re just getting started,” she says. “The award gives us a push and helps us and the other cooks in Ecuador who are working hard. We still need to create our own identity, to believe in ourselves and have pride in our roots. Previously, in Ecuador we had Peruvian restaurants and French restaurants, and we didn’t give enough value to our own products. The award has helped with that, but it’s a process – we need to create strong foundations and work hard.”
Chefs Pía Salazar and Alejandro Chamorro's restaurant, Nuema, was ranked No.24 on Latin America's 50 Best Restaurants 2022 list 

Family roots run deep

This self-assured groundedness surely comes from Salazar’s family, who have influenced her work in too many ways to count. First of all, the name Nuema comes from the initials of the couple’s three children: Nuria, Emilio and Martín, who are also reflected in the restaurant’s personality – for example, Martín’s minimalist tendencies influenced Nuema’s understated design. There is also inspiration from Salazar’s late father, who taught her ‘never to conform’, thus influencing her endless trial and error with savoury and sweet.

Salazar’s father was also the impetus behind her evolving coconut dessert, which almost didn’t make it onto the menu. During the second wave of the pandemic, he became sick and passed away just days before Salazar was due to cook with Enrique Olvera and Álvaro Clavijo, two chefs she deeply respects and admires. Rather than cancel the dinner, she decided to honour her father with a dessert that paired coconut, an ingredient he loved, with seaweed and black garlic.
Salazar's dessert with seaweed, yeast and black garlic

It was bold and unusual, and a colleague suggested she take it off the menu. But Salazar stood her ground, presenting the dish to Olvera and Clavijo, who loved it. The pastry chef says she felt triumphant to have won their praise, despite ‘taking a huge risk’. She adds that her father was extremely proud of her by the time he died, and was ‘very happy’ when Nuema entered the 50 Best list.

While the coconut dessert remains on the menu, albeit with some changes, Salazar’s father wasn’t always keen on her becoming a chef. His family were doctors and he wanted her to follow the medicine route, but Salazar’s mother saw her love of desserts and encouraged her to go into cooking. She left Cuenca to study in Quito before taking a course in Mexico City, then working at the Quito branch of renowned restaurant Astrid y Gastón under former Latin America’s Best Pastry Chef Astrid Gutsche. It was there that she met Chamorro.

It was an emotional moment to travel to Mérida for Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants 2022 and be presented with the same award that had gone to her mentor, Gutsche, and to Jesús Escalera, another pastry chef she deeply admires and who shares her love of playing with savoury and sweet.

“I’ve seen people I really admire, like Jesús Escalera, winning that award, so when they said my name, I was so surprised,” says Salazar. “Astrid was my mentor; she was the one who taught me to value my own country’s produce.”

With the accolade under her belt, and with Nuema awarded The Best Restaurant in Ecuador for a second time, Salazar can confidently share her daring desserts with her customers, while teaching the value of local ingredients to the next generation of pastry chefs. A risk very much worth taking.

Now watch the video with Pía Salazar at Nuema: 

The list of Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants 2022, sponsored by S.Pellegrino & Acqua Panna, was announced on Tuesday 15th November. Follow us on Instagram, like us on Facebook, find us on Twitter, tag #LatAm50Best and subscribe to our YouTube channel for the latest news.