Eating vegetables for dessert: exploring the bold cuisine of Pía Salazar

Ingrid Paredes - 03/08/2023

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Meet the Ecuadorean cook recently named The World’s Best Pastry Chef 2023, sponsored by Sosa, to discover her inspiration and ambitions ­ and savour her most iconic desserts

Seven months after being voted Latin America’s Best Pastry Chef 2022, Pía Salazar travelled from the Ecuadorean capital of Quito to Valencia, in Spain, to attend The World's 50 Best Restaurants 2023 awards. She was there, with her husband-cum-business partner and her peers, to celebrate the debut of her restaurant, Nuema, into the 51-100 list of the greatest dining destinations on earth.

At the gala, she knew that Nuema had taken the No.76 spot in the extended ranking, announced two weeks earlier, but what she couldn’t know was that she would also receive The World’s Best Pastry Chef Award 2023, sponsored by Sosa.

“When I heard my name, I asked my husband: ‘Can you pinch me? Is this real?’” says Salazar, who climbed to the stage looking happy and confident, but confesses that she was also shaking in shock from the surprise.

Pía Salazar is the first Ecuadorean named The World's Best Pastry Chef 

The cook is the first Latin American to be crowned with this prestigious global title. The region’s gastronomic community in attendance at the stunning Palau de Les Arts awards venue in Valencia celebrated the triumph with her, along with the whole world.

“All the Latinos were cheering me, but I didn’t realise that until I watched the video once I was back home! Then I saw Virgilio [Martínez], Micha [Tsumura] and everybody clapping,” laughs Salazar.

The chef is genuine in her delight, but also feels that the accolade comes with the responsibility to showcase the potential of Ecuador and motivate others to invest in local produce, just as she has.

A passion for local produce

Inspired by her mother and grandmother, the charismatic chef was driven to take the culinary path from a young age, studying gastronomy in Ecuador and Mexico, then working at the Quito branch of renowned Peruvian restaurant Astrid y Gastón. Salazar initially worked in the hot kitchen, but soon found her true calling at the dessert station.

During her time at Astrid y Gastón, two crucial things occurred in Salazar’s life: she met chef Alejandro Chamorro, who is now her husband, and she was infused with a passion for working with local produce, respecting seasonality and showcasing the Ecuadorean pantry. She carried this knowledge to her flagship restaurant, Nuema, created in 2014 together with Chamorro, who is in charge of the savoury dishes while Salazar manages the desserts.

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Salazar and Chamorro opened Nuema in Quito in 2014

Even though Salazar had thought about starting her own project for a long time, Nuema was the result of a spontaneous decision. “One day I was walking around Quito and saw a venue with a sign that said ‘for rent’. I walked in and I just decided to take it right away,” says Salazar, trying to hold her laugh. “I thought: it is now or never.”

Taking risks and having the flexibility to change course is part of the Ecuadorean’s philosophy. Initially, the couple planned to open Nuema as a bistro, but then decided to create a tasting menu based purely on the products received from producers. This bold venture left her with only vegetables to work with for her desserts, but what could have been a challenging task for any other pastry chef turned out to be the key to Salazar discovering her own style.

Her first creation was a dessert made with radish and turnip. Although the innovative dish was initially met with scepticism from diners who questioned why they were being served vegetables instead of chocolate, Salazar persevered. She believes it is important to be ‘open to new things’ and patiently encouraged the guests to try something different. Eventually, her persistence paid off as diners began to appreciate the unique vegetable-based desserts that provide a delicious end to the restaurant’s well-balanced tasting menu.

Pastry full of feelings

Salazar's desserts typically feature only two or three ingredients, often pairing a local fruit with a vegetable. Each dessert follows an unbreakable rule: it must tell a story. “In my cooking, I convey emotions, sometimes from people or from family memories,” she says.

Peas, Chamomile and Moringa was inspired by a soup made by Salazar’s grandmother

This intriguing mixture of sentiments and surprising ingredients finds its expression in a dish named Peas, Chamomile and Moringa. The recipe is inspired by Salazar's fond memories of her grandma serving tender pea soup from the Sierra region of Ecuador, but using the natural sweetness of peas as the basis for a dessert dish. The combination of ingredients represents the feeling of humidity, the scent of the earth and the desire to connect with one’s ancestors through food, while the use of a herb like chamomile references its importance in traditional healing practices.

Another dish close to Salazar’s heart is Coconut, Yeast and Black Garlic. The dessert, crowned with seaweed, was created as an ode to her father, who passed away in 2020 due to Covid-19. His personality is represented through the ingredients, with the yeast reflecting his strength, the coconut his kindness (as well as being one of his favourite fruits) and the garlic his tenacity.

Salazar was initially unsure about this unique combination of ingredients, but she wanted to challenge herself, believing that nothing worth having comes easy. To achieve the desired textures and flavours, she devised several complex cooking processes, such as depigmenting the seaweed for a week and then cooking it for four hours to create a consistency and taste similar to tender coconut.

Coconut, Yeast and Black Garlic is a homage to the pastry chef’s father

Nuema's tasting menu changes every four months and showcases different regions of Ecuador using avant-garde techniques. As of August 2023, the team are focusing on the coast of the country, using fresh and colourful ingredients that are in season during the summer. One standout dish is Tangerine, Custard Apple and Zambo, which captures the vibrancy of this Latin American nation and is already a favourite of diners. Another star preparation is the Cassava Ceviche, a cold dessert created with fermented cassava, keeping the natural texture of the root but drawing out its sweet flavour.

Additionally, Salazar – who was born in the mountainous region of Cuenca – celebrates the jungle region in a dessert called Cacao, Mucilago and Mashua. This special dish combines tubers, mashuas (a flowering plant with edible tubers) and cacao to display the stages, fermentation processes and textures of the cacao fruit. With this course, diners experience the different flavours of cacao from the pod until it transforms into a delectable piece of chocolate.

Dessert-only restaurant

Salazar is as tenacious as she is creative. She can whip up an entirely new dish in just 15 minutes, but also dedicates days and nights to perfecting the ideal flavour: recently, she has been experimenting with incorporating onions into filo dough while reducing the strong vegetable taste. “Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night because I got the idea of how to get the perfect balance for a new dish,” she says, chuckling.

She is also focused on the push and pull between tradition and the avant-garde, and encourages her young team to explore this. “We must leave a legacy that the avant-garde has to continue to exist. It is now up to the new generations to start to create, but also to be much more interested in tradition, because without tradition there is no avant-garde,” she says.

Leek, Lemon Verbena and Tonka

This positive tension between old and new is also at the core of Salazar and Chamorro’s  plans for the future. The pair are working on opening a new restaurant in Quito – right next door to Nuema – that pays homage to the ritual of eating with family. Named after Salazar's grandmother, Estelma will offer traditional Ecuadorean dishes like soups, curry and fish and is due to open late in 2023. The goal is to create a more inclusive dining experience that invites everyone to share a table.

In addition, Salazar plans to transform her bakery into a dessert restaurant where diners can enjoy a menu made up entirely of sweet courses. Starting with vegetable pastries and finishing with fruit-led combinations, the space will showcase desserts made with different flours from Ecuador, including pinol flour, made from roasted ground maize, mixed with cocoa, agave, cinnamon, chia seeds and vanilla.

It’s the kind of forward-thinking, but proudly Ecuadorean concept that marks out Salazar as a special talent: worthy of a prestigious global title but still very much grounded in her home country.

Explore Salazar’s desserts here:

The list of The World's 50 Best Restaurants 2023, sponsored by S.Pellegrino & Acqua Panna, was announced on Tuesday 20th June at a live awards ceremony in Valencia. To stay up to date with the latest news, follow us on InstagramFacebookTwitter and YouTube, and sign up to our newsletter