MIAMI, Fla -- Few people could have imagined that chefs would enjoy the outsized role we’ve given them in the last few years. All the tattoos and bad-boy posturing can sometimes cover up that it is just breakfast, lunch, and dinner after all.
But for Colombian chef Juan Manuel “JuanMa” Barrientos the stakes couldn’t be higher. At his award-winning ElCielo restaurants in Medellín, Bogotá, and now Miami, Barrientos and his team are cooking up nothing less than peace in Colombia.
Barrientos always knew that any success he had should be linked to a larger social justice project.
“My entire life I watched my parents help people who came into their lives,” explains Barrientos. “When we opened ElCielo, I knew the enterprise needed to be financially viable but also that a share of our profits would be returned to the community.”
The result was Elcielo Para Todos, a foundation he started with his family that offers culinary vocational training to both former soldiers and ex-guerilla members. A percentage of the restaurants’ profits go towards the foundation which trains about 200 people a year.
Barrientos has made it his goal that 10 percent of the ElCielo’s labor force come from the foundation at any given time, either as a permanent placement or while they look for other work.
And the food is great. Applying the same rigor to developing menus he brings to his philanthropy, ElCielo has made San Pellegrino'slist of Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants multiple times.
While finding inspiration in traditional Colombian ingredients, Barrientos applies an avant-garde technique and multi-disciplinary approach that is completely new. Guests are encouraged to lick chocolate off their fingers. Tropical ceviche becomes a Japanese silk screen floating inside a clear tomato broth, and rose-infused pastry cream is splashed with champagne.
I caught up with Barrientos at the recently opened Miami restaurant he decided to open after spending only a few hours here. “I had never been to Miami but someone once told me it was a city that had my personality,” says Barrientos.
We discussed the bold experiments he makes in the kitchen and his drive to make a lasting difference in the complicated world outside of it.
How do you apply contemporary techniques to traditional foods?
Our only rule is not to be afraid to get it wrong. Creativity isn’t perfect but it’s positive, changing, and evolutionary. That’s why I say that we don’t make things better or worse. We simply haven’t been afraid to make them different from the way they’ve been done for many years.
We’ve done things that have been embraced and others that haven’t. We’ve had an evolution that has been faithful to our flavors but also to our creativity. We’ve dedicated ourselves to knowing the rules but also to breaking them.
For example, sous-vide cooking has nothing to do with the way indigenous peoples prepare smoked fish in the Amazon. But we can use vacuum bags to encapsulate smoke then keep it at the right temperature. By combining traditional cooking with avant-guard techniques, it can reach its most perfect point.
You’ve talked about finding inspiration in neuroscience to create a complete experience for guests. What emotions are you hoping to inspire?
Because of our fast-paced, globalized world, people eat without taking in the aromas or eating things quickly that aren’t healthy so we can keep working. When you go to a restaurant, you’re pre-disposed to eat with all your senses.
When you arrive into ElCielo, or any other [restaurant], your senses are open. A dish should stimulate the five senses - touch, smell, taste, sight, and even hearing. If you’re eating nachos, you should hear the crunch, because if not, they’re stale. Bakers will say that bread has music because when you break it open it should sound. Our equation consists of senses plus emotion. If we stimulate all the senses, it will engender an emotion.
What was the inspiration behind your foundation ElCielo Para Todos and why did you decide to focus on veterans of the armed conflict in Colombia?
I’ve always wanted to work with soldiers because they were the ones who kept the country afloat during the worst moments for Colombia when the violence affected all of us. We started working with those who had been wounded in combat by land mines. [Eventually] we started training ex-guerrilla fighters also.
Through the kitchen, we implemented a program of forgiveness and reconciliation between ex-guerilla members and soldiers. Today in ElCielo, if you walk into the kitchen in Medellín, you’ll find ex-guerilla members and ex-soldiers working together in peace. That’s why our slogan is that in ElCielo we’re cooking the peace of Colombia.
What becomes possible when people are working in the kitchen together that couldn’t happen elsewhere?
These encounters are possible anywhere there is a passion for life. You can put an ex-guerilla fighter and an ex-soldier on a fútbol team together and sooner or later, with the shared aim of scoring a goal, they’ll end up working together, understand they can work as a team, become friends, and live in peace because fútbol is also a passion. Anywhere you find that people have a shared passion, you can unite people that were once enemies.
What surprised you the most from your work with the foundation?
The strength of love. In reality, human beings are very capable of reaching the goals they’ve set themselves - whether for good or bad. If you encourage people to achieve extraordinary things, they will achieve it independent of where they’re from or what they’ve been through.