In the final month of 2012, in the weeks before Christmas, I spent some time in Scandinavia for several assignments. At my first stop, Copenhagen, literally as soon as I dropped my bags off at the wonderful First Hotel Skt Petri, I ran across the snowy sidewalks (I was already a few minutes late) to meet with Claus Meyer at Meyer’s Madhaus in Nørrebrogade.
The Madhaus is an experimental kitchen, offers cooking classes, has a cafe, and holds various special events throughout the year. In Copenhagen, Meyer is involved in everything. Aside from being a co-owner of Noma, the world’s best restaurant for several years running, he has several Meyer’s Bakeri, a deli, a great Singaporean restaurant, his own beer, a television show, more than a dozen cookbooks, a magazine, and various products with his name on them (vinegar, flours, etc). Meyer has done just as much as Rene Redzipi, if not more, in terms of promoting and expanding the idea of Danish or Nordic cuisine.
My meeting with Meyer was not to talk about Scandinavia, however. It was to discuss Bolivia. Specifically, Gustu, his restaurant, a high end tasting menu affair using exclusively Bolivian products, and cooking school in La Paz that is opening with the help of his Melting Pot Foundation in April of this year. Meyer is helping launch and develop, with a team of talented chefs from Europe (co-chefs Kamilla Seidler and Michelangelo Cestari, both with Mugaritz cred, will head the kitchen) Gustu in the hopes that it will help spark a culinary revolution in Bolivia, the poorest country in South America. Employees will learn from the school and at the restaurant, but it is the hope that Gustu will be their starting point. From there these Bolivians will spread out across the country, launching restaurants and culinary projects of their own. This is food as a social instrument, much like Gaston Acurio has done in Peru. Meyer and the Melting Pot Foundation is just nudging it in the right direction.
At the Madhaus, Meyer was just wrapping up a chocolate festival and there were people milling about drinking hot cups of gløgg with snow falling in the courtyard around them.
“I think South America is the next continent,” Meyer tells me. He described how when Noma came along everyone was hungry for something new.
They considered other destinations for the project, such as Mongolia and Tibet. Five countries fit the criteria of biological diversity, low crime, high poverty, political stability and a cuisine with potential. They didn’t want somewhere that already had a proud food tradition, so places like Vietnam or Thailand were out. There was something special in Bolivia, which doesn’t have a vibrant food culture. Everything is fried. Very little of the diverse ingredients are used. You just have to look over the border to Peru for inspiration. Peru’s Andes and Amazon have a very similar geography in the Andean and Amazon regions.
Meyer said the project cost more than expected – $1.1 million at last check – and it has taken longer than expected to launch. “The people want it,” he said. They were receptive to this kind of support.
Recently, Ryan Sutton wrote about Gustu and the project for Bloomberg Pursuits Magazine. He tastes a sample of the menu, which included dishes like “gumdrop-sized pink potatoes coated in spicy aji amarillo pepper puree…topped with a “paper” made of the same spicy peppers and finished with shavings of chuno,” and “vicuna jerky with hearts of palm, a poached egg and fried trout roe.” It’s one of the best meals he has had all year (fyi: Sutton is the New York restaurant critic for Bloomberg News, so that has to mean something). While he is no doubt impressed, he questions whether tourists will actually travel to Bolivia to eat at Gustu.
In his Bad Deal blog, Sutton describes how difficult and expensive it is to reach Bolivia. I agree and disagree. First of all, Sutton is planning a trip to Bolivia in a matter of days or a week, so yes his flights will cost $1,200. I’ve seen New York-La Paz flights for as low as $650 with tax. As an alternative, a Bolivia extension to a Peru foodie trip actually makes a lot of sense. You can get to La Paz overland from Puno in Peru (or fly from Lima or Cuzco) fairly quickly and inexpensively.
Getting a Bolivian visa has scared some travelers away in recent years, though it’s not quite the ordeal that most make it out to be. While it is expensive ($135) and should without a doubt be dropped, it’s similar to the visa/tourist card fee for Argentina, Brazil, and Chile. They ask that you have a yellow fever certificate (as does Brazil), though I have yet to hear of anyone being turned away at the border. Basically, if you don’t look like an asshole and pay the fee, you’ll be fine.
Also, Sutton is not just getting his visa ahead of time, but expediting it (add $60). While I agree that it’s probably safer to get the visa ahead of time (but give yourself some time), it’s not as big of a deal as you might think to get one at the airport or at a border crossing on arrival.
A big thing to keep in mind is that Bolivia is otherwise incredibly cheap. If you spend $120 on a hotel in La Paz it’s one of the best. In rural areas you can survive on $5 a day. Gustu aside, if you spend $10 in a restaurant expect to be wined and dined. Eat on the street and you’ll literally be spending pennies. Take a tour for a day and you probably won’t pay more than $50.
More importantly though, Bolivia has some of the most fascinating destinations anywhere on planet earth. There’s the Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flats, and the otherworldly landscape of the southwest that can be traversed by 4×4. There’s Lake Titicaca and Bolivia’s own less visited floating islands. There’s Tarija, where Bolivia’s wine and Singani industry is centered. There are the trails of “outlaws” like Che Guevara and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. There’s a piece of the Pantanal, Mission settlements, lost wild cacao, and some of the most diverse pieces of the Amazon rainforest.
Are tourists coming to Bolivia now? No. Will they? It’s only a matter of time.
Writer and photographer Nicholas Gill is the editor/publisher of New World Review. He lives in Lima, Peru and Brooklyn, New York. His work has appeared in publications such as the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, CondeNast Traveler, National Geographic Traveler, Afar, and Penthouse. Visit his personal website (nicholas-gill.com) for more information.