Ed Stocker, The Guardian, June 13, 2013
Gourmet Bolivia. Now there's an oxymoron. While its neighbours, in particular Brazil, Argentina and Peru, have established themselves on the world's food scene, Bolivia has yet to make its mark. Few of us can name any classic Bolivian dishes, fewer still any Bolivian chefs.
So the news that Claus Meyer, co-founder of Copenhagen's Noma, a three-time winner of the World's 50 Best Restaurants (and the current number two), was opening an upscale restaurant in the capital La Paz was greeted with some astonishment. But Meyer – who, alongside Noma co-owner and chef René Redzepi, is famed for his trailblazing ultra local, seasonal cuisine – was drawn to the country not by its existing cuisine, but by the potential of its raw ingredients.
"Why Bolivia? If you have access to a large diversity of products, unknown to foodies, then you have a strong chance of coming up with something that could have global interest. Bolivia may have the most interesting and unexplored biodiversity in the world," he says over the phone from the Danish capital. "If we succeed, this will mean more to the Bolivian nation than Noma and new Nordic cuisine has meant to anyone."
It seems like quite a leap into the unknown for a man who, by his own admission, had never travelled in the country before. He says he was swayed into picking Bolivia by the work done there by Danish NGO Ibis, which has become a partner in the Gustu project. He hopes the benefits will be three-way: for him as restauranteur seeking new inspiration, for customers looking for something new, and for the country – South America's poorest – which could benefit from the investment and training.
Following in the footsteps of Brazilian chef Alex Atala, who is credited with redefining Latin American food with his use of exotic Amazon ingredients at his restaurant DOM in Sao Paulo, and Peruvian Gastón Acurio, whose international chain of high-end restaurants has put his country's cuisine on the food map, Meyer wants to offer diners a chance to explore local Bolivian flavours they have never even heard of, let alone tried.
Gustu, which opened in April, is located in the zona sur, the southern part of town where its wealthiest residents live, some of 1,110m below the wheeze-inducing heights of El Alto, La Paz's satellite town in the north, 4,100m above sea-level.
The restaurant's interior feels every inch the international diner: minimalist décor, grey walls, large windows with impressive views of the Andes and low-wattage exposed light bulbs. Like the food, everything is sourced from within the country, overseen by local designer Joyce Martín. There are flashes of local colour, too, in the Andean-inspired striped cushions dotted around the space.
Sampling the Gustu tasting menu is certainly a lesson in the biodiversity that Meyer rates so highly. Tender beets come with papalisa, a yellow potato dotted with shocks of pink and flavoured with hibiscus, a plate bursting with colour and flavour. A perfectly cooked egg yolk comes in a "nest" of palm heart strips and alpaca charque, Bolivia's jerky equivalent. Pink llama loin is served with fermented carrots, coa oil (a herb that tastes like a combination of rosemary, Swiss mint and eucalyptus) and little green and yellow wakataya herb flowers, giving the dish a unique sweet-fragrant kick.
As Bolivia is a landlocked country, seafood doesn't make an appearance, but Lake Titicaca trout does. A standout pudding is the chankaka – sugar cane honey – meringue with sorbet made from tumbo, a green-skinned fruit that looks like passion fruit and grows just outside the restaurant. This is the sort of menu that needs footnotes.
The five, seven or 15-course menu arrives beautifully presented on rough-cut slate plates and in ceramic bowls, with attention to detail as obsessive as at Noma. There is also an alcohol-pairing option which, like the cuisine, is full of surprises. For one, Bolivian wine is really rather good, even if some of the bottle labels are shockers. Their whites span everything from riesling to torrontés, their reds go from malbec to merlot. And then there are the cocktails, all made from singani, the national grape-based spirit, and often infused or macerated in-house. The singani with orange is particularly good, with the chankaka (unrefined sugar cane) giving it a dark sultry colour.
Gustu's two head chefs are from Venezuela and Denmark respectively and they haven't been afraid to include ideas and ingredients – still locally sourced – that are rarely eaten by Bolivians, including cauliflower and rabbit. Meyer defends the use of foreign chefs, citing the number of non-Danish cooks working at Noma, including its Macedonian head chef. "It doesn't necessarily take a Bolivian chef to release the true potential of Bolivian cuisine," he said. "It takes someone with a very humble attitude towards everything, able to see, smell, eat and learn."
Several of the sous chefs are Bolivian, as well as the trainees working alongside them, such as 22-year-old El Alto resident Estefanía Morales, selected from a group of students from low-income households. "We're trying natural products, Bolivian products, that we'd never really eaten before,," she says. "I didn't eat much trout before and now it's my favourite dish."
Diplomats, tourists and the Bolivian elite are the key clientele, due to prices that are unaffordable to most of the population (individual a la carte plates are £6 to £14.50; tasting menus cost £39 for five courses, rising to £87 for 15). But Gustu isn't simply a business venture. Meyer has set up the Melting Pot Foundation alongside the restaurant, which will receive a cut of the turnover and dividends. The aim is to train locals, often from humble backgrounds, to be future chefs and restaurant managers.
While Noma's fame and reputation means it is saturated with demands for a table and often fully booked three months in advance, Gustu has no waiting list, although pre-booking is advised for weekends. The question is whether it will be sustainable. La Paz has a far smaller slice of the jetsetter market than Rio or Buenos Aires. Will the local elite return again and again?
The quality and potential is certainly there, but, for now, neighbouring Peru will continue to hog the international culinary limelight, as it gears up to host the first ever Latin America's 50 Best Restaurants Awards in September. After that, who knows? Meyer clearly believes Bolivia is next in line for a taste of foodie fame.
• Gustu, Calle 10 no. 300, Calacoto, La Paz, restaurantgustu.com. The trip was provided by High Lives (020-8144 2629, highlives.co.uk). Its seven-day Gourmet Tour of Bolivia costs from £3,000pp, including domestic and international flights from Gatwick; visits to wine producers salt producers and quinoa plantations; a desert safari; and the 15-course dining experience at Gustu. Flights from Gatwick to Santa Cruz via Madrid were provided by Air Europa (0871 423 0717, aireuropa.com, from around £750 return). Internal flights were provided by the local airline Amaszonas (amaszonas.com)
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk