05 | Jun | 13

Richard Johnson

A Chef’s Tour

Telling friends and family that we were starting out on a culinary tour of Latin America in Venezuela was generally met with raised eyebrows and deafening silences. The Venezuelans that we knew were more expressive, shrieking in horror “Why the hell would you do that?” which admittedly put on us the back foot a bit. I’m Gavin Quinn, ex-Head Chef of St Paul’s Cathedral and along with my wife Karen, gave up my cosy London lifestyle in search of adventure, new challenges and eventually a base for our new restaurant.

Along our travels we agreed that to fully immerse ourselves, we needed to get right in the heart of it; shunning high end restaurants in favour of the street foods and going native with the local moonshines. And after travelling around so much of Asia and still yearning after certain street vendor foods after all these years, we couldn’t wait to get stuck in, Latin American style.

I found that Venezuela doesn’t make it on to many bucket lists. We started in Caracas but were not allowed out of our hotel on the grounds of our safety (being milky white and wearing dollar signs), so we headed straight to Margarita Island. I had a ‘makeover’ job lined up in the north of the island, bringing a restaurant’s menu up to date and firmly away from the ubiquitous pizzas, spaghetti and chicken cordon bleu (really), but first we did a bit of acclimatisation.

We arrived in Juangriego, a small fishing village in the north west of the island. Like most chefs, I love heading down to a fish market at the crack of dawn to see what’s on the menu, and this one really delivered. At 5am you could see young guys dragging huge shark off of the boats, whilst others sat gutting smaller fish and chucking scraps over their shoulders to the army of pelicans sitting waiting. Fish included tuna loin, dorado and barracuda; I’m not sure how far my filleting knife would have gone, the locals were working messily with machetes and wooden bats. Billingsgate it ain’t.

Street food was plentiful on the island, with a very entrepreneurial spirit. Young women would roam the streets or beaches with homemade cakes using pineapple or any of the other tropical fruits in abundance, whilst older women would carry flasks of coffee that was so bitter that I couldn’t decide whether the coffee was so strong that it annihilated my tastebuds, or whether there was more than a drop of local rum in that 6am tipple.

Health and fitness aren’t big on Margarita. First off, the oppressive heat means that if we were out during the day, we were likely to be dragging our feet, sweating profusely and grumbling in a very British way. Running on the beach sounded idyllic, but unfortunately the morning shore is littered with jellyfish and shocked pufferfish, creating a quite unappealing obstacle course. And secondly, the food is the absolute nemesis to exercise. What’s the point in doing fartleks on the beach when breakfasts are fried cornbreads (arepas) dripping with butter, meat or cheese?

Although good news for Atkins fans; parrillas (grills) are key roadside fodder, with meat, sausages, chicken and cheese piled up like Christmas presents. I was going to say ‘I don’t know where they put it all’ but that would be a lie, as it’s all bursting out of their leggings (the ladies) or hanging over waistbands (men). They’re not quite the proportions that storefront mannequins suggested, all surgically enhanced boobs and bums on an otherwise catwalk-sized frame. Such a shame, when the island is brimming with fresh, healthy produce. Point in case, tostones – small discs of plantain – were fried not once but twice, and it was difficult to avoid deep fried empanadas or fried chicken. It was like being back home, in Peckham.

After a couple of months away, I was really starting to miss London. Talking to other people out there about the ‘food culture’ in London was inevitably met with scoffs and crap Dad jokes about fish and chips, but I would wax lyrical about the produce, the Michelin stars, the creativity, the availability, the surge in influential bloggers, pop-up kitchens and dinner clubs. Whilst my wife cried into her tea every morning, cursing her lack of foresight to bring marmite, I’d be struggling to understand how to get these people fired up with a true food culture, an interest in source, seasoning and cooking without oil. There certainly were aspirational (read: rich) Venezuelans on the island, but to them, you could have stuck a tuille on anything and they would have though it haute cuisine.

We ran in a new menu in a restaurant on the north of the island using some of Margarita’s cheapest and most nutritious fish, such as barracuda and sardines (the fisherman sadly can’t even give these little beauties away). I’m glad to see from its website that it’s continuing on with some of our dishes, but overall it’s not an island that understands good food.

Despite the fact that we were so excited about island life, the reality was that Margarita is struggling with a political situation that has all but ceased a tourist trade. Time to head to the mainland, but will it be more of the same (fried chicken, leggings et al) in a cooler climate? And just what do you snack on in the jungle?
In his next blog post, Gavin will be covering the ups and downs of mountain life in Merida and taking on Mother Nature in the marshlands of Los Llanos.

Gavin Quinn is ex-Head Chef of St Paul’s Cathedral in London, and left the UK in March 2012 to embark upon a long-term culinary tour of South America. To follow his travels, find him on Twitter: @headchefgavin