14 | Jan | 14

Richard Johnson

The New Colombia

This has already been a trip full of adventures — read about a few of them in my last post. We were exhausted. When I replay the border crossing from Venezuela into Colombia in my head, it’s always accompanied by some kind of euphoric soundtrack. We walked into a country full of smart, smiling people and, despite stories to the contrary, we weren’t met by banditos with donkeys laden down with cocaine and assault rifles, we were met by glitz, glamour and a country that is clearly on the way up. The only occasion we were robbed was when I managed to pay a tenner for a pair of underpants, but I put that down to a new country, new currency, errr, jetlag etc.

We stopped in the hills of Pamplona but the lack of a foodie scene, as well as oxygen, meant our trip was limited to a couple of days. We’re being a bit more mercenary now, we’re looking for a place crying out for our modern European restaurant and Pamplona isn’t the place. It is, however, a mecca for anyone with a sweet tooth, with rows and rows of bakeries bursting at the seams with cakes, biscuits, pastries and tarts. Kids meet up over ice-cream instead of beers and, according to one baker, the biggest threat to the town is not drugs, violence or corruption, but karaoke.

After an epic bus ride to Medellin, Colombia’s number 2 city, we were amazed to step off into Poblado, the Colombian Vegas. Long gone are the house-arrest days of Pablo Escobar’s city, this town’s inhabitants are elegant, friendly and fiercely proud of their new country. New money is everywhere, and the restaurant scene is hot, with everything from Thai to Italian and even an Irish restaurant in the centre of town. But the presentation needs work. See the Italian dish above. Luckily for the proprietors, they’re not too hot on the trades description act in this part of the world. A ‘Thai beef salad’ in one place actually turned out to be a plate of iceberg lettuce with a regular beef burger slapped in the middle of the plate.

There isn’t much of a street food scene in Medellin, but there are thousands of small restaurants or open houses that serve fast, nutritious food. Most people opt for an almuerzo, or set lunch, which is a soup followed by meat, rice and salad, and a juice, for around $3, although you never know what you’re getting. I’m all for the element of surprise, but the wife wasn’t too impressed with her mondongo – a tripe-based soup that’s something of a delicacy. Sancocho is a favourite; a meat soup crammed full of yucca and corn, and rotisserie chicken is the hero of this city with John, a Peruvian who runs 20-seater restaurant and uses a secret blend of 27 herbs and spices, selling out by 7pm every night.

Hangovers can be lessened by going for the daddy of dishes here; the bandeja paisa (“country man’s platter”), the equivalent of a gut-buster ‘caff’ breakfast. The emphasis is definitely on quantity, not necessarily quality, but it’s usually good. On your table-sized dish, you can expect to find beans cooked with pork, rice, several types of meat including morcilla and chicharron (pork crackling), topped off with a fried egg and fried plantain, with perhaps a bit of salad, as an afterthought.

The cheap food is seriously tasty, but I wanted to see what is considered high-end food, so I opted for a week’s stage in one of Medellin’s hot restaurants, Carmen. On day one, I was presented with a capybara to take apart (think huge wild guinea pig-type creature), in front of 10 pairs of eager eyes, and it didn’t get any less strange. Chef Rob had every gadget imaginable and a line out the door of kitchen staff wanting to work for free. I taught Rob the secrets of a knockout rabbit terrine, he taught me how to stuff pigs heads. It was an interesting Asian fusion menu with a lot of time and care devoted to each dish, but for me the standout restaurant in Medellin was Lucio, a steakhouse that was one of the few places to offer perfectly seasoned, perfectly balanced and perfectly cooked food. Slabs of fillet or tuna steaks were flawlessly seared, and the attention to detail in the décor and ambience transported me right back to Europe.

We seriously considered unpacking our bags and setting up shop in Medellin, even getting as far as viewing properties and sourcing specialty suppliers. But after three months there, it started to feel as if we’d traded one huge city for another. We were so starry eyed by the assurance of success there that we even started to change our business plan to fill a gap in the market.  So we stopped. We were going down the wrong route – it felt like we’d traded our life in London for the same life elsewhere. It was time to remember our ultimate goals; to live in a totally different South American culture, and open a small, high end restaurant that would introduce new cuisines and techniques to the continent. Food awards are extremely important to me and, in a continent void of Michelin stars, we want to stand out. So – onwards we go. Down through the south of Colombia and into Ecuador, which we’ve heard is an incredible country; volcanoes and beaches, jungles and cities, all packed in to a country just a little bigger than the UK. I have a great feeling about this country…

To follow Gavin’s travels, find him on Twitter: @headchefgavin