Behind the Scenes: A crusty and sweet side of Bogota
February 2, 2014
Editor's note: This is the second in a two-part series. Visit http://www.vaildaily.com to read the first installment.
On Nov. 11, 2011, after one year of tearful trial and error, pastry chef Silvana Villegas opened Masa's doors in Bogota, Colombia. In those difficult economic times when the light on the horizon grew brighter for Colombia, Villegas began her own culinary revolution.
Her bakery, featuring breads that germinated in her dreams, soon sprouted into a hot spot for savories and sweets. Villegas' European culinary outpost quickly grew into a breakfast, lunch and dinner emporium offering a panoply of products created from the alchemy of bread, yeast and sugar. A little taste of Europe in Colombia was just what Bogota's fledgling culinary scene needed.
I'm certain the dreams and aspirations of nearly every graduate of the Culinary Institute of America are to open his or her own dining establishment. Unfortunately, not everyone possesses the discipline and stamina for the grueling schedules that come with ownership. Nor does everyone possess the economic savvy required to transform creativity into financial success.
For Villegas, who has both a creative and practical mind, her sister, Marianna, has been the financial brain behind her enterprise from the start. Marianna, was already overseeing the finances of her father's wholesale bakery, Morango. While Villegas unleashed her culinary talents, Marianna structured Masa's schedule to extract the highest possible return from Villegas' creative products.
Villegas pushed for the shop to be open Tuesday through Sunday, allowing herself Monday to clean and regroup before beginning another demanding week. After two months of operation, Marianna had other ideas about Masa's opening hours. A seven-day schedule serving breakfast, lunch and dinner was necessary to make the economics work. The compromise? A Monday midday opening.
Star of the show
Villegas describes bread as "the main character" at Masa. Colombian bread is soft and sweet, lacking the character and diversity of textures and flavors its European counterparts possess. Upon opening, she tantalized Bogota's palates with 18 different breads, such as sourdough (her favorite to make), five grain and rustic Italian. Additionally, she baked five different laminated doughs that included many variations of the classic croissant. Today, her bakery's offerings have grown to 22 different breads and nine laminated dough products. Only New York-style bagels eluded her ability to adapt recipes for Bogota's 8,600-foot altitude and the country's challenging ingredients.
Villegas built everything on her menus — including her wildly popular turkey on wheat with nuts and raisins, romesco sauce, cheese, avocado and bacon — around the crusty, hearty European breads she introduced to Bogota. Soon, however, a larger cast of characters including pastries, croissants, chocolates and fresh fruit juices joined bread as Masa's sought after epicurean treats. Christmas-time specialties include apple cinnamon bread, chocolate cake with pistachio ganache and large production chocolate truffles.
Early to bed, early to rise
Villegas describes her long days in Manhattan that began early and ended late as the best time of her life. Those years after completing her culinary studies prepared her well for the grueling schedule she faced at Masa. When I interviewed her, I noticed that her schedule contained no time for rest and relaxation. She is truly driven.
Daily from 7 a.m. until 9 p.m., cooks in Masa's tiny kitchen are busy at work. Villegas' challenging days are much longer, with no two exactly the same for her. Generally, by 4:30 a.m. the chef is already in Morango's large commercial kitchen baking bread and working on big production items such as cookies, chocolates and savories for lunch. In Morango's large ovens, she bakes turkeys, roast beef and chickens. At 6 a.m., she delivers the first order of daily baked breads to Masa. The next delivery comes at 11 a.m., in time for the lunch rush.
During the first two years of operation, Villegas was forced to do a little of everything from cooking, plating and expediting in the back of the house, to busing tables and taking orders in the front. She prides herself in the capable staff she's trained that freed her to concentrate on breads, pastries and menu development.
On weekends, when patrons descend on Masa for its popular brunch, work becomes a family affair. While Villegas confines herself to the kitchen alongside her staff she worked hard to train, her infinitely supportive husband, Julian, her mom, Martha, and Mariana work together in the front of the house.
Although bread is the star of Villegas' culinary production, her chocolate truffles, dragees and bars also delight her patrons. The early December day I interviewed Villegas on Skype, she was a little late. It was easy to forgive her that delay since she was hard at work on holiday orders totaling 14,000 handmade chocolate truffles. These tasty treats come in eight different delectable flavors: dark chocolate ganache, passion fruit, dulce de leche, white chocolate and brandy.
In addition to truffles — she calls them "bonbons" — Villegas produces four different chocolate bars. She employs superior quality Valrhona chocolate — 70 percent dark chocolate, 64 percent Madagascar and 36 percent milk chocolate — to create her popular bars. For her truffles, Villegas turned to local 108-year-old chocolate manufacturer CasaLuker for the 46 percent chocolate she uses. The cultural and geographical diversity of CasaLuker's product express Villegas' deep devotion to her homeland.
Masa's juicy side
Diners descend upon Masa for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Although each crowd is different, they all seek the delicious, fresh homemade products that Villegas creates.
Of course, pastries and bread are available for breakfast. However, it's Villegas' jams and juices that elevate her baked goods to celestial heights. Although chef Sergio Howland, of The Sebastian in Vail, told me that none of Masa's breads he tasted needed embellishment, he couldn't resist slathering his bread with each of their lulo, uchuva (also known as Cape Gooseberry or Inca Berry), strawberry, blackberry and agraz jams.
Lulo, also known as "naranjilla" and indigenous to Colombia, Peru and Ecuador, looks like a hairy fuzzed orange with a thick skin. Similar to quince, it is not a fruit you'd enjoy straight off the bush. Instead, the sharp, acidic taste of the fruit's green interior is great for juice and jam.
On each of his two breakfast visits to Masa, chef Howland couldn't resist indulging in the four fruit juices available that day. What Colombia lacks in terms of quality fat-rich milk products, it makes up for in the vast array of available tropical fruits perfect for Masa's homemade fruit purees. With exotic flavors such as lulo, feijoa (pineapple guava), guanabana (an oval-shaped fruit with a taste often described as a combination of strawberry and pineapple) and the more familiar strawberry, orange, grape, mango, watermelon, grapefruit and lemonade, there is always something delicious to drink at Masa.
Formula for success
Obviously, with her second location in the works, Villegas discovered a formula for success. Simply put, she describes the heart and soul of her operation in one word: "Bread." "Everything revolves around bread." Her war against mundane bread began when Masa sold its crusty loaf two years ago. It was a short war she has won. Let's pray for a future of much-deserved peace for Colombia and that the only wars raged on its soil are between culinary entrepreneurs in their attempt to bring new taste sensations to their beloved homeland.
Suzanne Hoffman is a freelance writer specializing in food, wine and travel. Her blogs are http://www.suziknows best.com and http://www.winefamilies.com. Email comments about this story to email@example.com.