Editor’s note: This is part one in a two-part series. Check back next week to read the final installment.
Bogota, Colombia. Tell me, what images do those two words evoke? Fine dining? Cosmopolitan city? Foodie’s paradise? For my generation, none of those images match those of the five decades of violence and political instability, kidnapping of foreigners and the bloody reign of drug cartel overlords created. However, recent attempts at ending the Western Hemisphere’s longest running war are beginning to bear fruit. Once considered no-man’s land for tourists, Bogota’s talented young culinary entrepreneurs are busy transforming the city into fertile ground for culinary adventurers.
Before I take you on this virtual trip to Bogota, Colombia, and introduce you to my protagonist in this week’s story, pastry chef Silvana Villegas, I should mention that I haven’t been there. It’s high on my bucket list of gastronomic trips, but for this story, I relied on the eyes and ears of local chef and one of my photographic contributors, Sergio Howland, of The Sebastian in Vail.
Upon his return from a recent trip to Bogota, Colombia, Howland displayed palpable excitement at discovering the city’s tastier side. Howland’s own observations and my ability to interview and get to know Villegas via Skype facilitated my exploration of Bogota, Colombia’s hopeful story of a phoenix rising.
Unearthing Bogota’s culinary secrets
An invitation to appear as a guest chef at “Expo La Recetta,” a new gastronomic exposition, took Howland to Bogota in October. Sergio Suarez, Howland’s roommate during his studies at the Culinary Institute of America, and Natalie Quintero, created this nascent food and wine extravaganza that drew chefs from America, Belgium, Mexico, Italy, Ecuador and Colombia. It’s another indication of Bogota’s burgeoning importance in South America’s gastronomic economy.
Expo La Recetta provided Howland an opportunity to share his knowledge and absorb others’. It also allowed him to roam Bogota, Colombia’s culinary world where his two great talents — food and photography — merged. You see, Howland is not only a gifted food wizard, but he also works magic with light and images from behind his camera. With his taste buds on high alert and camera in hand, Howland set off to experience Bogota, Colombia. The “mini-Manhattan” culinary scene he encountered delightfully caught chef Howland off guard.
In his customary pre-departure research, Howland discovered the bakery and cafe, Masa. He marked it as a destination to explore. Howland went there not once, but twice for breakfast, tasting all the fresh fruit juices, breads and pastries he could consume. It wasn’t just the delicious quality of Masa’s food that struck Howland, but the ability of someone to create such beautiful baked goods at 8,600 feet above sea level, 600 feet higher than his restaurant kitchen in Vail. He was hooked and wanted to spread the word about this equatorial food Mecca.
Dough in her DNA
To understand Silvana Villegas’ rapid rise in Bogota, Colombia and Masa’s success, we need to visit her past, exploring what prompted this particular expression of her culinary DNA.
In her home kitchen, Silvana Villegas’ mother, Martha Fernandez, began producing pastries for restaurants in 1990. Four years later, with her pastry operation thriving, Fernandez took a job as manager of an ice cream factory, Crepes and Waffles.
Leaving behind his life as a marine biologist in Cartagena, Silvana Villegas’ father, Juan Ramiro Villegas, took over and expanded his wife’s baking business, Morango, in 1998. He relocated Morango to a larger production facility next to Crepes and Waffles, making it easy for Fernandez to help him. According to Villegas, his inability to cook savories failed to impede Juan Ramiro Villegas’ baking success in the ensuing 15 years.
With this early exposure to the joys of transforming simple ingredients into delicious confections, it was no surprise Silvana Villegas chose culinary arts as her career path.
Mountains to flatland
In 2003, Silvana Villegas left the rarified air of Bogota, Colombia, for the lower altitude of Hyde Park, New York. Her two years of studies at the Culinary Institute of America included a prized externship at Manhattan’s Jean-Georges Restaurant. She aspired for something more from her career and returned to Hyde Park for one-year of comprehensive pastry and baking studies. Finally in 2005, Silvana Villegas began the next phase of her studies on the job in some of Manhattan’s finest dining establishments with notable chefs such as Gordon Ramsey and Kurt Gutenbrunner.
Although working for Ramsey sparked Silvana Villegas’ love affair with chocolate, it was at Amy Sherber’s New York bakery, Amy’s Breads, where she gleaned the most knowledge and experience in her chosen art. Unlike most people who rest on their days off, particularly pastry chefs whose work includes lugging large sacks of flour and sugar, Silvana Villegas worked gratis at Sherber’s bakery on hers.
Despite never meeting the pastry maven and never receiving a paycheck, the time spent working 4:30 a.m. until noon at Amy’s Breads before heading to her paid job rewarded her with valuable experience she craved. In her words, they “taught me everything” at Amy’s Breads. While working there alongside other Colombian bakers, she began crafting her vision for Masa.
Return to Colombia
In 2010, at the height of the global economic downturn, Silvana Villegas returned to Colombia with a fire in her belly to create her own bakery retail outlet. She envisioned introducing Colombians to her own brand of European style breads and pastries. Despite both the economic challenges and those of convincing her compatriots that Europe’s crusty breads were tastier than soft and sweet Colombian counterparts, Silvana Villegas forged ahead. In partnership with her business savvy sister Mariana, Silvana Villegas concentrated on the culinary aspects of their gestating business.
Silvana Villegas expected the challenges of adapting recipes to Bogota’s altitude, but never did she foresee the obstacles local ingredients posed. It wasn’t a question of a little more of this or a little less of that. It was the conundrum of the different quality and composition of the “this and that” available in Colombia that nearly derailed her plans.
Butter and cream, for example, are staples in every chef’s kitchen. But in Colombia, the lower fat content of dairy products paled in comparison to New York’s ingredients which contained 70 to 80 percent more fat, a necessary to impart richness to pastries and chewy texture to cookies.
Even one of her most basic ingredients, flour, created mind-numbing challenges. In New York, Silvana Villegas had at her fingertips any type of flour she needed. In Colombia, where no wheat is produced, only two types of flour were available. Sugar also created a nightmare scenario.
All sugars are not created equal. Only cane sugar is available in Colombia, but in New York, Silvana Villegas mostly used beet sugar. Each react in different ways. The science of food is most prevalent in baking; therefore, sugars with different chemical properties don’t yield the same results.
Expecting only altitude issues, but confronted with these unexpected woes opened a floodgate of tears Villegas shed in frustration. It was a crisis of Waterloo proportions that only tiring episodes of trial and error could conquer.
Baking up success
Relying on the same fortitude that motivated her in New York, chef Silvana Villegas persevered through that dark year of recipe development. Finally, in November 2011, Masa opened its doors.
Are your taste buds primed? Next week, I’ll take you inside Masa where Silvana Villegas will tantalize your gustatory senses. It’s a trip you don’t want to miss!
Suzanne Hoffman is a freelance writer specializing in food, wine and travel. Her blogs are www.suziknowsbest.com and www.winefamilies.com. Email comments about this story to firstname.lastname@example.org.