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High Ambition and Visions of Andean Haute Cuisine

18 May

Meridith Kohut for The New York Times

Cooking school students shopped at a market in La Paz. Their school is associated with a restaurant named Gustu and is aimed at creating a new generation of Bolivian chefs.

LA PAZ, Bolivia — Bolivia has not been kind to foreigners trying to import revolution. The attempt by the Argentine-born Che Guevara to set off a peasant revolt here ended badly. The verdict is still out on the latest foreigner to arrive in this impoverished nation trying to stir things up.

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The Danish celebrity chef Claus Meyer is opening a restaurant in La Paz, hoping to start a Bolivian food movement.

He is a chef, not a Che.

Claus Meyer, a Danish celebrity chef and restaurant entrepreneur, is one of the owners of Noma, a Copenhagen restaurant that is a darling of food critics for its mix of locavore purism and avant-garde cooking methods. Restaurant magazine, a trade journal, ranks it the best restaurant in the world.

Now Mr. Meyer is building a restaurant here, an experiment in Andean haute cuisine that comes with hefty side orders of revolution and high ambition.

Mr. Meyer, who came to Bolivia for the first time last year and has been back three times, described the restaurant, Gustu, due to open in January, as much more than a place to get a fancy meal in the continent’s poorest country. He and his followers describe it as the start of a Bolivian food movement that will rediscover local ingredients like llama meat, chuños (potatoes dehydrated high in the Andes) and coca, the plant that is used to make cocaine but that has long been used here as a mild stimulant, a tea and a medicinal herb.

Gustu’s mission will be to teach Bolivians how to eat in healthier ways, spur economic growth, tourism and exports, support local farmers and turn Bolivian cuisine into the next world food sensation. If all goes well, Mr. Meyer said in a telephone call from Copenhagen, the restaurant will use food “to change the destiny of a country.”

The restaurant, being built in the upscale Calacoto neighborhood, hardly looks like a crucible of revolution. On a recent day, workers installed insulation in the roof. The kitchen was stacked with bags of concrete mix and plaster.

Michelangelo Cestari, one of the restaurant’s head chefs, said it would be the most advanced restaurant in the country, full of high-tech gadgets of molecular gastronomy that atomize, froth and otherwise transform foods.

The restaurant will serve only ingredients grown or created in Bolivia. Wines will come from the country’s handful of wineries and liquor will be limited largely to singani, a local grape brandy.

Mr. Cestari pointed to a tall wall where wines will be stored and displayed, although he said there might not be enough Bolivian labels to fill it at first. The idea, he said, is to help create demand for local products.

Mr. Cestari, a pastry chef, is from Venezuela and has worked for years in fine restaurants in Europe. So has his fellow head chef, Kamilla Seidler, who is Danish. The only Bolivian among the restaurant’s top cooks is Christian Gómez, the senior sous chef, who worked for years in Spain.

They are keenly aware of the risk of being seen as outsiders. “Perhaps it’s arrogant to think we can come here to develop a gastronomy,” Mr. Cestari said, “but we hope we can push something.”

He said the menu would include items inspired by Bolivian dishes, like a lamb on a cross, made by splaying a whole lamb on an iron cross and cooking it slowly over a smoky fire; or calapurca, a soup heated by placing a hot rock in the bowl.

Rather than simply serving typical Bolivian food done well, however, the kitchen will use the method favored by Mr. Meyer in Denmark of focusing on a few basic ingredients and trying to draw out their essence.

“We don’t want to do French food or fusion or nouvelle,” Mr. Gómez said. “We want to do something new with a Bolivian identity.”

Mr. Cestari said that the average dinner tab would be $50 to $60 a person, which he said is on par with other top restaurants here but still prompted several Bolivians to gasp. The minimum wage here is about $143 a month.

Mr. Meyer will address that contradiction soon by opening a bistro and bakery where people can eat more economically. And he said that all profits from the restaurant would go to charitable projects in Bolivia, which he chose partly because it was a developing country with a wide range of unique local ingredients.

The project also includes a cooking school for young Bolivians from poor families, which will provide a trained work force for the restaurant and, Mr. Meyer hopes, create a new generation of experimentally minded chefs.

On a recent morning, students at the school, which is run out of an ornate mansion in central La Paz, buzzed around a cramped kitchen, making pork chops and yucca fries. Then some of them piled into a van for a field trip to a nearby market.

Ms. Seidler, one of the head chefs, said that because she arrived in Bolivia only recently she often finds herself learning from her students. At a market stall, Ms. Seidler and a student, Belén Soria, pored over types of offal. Ms. Soria explained how indigenous women prepared a mixture of fried tripe and potatoes that they sell from carts at night.

Ms. Soria, 24, said she grew up helping her grandmother cook and sell api, a sweet corn gruel that is a workingperson’s inexpensive morning staple.

“Everyone has their own knowledge, things their grandparents told them,” she said. But she has less time to help her grandmother now that she is focusing on her studies.

“We’re all curious to prepare new things, with our own stamp,” Ms. Soria said. “Original things.”

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