By Patrick Hieger

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When you’ve traveled internationally, paid a couple hundred dollars for a ticket, and rearranged your schedule to sit in on three days of talks and workshops dedicated to food and pushing the country ahead, it can be disconcerting when the symposium’s first invited speaker starts off by saying that she’s grown tired of symposiums.  “Symposiums have become repetitive,” said Luciana Bianchi, chef and award-winning culinary journalist. Most symposiums repeat the same material, she lamented.

However, Bianchi, in Bolivia for the first time, saw something new, and important.  “This congress has a very special voice,” she said.  A local voice.  A voice that can reach out to the government.  A voice that can create unity, and ultimately strength.  Tambo, as a symposium, had received Bianchi’s seal of approval. It was local, important, necessary.

Like many who would speak after her, Bianchi said that you cannot know a country’s cuisine without first knowing its culture.  Tambo was a three-day discussion and workshop on how to better promote Bolivia’s culture through its cuisine, while at the same time giving the economy a necessary boost.  It was three days of intense discussion on how to improve the overall food systems in Bolivia, not just with Gustu and the power of a Danish non-profit, but by working together, and placing value on the products, the producers, and the country’s larder as a whole.

The festival was quite different this year than its two previous incarnations.  Logistics inhibited the food festival portion of the meeting, which last year featured cooks, restaurants, and other artisans from across the country, showing their creations–and Bolivia’s national products–in a mini Mistura-like setting that drew considerable crowds.  This year was all business, a summit of chefs, leaders of various groups trying to rescue and promote underused products, officials from Bolivia’s tourism board, journalists, and a room full of captive culinary students listening attentively to see how they could help.

The Symposium
The bulk of this year’s Tambo was comprised of panels led by experts from various aspects of the food industry across Bolivia, including the head of Slow Food Bolivia, the organizers of MIGA (Movimiento de Integración Gastronómico Boliviano), who put on Tambo, growers, the Vice Minister of Tourism, and the managers from numerous organizations throughout Bolivia, like Nuevo Norte and ProInpa, that are attempting to change the way Bolivians eat by highlighting regional and national products and the people who produce them.  Panel topics ranged from the socio-economic relationship of food and gastronomy to the growth of Bolivia’s national economy, to the importance of improving the country’s overall culinary offerings to promote better tourism.  At least ten different organizations, all of whom helped put on this year’s Tambo, were present to talk about their individual products, and while each organization was taking their own steps with producers, the products themselves, or with tourism, their goal was the same: to ensure that Bolivia recognizes its incredible wealth of ingredients and traditions, and uses them to move the country, and its regional cultures and traditions, ahead, through strong food and gastronomy offerings.

The Chefs
Although the invited chefs were not the main focus of this year’s Tambo, they did make for good respite from the overwhelming amount of information that the daily panels provided.  Venezuela’s Carlos Garcia was unable to attend, and was narrowly replaced by Bolivian Ricardo Cortes, from Santa Cruz, who focused on the importance of simplicity.  After cooking a chupe of Bolivian river crab, he finished off his presentation by telling each of the many students in the crowd to stick true to who they are, who they want to be.  “We have too many chefs,” he said.  “What we need are cooks.”

One of the most important presentations came from El Baqueano’s Fer Rivarola, who did eventually present a dish of textures of Andean potatoes with the help of his wife and sommelier Gabriela Lafuente.  Relatively new to the panel of South American chefs making the rounds at the continent’s various festivals and forums, Rivarola uses each appearance as a chance to promote his restaurant, of course, but to also look at the bigger picture of South American cuisine and the backbreaking work that small producers high in the Andes and along overlooked rivers do just to make sure that we, the excited diners, continue to have native products brought to our table.  His video highlighting Fundación Alfarcito’s potato-growing process left a deep impact on everyone, but particularly on celebrated critic and writer Ignacio Medina, who would continue to talk about it throughout the week.

Other invited chefs, including first-timer Tomás Rueda from Colombia, Peru’s Pedro Miguel Schiaffino, and Mexico’s Jorge Vallejo, used their time on stage to emphasize not simply the importance of national ingredients, but how those ingredients represent national pride.  The time for chefs to take to the stage and cook is coming to an end.  It isn’t necessary any longer, or would be better served as a private cooking lesson with actual pots, pans, and fire.  The chef’s role is bigger now, more important, especially in Latin America.  As voices of knowledge, but also success, they can use their time on stage to encourage and convince the next generation of cooks and food experts that we can’t simply be focusing on the final product.  Chefs are the final stop in a long line of steps to get food from the earth to the the table.

Chefs from Gustu remained only as guests in the crowd this year, which felt appropriate.  Gustu’s role in MIGA, in Tambo, and in the advancement of Bolivian gastronomy is just as important as ever, but they’re not working alone.  As Michelangelo Cestari stated at Qaray just a week prior in Mistura, the producer cannot be overlooked.  By remaining more or less omniscient, and letting those who directly represent the producers speak, the team from Gustu demonstrated that it can’t just be one restaurant, or one non-profit organization that can pick a country up.  It has to be the country working together as a whole for a common goal.

The Events
Outside of the daily panels, a variety of nightly events were held to showcase Bolivian ingredients.  The first night featured a dinner at Gustu prepared by Fer Rivarola, Rodolfo Guzmán, Kamilla Seidler, and Tomás Rueda all cooking dishes prepared exclusively with Bolivian ingredients.  Many of the invited guests included panelists who had been speaking about rescuing these same ingredients, though they had never had the chance to eat at Gustu, or see just how high such humble ingredients could rise. Each group may be working individually to use food as a means to create a cultural shift, but by finally coming together in one room to share a meal, and to see the full cycle of each ingredient, they were uniting together for the same cause.

This year’s Tambo set a new precedent for what gastronomic symposiums in Latin America should be.  It is no longer enough to simply put a few of the region’s leading chefs on the stage and let them create a couple of dishes that look great in pictures.  Now is the time for action–social, economic, political, cultural action.  A shift is happening across Latin America, where food isn’t just for entertainment.  Food, from producer to chef, is the link that binds the entire region.  Its importance, and the impact it will have in nearly every facet of life, is undeniable.

Tambo is the symposium that Bolivia, perhaps even Latin America as a whole, needs.  Food festivals are fun, and they bring communities, regions, and some times they bring entire countries together.  But Tambo was more than just a celebration, it was a call to action.  Tambo showed us, the international press, the invited chefs, the young cooks who will become the future of the country’s change for the better, that people and organizations across Bolivia are trying to make the country a better, more delicious place to live and to visit.  Like many of its surrounding neighbor countries, Bolivia has the chance to rise to greatness by promoting something as simple as the potato, and the hands that are used every single day to produce that potato, and many others like it.