Gustu | La Paz, Bolivia

By: Patrick Hieger

(Originally published on 10.24.13)

La Paz, Bolivia, is the last place you might expect to find a world class restaurant that, with a little luck, could soon be listed on at least one of the 50 Best lists that are compiled each year.  Built into a crater on a plateau that sits at over 13,000 feet above sea level, La Paz is a city of extremes.  By day, the sun sits high in the sky, virtually unblocked by tall buildings, trees or any other type of protection.  Sunburn is standard.  By night, the temperature drops and the thin Andean air becomes crisp and cool.  It’s great for the grapes that go into Bolivia’s high-altitude wines.  For humans, though, it’s hard to understand how anyone could live in four different seasons day in and day out.  But La Paz is where Claus Meyer,  Danish restaurateur and co-owner of Copenhagen’s Noma, decided to place his latest foray into culinary foraging and living off the land, Gustu.  At least for Meyer, it seems that the extremes make La Paz that much more enticing.

How does a Dane go from co-owning one of the world’s top restaurants in one of the world’s most expensive cities to opening a culinary palace in one of the poorest countries in South America?  Well, it certainly wasn’t a rash decision.  The opening of Gustu and its adjoined culinary school Melting Pot Bolivia came as part of an extensive search in conjunction with Danish non-profit Ibis.  Meyer being a restaurateur, the goal was to help support a struggling economy through food, restaurant training, and agriculture.  Despite its economic shortcomings, Bolivia has a wealth of undiscovered products in each of its three diverse climates (Andean, Amazon, plains) that make it an appealing place to put a restaurant that focuses on using the best the land has to offer.  High stability and a low crime rate made Bolivia look even more appealing, and thus the decision was made.  Melting Pot Bolivia was founded, culinary and service training began, and a few months later, Gustu was opened.  Not simply a restaurant, though, the goal of Gustu, Meyer, Ibis, and everyone else involved is to start a movement, nay, a chain reaction, that kick starts Bolivia, its producers, its agriculture, and therefore its economy, putting it on the map as a new, exciting culinary destination worth visiting.  Sounds simple, right?

Past the co-ownership and the obvious Danish ties, it’s actually best to forget about Noma, and perhaps Denmark altogether, when talking about Gustu.  Oh, well, there are Gustu’s head chef Kamilla Seidler and front-of-house and beverage manager, Jonas Andersen, both Danes, but past them, you can forget about Denmark.  No, really.  Gustu is Bolivian, make no bones about it.  From the raw products to the couches, the wines, the beers, and the staff, two of the four managers on staff may be Danish, but everything else is strictly Bolivian.

If you talk to Bolivians that know about the restaurant, the world you’ll most often hear associated with it is “movement.”  The movement.  The movement that Gustu, and Melting Pot, and Meyer have brought to Bolivia.  The movement to “put Bolivia on the map,” as many supporters say.  The movement, as Gustu’s slogan clearly states, “to change the world through food.”  It’s a massive goal, a movement, but once you’re there, drinking Bolivian wines, or one of the various nearly unheard of Bolivian microbrews that explode with flavor and crisp, new flavors, you start to realize that maybe, just maybe, they’ve got something.  Something that isn’t necessarily, or specifically, just about food, but about a culture as a whole, and the fact that they do have a wealth of products that the world could and would love.

It’s already happening all over South America, with Peru leading the march towards international acclaim.  Recognize what you have.  Get the people to talk about traditions and pride and the flavors they love out loud, and not just to themselves.  Celebrate the products that you and only you have.  Then scream it from the mountain tops.  Hype it.  Serve it on street corners.  In divey little restaurants with just enough character.  In big, palatial temples devoted to high cuisine.  In everyday restaurants that everyone can afford.  And then they’ll come.  The pilgrims.  The foodies.  The tourists.  Eating isn’t just fun, or trendy.  It’s necessary.  So why not make it delicious at the same time?  I’m here to tell you that Bolivia has a delicious chance.  Start thinking about La Paz, and Santa Cruz as names you should know.  Soon–hopefully very soon–they’ll be almost as widely used as names like Lima, or Buenos Aires, or Sao Paolo.  And with good reason.

Currently, there’s only one real destination for dining in La Paz.  It’s Gustu. There are a number of higher-end hotels that serve decent meals at decent prices, with flavorful, semi-traditional Bolivian dishes mixed into their otherwise fusion and internationally-focused menus, but Gustu is the only place that is currently trying to look at the full scope of the Bolivian larder and say, hey, we can work with this.  It just takes a little creativity.  Go to the street and you’ll find treats like anticuchos with grilled potatoes and hot sauce.  Cooked tripe with potatoes and a different hot sauce.  Or the ‘chola sandwich,’ made from slow-roasted pork and served with onions and hot sauce in warm bun, all so tender it will go down like a milkshake.  There’s good eating, for sure.  There’s a great deal of restaurants serving everything from chicken to hamburgers, Argentine-style steaks to basic Italian food.  But aside from the obvious tourist and international fare, there’s also a good deal of foundational Bolivian foods that are simple, flavorful, and full of potential.  The range from high to low is still just too broad.

Gustu is inevitably described as high-end.  Menu options range from bar snacks or a la carte plates to a 15-course tasting menu served on handmade clay plates, paired strictly with Bolivian wines and beers, all for $120 or so.  A steal, given the quality.  High-end for Bolivia.  It doesn’t feel high-end though.  Or at least it doesn’t feel stuffy.  The food at Gustu feels comfortable, like homemade food.  The atmosphere has minimalist Danish touches (I know, I said it again), warmed up with Bolivian textiles and colors.  Natural products, carved native woods, candles illuminating what would otherwise be dark corners.  High-end with the comforts of home.












The chefs aim to change the menu every six weeks, based on seasonality and new discoveries from forager Joan Garbó, a Spaniard who now leads Gustu’s L.A.B. (Laboratorio de Alimentos Bolivianos).  As the team attempts to create Bolivian fare, they must discover it as well.  Dishes like rabbit confit over a purée of white choclo–a large kernel variety of Andean corn–with burnt kernels of the same feel like comfort food.  A raw egg yolk served with shredded hearts of palm and llama jerky bear an uncanny resemblance to a carbonara, but unlike any carbonara you’ve ever had.  A dessert of tamarind, ají, tomatillo, and cherimoya lingers on the tongue, a reminder that you can go from meat and potatoes to tropical-like acid and heat in the course of one meal.  From one country.















Ox cheeks with braised mushrooms and potato chips from one of the thousands of varieties of potatoes that Bolivia boasts.  Quinoa.  Llama.  Lamb.  Yucca.  Amazonian fish.  Peanuts.  Chilies.  Plantains.  Cactus.  And so much more.  So much more that hasn’t even been discovered, or that people simply aren’t using in large quantities.  It this is Bolivian food and it can be this good, yet still so inviting, where has it been all this time?  Or why have people simply been overlooking it?  “Are you embarrassed?” Ignacio Medina asked in his talk at Tambo’s symposium.  I would certainly hope not.  This is the kind of food that chefs only dream about being able to cook.  The kind of restaurant that gets awards and accolades and–oh, wait, that’s the point.

Then there’s the drinks.  Singani, Bolivia’s answer to Pisco, gets deftly mixed into cocktails with sugars like chankaka, and orange.  It’s like an Amazonian old-fashioned.  Vanilla and raspberry sours that aren’t in the least way “girly.”  Singani with llajua and tomato, a slightly spicy, herbal cocktail.  Ginger and cherries with genebre.  These are easily the best cocktails that no one knows about.  And that’s just the start.  Bolivian wines are interesting, if not in need of a little work.  Bolivian microbrews, at least what I had, were simply outstanding.  The Aleksandra Golden Ale, made just blocks from Gustu, is crisp and refreshing, easily as good as any wheat beer from across the United States.  Chala, the frothy quinoa brew that was the best combatant against the unrelenting sun.  Stouts, lagers, and more.  One restaurant, one team, is harvesting all of this.  They’ve got it on their menu now–all of it.  Hopefully soon, the rest of Bolivia will, too.



Elizabeth Abel (Eli) is from Pennsylvania.  She’s trained with coffee companies like Counter Culture in Washington DC.  She now helps manage the floor and leads the coffee program at Gustu, using only nationally-sourced coffees from Bolivia.  Chemex is her method of choice.  Maribel Rivero is from Austin, Texas.  She’s a graduate of the CIA program in San Antonio.  When she got wind of Gustu, she sold everything, including her car, to come to Bolivia and take part in the movement.  She now helps run Gustu’s catering department.  Cooks have fallen into rivers out of trees, losing their keys and wallet to try and get hand-picked ingredients.  Everyone works with a smile.  They’re proud.  They’re excited.  They love it when visitors come through the door.  They love talking about the food and seeing people excited about it.  For those priceless touches alone, Gustu is the single best restaurant experience I’ve ever had.  Loyalty, pride and concern go a long way.

Go back to the first part of this article and find Kamilla, and Joan, and Michelangelo at Tambo, getting sunburnt, and frustrated with organizing a festival, then back at Gustu to work service.  Find their cooks, talking about how Gustu has given them pride, both in their country and in themselves.  Find Coral Ayoroa, in charge of Melting Pot and key player in Gustu, working non-stop to make sure that the festival, the food, and the organization are a success.  Find more of the cooks, and bartenders, and dishwashers, and the beer producers themselves at Gustu’s stands (yes, plural) at Tambo, surrounded by other Bolivian restaurants and producers, making sure they become part of the fabric that makes the country, and its food, worth coming back for.  Can one restaurant be responsible for changing an entire country?  A restaurant?  It’s so difficult to wrap your mind around the idea, but when you see the team in action, it seems entirely possible.

If Joan Garbó has his way, Gustu will be included in next year’s list of Latin America’s 50 Best restaurants.  If his wish, and the wish of the entire staff of Gustu, comes true, they’ll be on the World’s 50 Best within three years.  And it seems possible, or rather likely.  Both do.  But those are just awards and can, for so many people, be rather arbitrary.  The cactus producer who lives in the jungle or the woman that harvests potatoes may not care.  Hell, they may never even come to eat at Gustu, simply because it’s out of their realm.  But it would be their work, as much as it would the team behind Gustu’s, up there getting celebrated.  At least that’s how Claus Meyer, his team of foreign implants, and all the cooks and waiters and other hands that make Gustu tick, would see it.

Gustu isn’t for everyone.  At least, not in the sense of dining out.  It aims big, higher than the mountain it sits on.  Not everyone wants to go and eat 15 plates of food.  Or can afford to pay $120.  For many, a chola sandwich will suffice.  In its larger vision, though, Gustu really is for everyone.  Or it’s trying to be.  Gustu is trying its hardest to be Bolivian, and think Bolivian, and support the best that Bolivia has to offer.  From the Amazon to the Andes, and everywhere in between.  It’s not easy, but I do truly hope they succeed.  I hope that Bolivia gets “put on the map.”  And that food, that simple, daily need, can bring a country around.  ¡Qué gustu!