A paisa chef shines with three Michelin stars

A paisa chef shines with three Michelin stars

There is a moment, of the 21 on the ElCielo Miami tasting menu, where the geography of Antioquia is transformed into the plate: the mountains and the moors are in sesame cassava leaf powder, mandarin lemon gel, notes of vanilla and josper beans. The ribs appear in a white fish cooked at a low temperature, covered with an air of paramo honey. They suggest putting the sauce on the fish.

The creation is signed Juan Manuel Barrientos and his team, who received two Michelin stars in just one month, one for El Cielo Miami and the other for El Cielo Washington. In one year, there are in fact three: that of Washington, it is the second time.

For a chef, a Michelin star has the same meaning as receiving an Oscar for an actor: the highest exaltation of his work.

The commitment to Colombian cuisine, starting from a tasting menu, was born in Medellin 15 years ago, as a recognition of the roots of the country’s cuisine.

Juan Manuel, who started cooking as a hobby, is part of a new generation of chefs who are putting Colombia on the world map of gastronomy. Just a month ago, chef Leonor Espinosa was voted the best female chef in the world in the ranking The 50 best in the world, and already in 2017 she had been the best female chef in Latin America, in addition to the recognitions she obtained with her restaurant Leo.

About this moment that he lives both as a chef, businessman and entrepreneur, Barrientos, in a conversation with EL COLOMBIANO, says that after the celebration, all that remains is to work as he always did, “because we love what we do and that’s how we celebrate it, by working”.

What’s the difference between the Michelin star ElCielo Washington received in May and Miami’s a week ago?

“It’s the same distinction even though the two challenges were completely different. In Washington we opened with covid a year and a half ago, at that time we could only serve 10 or 12 people, three times a week. Then we had to close twice and could only open for periods of 20 days. While we hadn’t been on full service for three months, we learned that we had earned the star,

The one in Washington was a very different challenge from the others, because we were in a totally unknown city for us and we were even more unknown, and we still managed to make a name for ourselves and be recognized. And although we had already been working in Miami for seven years, it was also complicated, because when we arrived in 2015 we did so with a proposal out of the context offered by the city, we bet on Colombian cuisine and a tasting menu. Entering Miami with this concept was rarer and more complex than what happened to us in Medellín in 2007 when we first opened.

What has Michelin highlighted in its restaurants?

“It’s a whole that includes the gastronomic proposal, the authenticity, the flavors, the staging, the techniques, the cooking points. The stars don’t renew them, they give them every year, that’s why I say we celebrate a day and work 364 days to maintain this excellence and consistency to maintain these stars”.

Is it complex to make the diner fall under the charm of the proposal of a tasting menu?

“It was too much, there were very difficult times as a chef, entrepreneur and businessman, but we managed to open first in Medellín, then Bogotá, Miami and Washington. These are very beautiful challenges, because these are dreams that we pursue and achieve.From the first day we opened ElCielo, we did it with the tasting menu, we have always been faithful to this concept, even if at the hotel we have an à la carte supply.We have always bet on Colombian signature cuisine in the form of a tasting menu”.

Whether in Medellín, Miami, Bogotá or Washington, is the menu the same?

“The proposal is the same, even if the ingredients change with the premise of honoring local products. In Miami and Washington we have Colombian products that we mix with the local offer. Each menu has an identity of dishes with stories that we want to tell. What we are looking for is that each menu, each restaurant, is unique in its gastronomic identity, that they share those experiences that we want to transmit”.

The gastronomic proposal of ElCielo has a lot of art…

“I cannot say that I am an artist, far from it, but in our menu there is a composition of design, gastronomy and the expression of feelings, which is one of the definitions of art, in the occurrence embodied in a plate. At the end of the day, when you eat this dish, it awakens fleeting feelings, so more than an art, ElCielo’s proposal is a craft”.

What is happening with the national gastronomy which, last year, had so much international importance?

“There are a lot of cooks who do an extraordinary job, leaving the name of Colombia high, it is something that has been cooking on low heat for about 20 years and for about ten years it is more noticeable and there is four or five years that the curiosity exploded that today we see flourishing”.

Was there a moment that led to this blossoming?

“Ours is a cuisine of regions, we have many cuisines across the country, there is high altitude, migration, biodiversity and others that are generated by this interbreeding of so many years, but the factor triggering is that over the past two decades we have reclaimed the land that war had stolen from us for more than 50 years. In this 21st century, with the actions of different governments, some that have faced war, of others with peace and others with the development of roads and infrastructure, have made possible this reunion with agriculture.

From the kitchen, we understood the transformation of the country, which allowed us to return to the countryside, to recover it and to return to our roots and that was part of this trigger of what is the new Colombian cuisine.

How was the work with people linked to the Colombian conflict?

“15 years ago we started a very discreet work, in which we created our foundation and advanced social processes with people who were victims or perpetrators of the Colombian conflict, giving them opportunities from the kitchen. It is a personal and professional satisfaction to have bet on something that was complex and difficult at the beginning, but which has borne many fruits. These stories of resilience, overcoming and second chances are beautiful and priceless.”

How was your relationship with gastronomy?

“I was 19, I was studying engineering, I had been through six schools, I was very restless, I was in my third university, so I wanted to dedicate myself to something that I really loved to do and I approached cooking as a hobby, for pleasure. I had never thought of making a living from it, I was already working in another industry, I did it with passion and without needing to make a living from it, and that awakened in me a rebirth of creativity”.

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