One day, whilst volunteering at vegan restaurant, Red Monkey, I met Pablo Antelo. He had been asked to help out in the kitchen for the day since the chef/owner of Red Monkey was a little tied up with welcoming his baby girl into the world. That day I was so surprised and happy to see this young man, laid back but enthusiastic, never idle, taking initiative and working hard. He impressed me. I loved his attitude.
I told him about my friends who were opening a wine bar, called Hallwright’s, which would be showcasing Bolivian produce. I explained that they had asked me to make some products for their platters like dips, gluten free crackers and chutneys – things I usually make at home that they had enjoyed. I asked him if he’d like to help me, eventually making it his business since I would be leaving Bolivia anyway. He agreed. Pablo has been a delight to work with and my heart sings knowing I’m leaving Bolivia, having had this interaction with him. This post is the first of a series of posts we are doing leaving up to our departure about some of the people who have made our stay here so interesting, fun and diverse. I hope it’ll give you a new insight into Bolivia, through real people. Enjoy Pablo’s story!
What got you interested in cooking?
When I was 13/14 I wanted to study genetics. It was the moment for it because there were a lot of reports and everyone was talking about genetics but my grades weren’t good enough and I knew it would be too hard to get a scholarship in another country. So, I was thinking about what else I could do… all my options… I was imagining myself working in an office and I knew it wasn’t for me. So I started looking for new and different activities in Bolivia. It was 2005 and a new cooking school opened in Achumani called Cook and Table. I was interested to get in and learn how to cook because before my only experience with cooking was with my grandma, mum and housekeeper and I wanted to learn more. I took 1 class a week for 5 weeks – Japanese, Mediterranean food, French food, Peruvian food and Mexican food. I was the youngest guy there! My class mates were 50 year old ladies who wanted to learn something different for their husbands. It was really funny and they all wanted to know why I was there. They became my friends and took me home after class which finished at 9pm. I loved it. I was the most passionate/interested person in the class. After those 5 weeks it was decided! I wanted to be a chef! I had 3 years left of high school so I just cooked a lot at home and for friends. Before I had finished high school I had already obtained my acceptance to Escuela Hotelera which was the best cooking school in La Paz at the time. When I started classes there I became more confident about what I wanted to do in the future. I finished my qualifications after 3.5 years.
What was your first job?
The first time I worked in a kitchen was when I was 15, in Tarija. I went for vacation there and my Aunt owned a restaurant… she’s a chef too. She asked me what I had just learnt and I said Japanese so she said “ok, we’ll have a 2 day special of Japanese food!”. I was really scared because it was the first time I made food to sell. People asked who was making the sushi because at that time, in Tarija, there was no sushi and it wasn’t popular then. My Aunt came into the kitchen and said someone wanted to meet me because they didn’t believe that her nephew from La Paz was making the sushi! It was my first experience in a kitchen and I loved it.
My first job after my studies was at La Comedie, a French restaurant in La Paz. I had met some French guys and I had invited them to have dinner at my home. Afterwards they asked me if I wanted a job because they knew the owner of La Comedie… and that’s how I got the job! This is really how Bolivia works. I started as a dish washer because you have to start at the bottom, regardless of your studies but after a month and a half they let me work on the dessert station.
You have been doing an internship with Gustu… how was that experience?
One year before Gustu was open I already knew it was going to open so I was looking for information and contacts because I was really interested in this project and wanted to be involved. When they finally opened, I was talking with my mum who suggested I send my CV to apply for an internship. They replied really quickly and asked me to come along 2 days later for an interview. The day of the interview I woke up really early in the morning but there was no water in Achumani and my hair was really long… it was like a big afro… I needed to wash it and shave. But there was no water! I had to go to the interview so I used a jar of filtered bottle water to wash and shave. I left home and realised I had no money on me. I was really worried. So I took the car keys even though I didn’t have my licence. I drove to Gustu but I just couldn’t lose this opportunity. I arrived there a few minutes late and saw a blonde Danish girl and I didn’t know at the time she was the head chef. She introduced me to the lady who was the head of education and the interview started. It was actually really comfortable and we talked liked friends. Eventually they offered me to start the next day! I said I needed to prepare myself – get my uniform ready, tell everyone, have a party – so I asked if I could start the next week instead.. hahaha… everyone was really happy for me. Gustu, so far, is the best experience of my life. It helped me redefine what I want to do in the future. I always wanted to mix Bolivian food with another type of food, like Mediterranean food. But, this isn’t the future. I need to revolutionise Bolivian cuisine. I want to reevaluate my culture, my past and take it to the future… evolve it. In Gustu they are remaking Bolivian food and that’s what I want to do. I want to be Gustu’s competition.. hahaha..
How does the situation in Bolivia affect your career options?
Well it’s really hard to get a job here because restaurant owners don’t really know how to run a restaurant – people with some money decide to open something and just hire anyone looking for a part time job. These people are paid less than the minimum wage, which is 1200 Bolivianos [US$ 173.67] a month, and they don’t have qualifications. When I’m looking for a job, even with a good CV, I’ll still be paid the same amount. That’s why I want to have my own business… also because then I can help people learn something and make things better. It’s also less like slavery, more fair and how I want to work. It’s really hard here.
What do you think of the Bolivian cuisine?
I think Bolivian food is stuck in the 1950s and perhaps even before colonisation. We have had the same food for so many years that you can find it kind of boring. Of course you love it because it’s your roots, your family and ancestors… you are the food… you have all the ajis (chillies), the spicey food, the fricase, the llajua (tomato and herb sauce), marraquetas (bread rolls)… now that you have all that knowledge in food you need to do something new with it, take it to another level. We can use this as the foundation, the base.
The typical Bolivian dish is big, cooked for more than 3 hours, with a lot of love and at least 2 different carbohydrates like potato and rice, or potato and tunta (freeze dried potato), or potato and noodles. Of course you also need a piece of meat soaked in aji colorado (red chilli) or aji amarillo (yellow chilli), you need a bowl of llajua, a piece of marraqueta and depending on the city you need a big glass of mocochinchi juice (dried peach drink) or a glass of cold huari (beer) or coca cola! Bolivians are really hard working which is why they need a lot of food and carbohydrates, but actually it’s not the best food you can eat nutritionally as they don’t balance nutrition in each meal which is why we need to evolve our cuisine a little. The good thing about Bolivia is that we can get really fresh ingredients and they are mostly organic but Bolivians don’t always appreciate it. For example, sometimes they prefer Peruvian food because it looks better or simply because it’s foreign. We need to educate people on how good our produce is here.
For the past two years, since the fast food restaurant called Factory came out, Bolivians eat too much fast food. Two years ago there wasn’t as much fast food here. Now this is a trend because it’s foreign and they think it’s better. Before that, around 6 years ago, it was sushi, everybody wanted sushi and it was sold everywhere.
What’s the difference between La Paz and Santa Cruz in terms of food habits?
The last thing I heard about Santa Cruz is that they are going to open a big mall and bring Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, KFC, etc there. People want to bring all of this US fast food but they are not looking at what they have. A lot of people want to get McDonald’s back in La Paz… I don’t know why. In their home they eat typical food because their mum or grandma cooks for them but outside the home they don’t want to eat that so they look for something new… and fast food is new in Bolivia.
In saying that, the real fast food in Bolivia are the little trucks, where you can get a burger for 3 Bolivianos [US$0.43]. For Bolivians McDonald’s is expensive [Bolivia still gets regular attention for rejecting McDonald’s, despite it not being the full truth]. McDonald’s was like going to a fancy restaurant. Burger King is the same thing now. With 50 Bolivianos [US$7.24] you get a big burger and a coke there but for 50 Bolivianos elsewhere you can get a full meal, with a starter, a soup, the main dish and a glass of something… for your whole family! I heard Burger King is actually losing money. The owner has several business, including Subway, and he fills the holes from Burger King with other businesses.
Is drinking soft drinks a new or old habit?
Coca cola, Fanta etc have been here for a long time. Bolivians are used to drinking it for everything… breakfast, tea… they know it can give you deep health problems but they don’t listen to it, think it’s a legend or something like that. That’s the job of the next generation of chefs – to change people’s minds, to think about what you are eating, how you are going to eat it, what it can do for you, because ‘you are what you eat’!
What are your dreams for the future?
The closest dream I have for now is to finish my second career, this year in tourism and hospitality, and take a 5 year trip maybe to Europe or South America to learn more, get knowledge and experiences. After that I want to return to Bolivia, open my own place – maybe three different places – something like a bar, something like Gustu and something like Red Monkey – a mixture of these three ideas. For now I want to start my small business that we have started. I really needed a push and you gave that to me by motivating me and making that dream come true, making it real. I really learn a lot by working with you. It really helps me. I want to use your knowledge and share it with a lot of people. I want the foundations of the business to be about sharing knowledge, with a conscience. I’d like to create new Bolivian flavours like huacataya pesto. But I will keep making chutneys, kombucha, pesto, gluten free crackers and comida consciente generally. I want to give people new options! I’d like to also teach people how to make them.