Before we’d even made it to Bolivia we’d been told we had to check out Gustu. We did and were well-rewarded. Gustu Restaurant in LaPaz is a project of Claus Meyer, co-founder of the famous Noma in Copenhagen, set in this sprawling South American city at 12,000+ feet. The tasting menu we tried was seven rounds of creative takes on wonderful local ingredients, from Amazonian fish to Andean llama, coca and peach and varieties of potato.
But the Gustu project is not just a restaurant. Gustu and its family projects cover a range of social and business aims. I was particularly interested in Melting Pot Bolivia, a social enterprise working with youth from underserved communities around LaPaz to teach them culinary and professional skills and, in some cases, to extend employment or entrepreneurship assistance. The concept came in partnership between Claus Meyer and a Danish nonprofit already working on social causes in Bolivia. Established as a nonprofit Melting Pot’s stated ambition is to promote social and economic development, to “explore and share Bolivia´s biological diversity and it´s [sic] culinary heritage, thereby creating a source of dignity and pride for the people of this country.”
I had the great fortune to connect with the dynamic and passionate Chef Coral Ayoroa, who leads Melting Pot Bolivia’s educational efforts. These efforts include both a 30 month gastronomic training and apprenticeship program as well as shorter term programs (Manqa) throughout the region. Ayoroa has been with the program since the beginning and was one of the first Bolivian locals to be hired.
Chef Ayoroa had just finished a day of teaching when we met and was enthusiastic from the day, talking specifically about the Manqa program. Speaking in as clear Spanish as possible–for the benefit of my non-native ears–she guided us all-smiles through their work.
Manqa works with young people aged 16-28 from underserved neighborhoods. They teach gastronomy but a variety of other valuable life lessons too. Ayaroa pointed to the myriad ways contact with professional mentors as well as the curriculum itself impacts the students, the impression overall being to instill confidence. She sees the change directly in the individual men and women, how they respond to others and approach their life challenges, often with a great sense of agency and positivity. With 10 schools now in Bolivia (and one in Bogota) the impact of these programs has extended to hundreds of young people.
Another goal of the Melting Pot programs in Bolivia is to deepen a sense of empowerment in the identity of what it is to be Bolivian. For example, Ayoroa said when they first ask students to talk about where they come from, many will not point to indigenous roots, roots that are in fact present (perhaps back to grandparents) and inform identity, especially food traditions. Learning the foods elders used, speaking to older generations and then seeing those ingredients often translated into new dishes and new combinations instills a sense of pride.
The pride is infectious when you speak with Chef Ayoroa and it made me so inspired by her and what she extends through food to her fellow Bolivianos. I hope this experience will extend to many more!