Seeing the confidence with which Katarina Markovic manages Beograd, her Serbian restaurant in La Macarena, it is hard to picture her, only a decade ago, as a friendless, homeless war refugee sitting on the steps of the Biblioteca Nacional with her teenage daughter, four suitcases and barely enough money for a night’s lodging.
“I had no job, no idea of what to do,” she laughs, “only that I wanted to stay in Colombia. After we found a room and had a meal, I bought a beer with almost my last peso and I thought, ‘Katarina, spend the whole night crying, if it helps, then lift up your head.’”
With this determination, humor and a lot of hard work, in record time she went from being an underpaid shop assistant and manager of a Middle Eastern restaurant in the Zona Rosa to the owner and chef of a place whose Central European cuisine, unique in Bogotá, has won the admiration of locals and foreigners, among them the Ambassadress of Romania, and become the informal cultural center for immigrants from the former Yugoslavia.
The story begins on the March 25, 1999, when the NATO bombing of Belgrade overturned the life of a woman who had grown up in the peaceful and relatively prosperous epoch of Tito, worked as an economist in a candy factory and was raising the daughter of a Colombian medical student she’d met in Romania and later separated from.
“When we heard the news of the war on the TV we couldn’t believe it. Why us? At the start, the sirens gave us time to get to the shelters. Then they were no good. The bombing came at any time. There was no electricity, no water, and because of the stress, we were smoking non-stop, until they destroyed the cigarette factories. You could go to the black market, but I’d reached my limit anyway.”
Sharing the fatalism of her mother, who refused to leave their top-floor apartment for the shelters, Katarina was nevertheless worried about her daughter. With tickets and a visa to Colombia arranged by her father, Katarina put her on a bus to Hungary just before the last border was closed. She arrived on her 17th birthday, and the Colombian consul not only put her daughter up at her home but also made a little party for her.
Peace soon returned to Belgrade and she could have stayed, but her daughter was so lonely in Bogotá she’d stopped eating and sleeping and Katarina also remembered that kind gesture. “What’s more, I was sure that, with the fall of Communism, Serbia would turn into drugs, capitalism, poverty and delinquency, like its neighbors.”
Even so, it wasn’t easy to adjust when she arrived here in May that same year. “I didn’t know anything about capitalism. When I started selling dresses in a store, I didn’t run the credit cards through the machine and I had to ring up the clients afterwards and beg them to come back. Luckily, most of them did. The same with bad checks and counterfeit bills.”
Tired of working behind a counter, Katarina applied for a job as a waitress at Giros y Kebabs, but the owners, spotting her flair for languages and attending people, promptly promoted her to manager, a position she held for four years.
In 2005, Katarina sensed it was time to go it alone and opened Beograd, first in La Candelaria, then La Macarena. “I had some savings, not much, but compared to Serbia, it’s easy to do things in Colombia,” she says, basking in a sunlit corner of her restaurant.
With no special training, cooking came easily to Katarina. It is still part of her country’s culture that a woman takes pride in the food she serves, and she’d learned its traditional cuisine from her grandmother. Starting her own business made her feel like a professional: “not just on the business side, but learning about the Colombian palate.”
Beograd is identifiable due to a red, blue and white flag of the former Yugoslavia hanging near its entrance, which she sewed herself. It has an intimate atmosphere and a Serbian décor that includes pictures of kings, icons and Orthodox churches. It is the perfect setting for a woman who treats her guests more like friends than clients.
Beograd counts with 17 place settings, and according to the owner, the experience “is like eating at home.” For starters there are Serbian meat ‘tapas’ and soups. An eggplant moussaka stands out among the options. The chef’s recommendation is the red pepper Paprika Punjene Mesom.
The main courses are hearty, starting with the Serbian goulash with potato puree, the Karadjordje stuffed veal with pancetta and grated cheese and a baked white bean and pork Prebranac. A distinctive Serbian roast lamb with steamed potatoes is a favorite and bespeaks of the centuries old influence of Turkey in this national cuisine.
Pastries and tea are served up at Beograd in keeping with European afternoon tradition. Katarina’s original Turkish coffee goes down smoothly with delicious homemade strudel.
A slender, blue-eyed, red-haired dynamo who enjoys good food, lively conversation and her now freely-available cigarettes, Katarina seems more astonished by her success than anyone else is. “The war broke up my life.” Then she remembers starting over with no money and family. “Katarina, you’re a really brave woman.”
Calle 26 No. 4-76