Although you wouldn’t know it from the quality of his dishes, Tomás Rueda never planned on becoming a chef. In fact, he only started working in restaurants to pay the rent while he pursued a career as a rock musician. Somewhere between playing the bass guitar in a grunge band and joining an indie music group, however, he began to rethink his career.
“I’m doing well in the kitchen and every time I go back to Rock it’s a disaster,’” he remembers. “’When I’m cooking my life is filled with nice things. I meet people, I learn a lot, it’s like a pot full of goodness. I pick up a frying pan and there’s magic, everything starts to work well.”
When he talks animatedly about his philosophy on food and restaurants, peppering his sentences with slang words and gesturing with tattooed arms, it’s clear he has channeled the youthful sense of rebellion that once propelled his music into his dishes.
“Tábula was born out of counter-culture ideas eight years ago,” Rueda recalled over heaping plates of flank steak, roasted tomatoes and papas chorreadas at his restaurant. “All of the food critics and the public in general were very focused on the idea that good food is food made by ,” he explained.
“I said to my associates, ‘this can’t be the definition of good food.’ And we started to reflect on this and we arrived at the idea that generally the most important part of food isn’t what happens in the kitchen, but what happens here on this table.”
In that spirit, Tábula was designed to foster conversation and a sense of community. Diners can’t order individual portions or hide behind a newspaper at a back table; all of the plates are sized to share and many of the tables seat eight. Here lunchtime customers linger in a bright, spacious dining room well into the afternoon and the buzz of conversation rises above the music playing softly in the background.
The other part of the philosophy at Tábula is using high-quality, sustainable, and locally sourced ingredients whose sale directly benefits Colombian growers. “The idea is that over the entire menu I could put a map of Colombia and point to where the ingredients came from,” Rueda explains. “And you could pass through all of the climates and different regions.”
Rueda takes pride in knowing exactly where his ingredients originated and in supporting local fishermen, farmers and ranchers. Last year when getting high-quality fish from the Pacific Ocean became difficult, Rueda traveled to Amazonas in southern Colombia to meet the local fishermen and see if he could find a new supplier. He believes that using local ingredients generates awareness of sustainability issues and prompts diners to reflect on where their food comes from.
Rueda is also full of ideas on how to reduce the carbon footprint of Bogotá’s restaurants. He plans to convert the area under the stage at Tábula into a composter and is working with other like-minded restaurateurs to plan a citywide recycling project. Rueda thinks the district government should take advantage of Bogotá’s many restaurants and use things like excess cooking oil to run the Transmilenio and orange peels to create vitamin C tablets.
Unlike working in the music industry, which felt like a constant struggle for Rueda, his culinary ventures have flourished. Ten years ago he opened Donostia, a tapas restaurant inspired by the recipes he learned studying culinary arts in Spain. Tábula was created two years later and has excelled in Bogotá’s competitive restaurant scene, catching the attention of food critic Anthony Bourdain when he visited Colombia last year. Rueda describes the dishes at Tábula as “traditional Colombian food with a twist.” Tomatoes are roasted slowly over a wood-fired oven, flank steak is topped with a crunchy layer of Paipa cheese, and torta de choclo, a traditional corn dish, is served with a touch of honey.
For customers who might not have time to enjoy a leisurely lunch at Tábula during the week, Rueda also runs a gourmet sandwich shop called Los sánduches del Sr. Ostia. Here diners can choose unusual combinations like grilled pork, tamarind and avocado or classics like meatball sandwiches with French fries.
Even more than his exceptional cooking, what drives Rueda’s success is his passion. Five years ago, when he started to feel like working in the kitchen was an obligation rather than a joy, he took a trip to India. There, reflecting on his goals and passions, Rueda realized that cooking offered him an opportunity to express his rebelliousness and provided him with an excuse to travel and visit the countryside.
But more importantly, the chef recognized that making a commitment to buying local ingredients could have a big impact in Colombia. “I started to realize that I could create a revolution through the frying pan and bring a lot of reflec- tions to the dining room,” he remembers. “I started to see the dining room as a place of consciousness.”