Ever walk through the aisle of your supermarket or farmers market and wonder what a certain ingredient is? Even if you ask the locals they may not fully know either; let alone what it is used for. Many of us have our grocery shopping down to a science and when we arrive in a new country we can find ourselves lost, either because of language limitations, or simply because we have no idea what we are looking at.

Beyond the shopping habits there is of course the “got to try” dish list, which for Colombia adds up to Sancocho, Ajiaco and Bandeja Paisa. While covering regional tastes and culinary traditions, they don’t necessarily represent the essence of Colombia, nor its food. This is what Colombian Chef, Catalina Vélez, has been researching both in the field and in her kitchen. Trained in the Art Institute of Atlanta as a certified Chef and later in the Cordon Bleu in Paris, Catalina returned to her native Colombia more than a decade ago with a mission to establish her nation’s food on a global map, but more importantly help change the way we interact with ingredients.

Among the risks this chef takes includes going into some of the most remote regions of Colombia, to find specific ingredients, as well as live with people of different communities not only to learn about dietary habits, the medicinal qualities of certain roots, but actually experience food in a natural context. “I don’t simply go to the supermarket and buy ingredients, hop in the kitchen and go through the process of trial and error. I go to the fields where foods come from, and there, with the farmers, indigenous horticulturalists and Afro communities of the Pacific, find out what I can change through my cooking.”

Not simply satisfied with being successful in her career as a restaurateur, Catalina, is also involved in social programs dedicated to planting and harvesting our foods. Most recognisable has been her work with ‘ Vallenpaz’ –  a non-profit organization which works in rural regions of Valle del Cauca, Cauca, Chocó and Huila with displaced people; mainly of Afro and indigenous descent. Most notably an annual dinner gala in Cali and hosted by her during the past several years, collects necessary funds for Vallenpaz’s social projects.

Isabella Vernaza from Vallenpaz claims that Catalina “transformed her life through the contact she has had with the men and women of the rural communities. She was able to gain their trust and went into their kitchens to learn their secrets. In the relationship she has had with farming communities, Catalina, has been able to stimulate them to appreciate what they have and be proud of their traditions. She has enriched her gastronomical offerings and shared it with Colombia.” When Catalina first opened up her first restaurant eight years ago in Cali, Luna Lounge, she wasn’t looking to do more of the same. She noticed that Colombians have for many years looked outwards, mainly to the United States, in the search of culinary inspiration. People were content with the usual plates of the past and could now add fast food into their eating habits. “For years we have grown up with the vision of pizzas, hamburgers, hotdogs, and prepackaged food, due to the need of facilitating people’s lives. However, in the end what this did, was actually complicate life more, since people would actually feel ill,” remarks this crusading chef.

Catalina has made it her life’s goal to make Colombians look inward, as to show the world the wonder (and some would argue privilege) that is living in a country which has access to foods 365 days of the year.  Through her outgoing personality and connection with people, Catalina, since opening her first restaurant, has opened up two more: Kiva and  Cubao: Tierra Fertil  – all in Cali – and has her own show on the Gourmet Channel, as well as host of a radio program Cocinando Ando, Ando Cocinando, a television show focused on teaching people new and more nutritious ways of eating.  More recently she took part in publishing of a book with the most renowned female chefs of Colombia, ‘En Su Mesa (At Your Table).’ This year at the charity food festival in Bogotá ‘Alimentarte’ and which raised money for the families of policemen killed in combat, she will showcase her Valle Caucano recipes.

She points out: “what we have done is a very good job in educating the taste buds”.  However, this is not simply going to a restaurant.  It comes down to what we shop for and the make up of our diet.  Catalina proudly talks about a campaign she is part of whose slogan states, “don’t buy anything your grandmother would not recognize and ensure your shopping cart is filled with 80% natural products (fruits, vegetables, meats, etc.).”  That said, Catalina hopes that in the future, “when you go to the supermarket there will be signs and/or TV screens telling people what each ingredient is specifically for, its nutritional value, etc.”  She gives the example of potatoes, where there is a huge variety. “While this campaign has yet to become reality, during my TV show, lectures, and everywhere I go, I always  tell people what ingredients are for, and how to use them according to their needs and specifications.” Catalina adds to the notion that chefs should go back to cocina de origen (native cooking):  “I try to rescue flavors of the Colombian identity which also take us back to our infancy. I don’t cook. I give sensations,” she says proudly. “I feel I have a mystical connection with ingredients.”