The ‘B-Side’ of gastronomy

Chef Tomas Rueda of Donostia and Tábula restaurants.
Chef Tomas Rueda of Donostia and Tábula restaurants.

There’s no “haute” gastronomy lingo when chef Tomás Rueda sits down with his clients in one of his two Bogotá restaurants. This native son of the city’s rock scene and a regular of the Paloquemao farmers market is as bold as the black and white stripes of a kitchen apron he wears proudly; and which match his personality, like the six strings of his bass guitar.

For more than a decade, Tomás Rueda, has been at the helm of Tábula and Donostia restaurants, sprung from the same culinary root, and grounded in a philosophy that gastronomy must transcend ingredients by respecting fundamental values. “You can’t cook with your eye on the cash register,” states Tomás, describing how some of the city’s restaurants treat the business of dining.

Tomás Rueda is part of a group of cooks who have formed a bond of friendship due to their dedication to “new Colombian cooking” and together with Luz Beatriz Vélez of Abasto, Eduardo Martínez of Mini-Mal, Camilo Zarate of Suburbio and Alejandro Gutiérrez of Salvo Patria, their guiding objective isn’t just to operate a kitchen, rotate a menu and manage fresh produce, but to inspire their clients to appreciate this nation’s rich biodiversity once they step out of a cozy restaurant setting and return home. “For us, food is as much about investigation and reflection, as it is about the technique.”

Understanding the origin of food is a mission statement for the only Colombian chef who in 2013 was featured on Anthony Bourdain’s CNN successful foodie series: “Parts Unknown.” For Rueda, the opportunity to be presented by this celebrity chef, shows the acceptance his “new Colombian cooking” is having in the world of gastronomy. “At this historic moment with the peace talks in Havana, if chefs can unite to generate a consciousness of the abundance this nation has to offer, it’s an example others could follow.”

Rueda’s self-coined “B-Side” of gastronomy is one committed to a sense of territory and the identity of the Colombian countryside. “It’s being able to show through dishes, what is Colombia,” states Rueda, as his cooks carefully prepare stews and sauces in an open kitchen. “As a people we are very fortunate. We have an abundance of foods, climate and topography,” states Rueda. “Our ‘B-Side’ likes to work recipes based on a sense of region and tradition. Our gastronomy must reflect our idiosyncrasies.”

Rueda questions the necessity many Bogotá’s “A-team” chefs employ to copy a European aesthetic. “We have always resolved our doubts through the European experience,” states the 40-year-old chef who has spent half his life working in kitchens, and has evolved, into a successful business owner.

As a cook who came to the craft through experience rather than formal training, Rueda, recalls a youth spent at the family’s farm near the Magdalena River, and where eating was as much about nourishment as it was about sharing what happened during the day. “I cook as if I were cooking for my father,” states Tomas. “He would say: “Give me food, which moves my bowels!”

While the dishes at Tábula and Donostia are elaborate and generous in their own right, there’s no nouvelle cuisine, nor ingredients whose only purpose is decorate and dazzle. “I want people to feel identified with my cooking. There is something that must touch our familiarity of things. In my recipes, you’ll find a chorizo, a morcilla, that which comes from our rivers, our mountains.”

In a city of many restaurants, sommeliers, cooks and waiters, there are few who know the Colombian table like Rueda. As a staunch defender of sustainable fishing and farming methods, for Rueda the big challenge, restaurateur’s face each day is to “value that which is fresh, that which is honest.”

Time spent in Barcelona – and a year in Vietnam – consolidated Rueda’s return to Colombia in 2002 and his desire to start his very own restaurant. Inspired by the informality of tapas and health conscious Mediterranean dishes, Donostia opened its doors in 2003 and on a steep street facing the stonewalls of the National Museum. Four year later, Tábula, an experience in slow cooked food, became his second venture. Both restaurants are ranked among the very best of Bogotá and are joined by brick and mortar.

For Rueda, the “new” in Colom- bian cooking has as much to do with his clients as the food. From the traditional cast iron pans, skillets and stainless steel on a gas stove, there’s a sense of constant evolution in the preparation and a deep respect for all that is artisanal. And clients seem grateful to the care his gives his Colombia inspired dishes. “Colombians are increasingly living new life experiences by traveling more,” states

Rueda. “Many have eaten in the best restaurants of the world. They have made a conscious effort to appreciate their country. This is a fundamental element of the “new.”

A recent invitation to Bolivia, and chance to cook alongside master chefs from across the region, drove home for Rueda the importance of the “B- Side” gastronomy and to challenge the “comfort zone” many chefs fall into by copying that which is cooked by Michelin-rated chefs thousands of miles away. “We have to be aware, not only what we are eating, but where we are eating.”

For Rueda, gastronomy is political. “Everything is political. You look at a painting by Pedro Ruiz and you get a reflection of territory, of the land, of displacement.”

The sanctity of the elements is another track of Rueda’s “B-Side” of hit recipes, and an essential part of working as a cook. “To often we confuse service with snobbery. This is a business about people. The way we attend others, the way we can construct a better nation.”

While many chefs seize the moment to talk about “gourmet” as if it were gastronomy, or “freshness” when their fish has traveled three days in a Styrofoam box before being frozen, for Tomás, part of a chef ’s responsibility is taking the same care with terminology as with perishables. “The best business in this country is honesty. I couldn’t sleep at night if I told my customers that my fish was fresh, or my vegetables organic, if I knew it wasn’t true.”

Tomás isn’t into industrial cook- ing and churning out colorful lines and dots on plates. For this chef, the “imperfection” is as much a part of the Colombian identity, as the freedom it allows him with the kitchen. While molecular may be a culinary shooting star, and best of Europe is designing food with robotic precision, Rueda, breaks the paradigm, with one basic rule. “Everybody should learn how to cook. Everyone should learn to read poetry.”



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