The Caribbean’s new cuisine
Celele, the restaurant owned by Jaime Rodríguez (31, from Boyacá) and Sebastián Pinzón (28, from Ibagué), aims to turn the cliché-laden Caribbean food we know on its head. It is also a commitment to stop the passing of time from endangering flavours that seem doomed. Born in the Andes, far from Colombia’s Caribbean coast, they found a world of endless possibilities in Cartagena thanks to its diversity of ingredients. They have ended up more than just at the helm of a restaurant; this a place of culinary and sensory experiences.
They were aware that they couldn’t open a restaurant serving local food without having tried its traditional flavours, travelled the region or learned how to make its dishes, understanding what inspired and influenced them. So, before opening Celele, they decided to explore the coast to research and get to know it. A long preparatory process, lasting two and half years, took them to San Andrés, Magdalena, Montes de María, the Mompos Depression, La Guajira, the Atlantic coast, and Valledupar.
It was a journey of discovery that enabled them to make direct contact with chains of producers, farmers and artisans. This has allowed them to set up a system without middlemen: the farmers receive orders from the pair, and the produce is bought directly.
To finance the project and all their trips, they set up Proyecto Caribe offering ‘secret dinners’, an idea that became very popular in Bogotá and which they decided to introduce in Cartagena. It was a testing ground that allowed them to raise money for their travels, and at the same time showcase the amazing food emerging from Caribe Lab. Eight-dish tasting menus for 24 lucky diners. At Proyecto Caribe not a single tomato came from a supermarket, and the ingredients used for that weekly dinner were never the same, nor were the techniques employed. The food was based on the wealth of the Caribbean pantry, and everything came from the markets and squares of the towns and cities along the coast. It was so successful that the experiment lasted over two years.
Following their research – and the experience garnered with Caribe Lab – they decided to use all that knowledge at Celele. Their gastronomic revolution is taking place in a bright, colourful house in the Getsemaní neighbourhood, in an area where cooks tend to look down on local produce yet where a huge variety of food is on offer. Here, the general view of Caribbean cuisine is represented by dishes such as coconut rice, fried fish, and fried green plantains. Jaime and Sebastián have given this cuisine a twist by going against the flow and doing everything differently. Avant-garde cuisine based on Caribbean traditions.
The pair believe that the driving force of their new Caribbean cuisine stems from the local cultural mix made up of indigenous peoples, Africans, Spaniards, and a significant number of immigrants from Syria and Lebanon. This melting pot is reflected in their dishes, and cutting-edge techniques are applied to the produce grown in this Caribbean region. An example of this is their stuffed vine leaves (warak), which the Arabs stuff with rice and meat, but which is swapped at Celele for almonds and smoked wild rabbit from Montes de Maria, and is served with kapeshuna beans – grown by the indigenous Wayúu people in La Guajira – mixed with an artisanal toasted-sesame-seed paste. This is Colombia’s new Caribbean cuisine, inspired by traditions, and by the local way of preparing each ingredient. In their hands these are transformed into: pepper duck, sous-vide egg, duck ham, a variety of Caribbean beans, and mashed avocado; pork confit with majuana, roasted sweet aji peppers, aubergine escabeche, pork scratchings; and stewed goat.
What most impressed Jaime and Sebastián about their voyage to this planet of flavours was the variety of unknown ingredients, which they have now documented. Over 300 of them. In the desert of La Guajira, where no one thought anything grew, the indigenous Wayúu people introduced them to a wide range of fruit from cacti and trees (iguaraya, iruwa, jiiru). Along the Caribbean they discovered more than 80 varieties of beans, in all shapes and flavours (kapeshuna, diablito, cuarentano, guandules, pirujui, Zaragoza); flowers they had never seen before (torch ginger, plumeria, moringa, pomarrosa, varieties of hibiscus, carao), and a mind-boggling number of wild fruits (red mombin, jumbalee, carao pod, ackee apple, cocoplum, medlar, mamey, mamey sapote, little beach grape).
Celele embodies all of this; it is a place that respects those who pass on traditions, the work done by producers, farmers and artisans, exalting the gastronomic culture and the biodiversity of Colombia’s Caribbean region.