Joana Munne and Katherina Cordas wrote for Gastromasa: “The gastronomic scenario in Latin America facing COVID-19”

How chefs and awarded restaurants in the continent reinvent themselves to survive the crisis?

Covid-19 pandemic transformed the world and, in consequence, gastronomy as well. Our area was extremely affected and many restaurants had to reinvent and transform themselves, besides reviewing concepts and adapting to transformations imposed by the virus. Many restaurants closed doors, others had to get rid of their staff. Undoubtedly, the scenario was tough for the market all over the world, and in South America, it wasn’t different. Restaurants closed permanently, many people lost their jobs, the hunger was settled in many regions. Many countries in the continent, without governmental help, found their business helpless, left adrift of the pandemic without a possible sign of hope. We, from Síbaris agency, in São Paulo, Brazil, talked to some chefs from famous restaurants in Latin America to know how they got to transform their businesses and adapt to the demands of the new normal, looking to bring affection, comfort, and solutions through food.

Virgilio Martinez, chef of Central restaurant, the second-best in Latin America according to the 50 Best, and the 6th best in the world, joined his wife, Pia Leon, from Kjolle restaurant, in 21st position on LatAm 50 best, during quarantine to create together Mayo, developed especially for delivery. Mayo has the purpose of finding in nostalgia a connection with people. Observing how people started cooking at home again, the couple rescued some classic dishes from Central and Kjolle’s menus to bring affection and memory through loaves of bread (something that was made a lot in Central in the past), meals, desserts, and cocktails. Their idea is to deliver at people’s home dishes and experiences from both restaurants, offering conscious, healthy, and delicious gastronomy with friendly and juicy preparations to warm up and plate at home. Among the options, Central’s bakery offers bread in natural and spontaneous fermentation, such as the purple cornbread or the kiwicha amaranto, quinoa, kañiwa, and Andean cereals. Dishes also come from Martinez’s place, such as goatling in milk, creamy pumpkin with roots, potatoes, an aromatic herbs salad from their garden, and lemon aioli. From Pia’s home, you can get dishes such as strip roast, cooked for 24 hours, mint and aromatic herbs bouquet, leek, native potatoes, garlic chips, and cauliflower textures, crumbs, black cauliflower branches, marrow, cauliflower cream, and white pesto. Finally, Mayo’s kitchen also offers snacks, desserts, juices, and drinks, besides a series of biscuits such as the caramel with fresh milk or the yacon with cinnamon and apple.

Still in Peru, Mayta restaurant, from the chef Jaime Pesaque, in Lima, entered the 50 best restaurants in Latin America list in 2019, in 49th position. Its contemporary Peruvian cuisine works with the traceability of indigenous products with enthusiasm, combined with

different cooking techniques. With the pandemic, the chef was forced to adapt his proposal, creating experiences at people’s homes. An example of those experiences is the menu “La Fiesta del Cochinillo” or the Pork’s Party, a six people menu with many swine preparations, which is a true party. Purple corn crepes, loquats hoisin, toasted corn tortillas, beaten beans, crunchy pork, grilled sapoti, aji conserve, and demi-glace sauce. Mayta’s delivery also has cocktails such as home-distilled pisco. Another side of the delivery is the baskets with Yachay products, a place for Mayta’s culinary exploration and learning in Ica, South Lima. Yachay is where Pesaque uses natural Peruvian resources to try new proposals, working with local products, consolidating a model from the field to the table, a natural and healthy experience. Every Friday the restaurant makes these baskets available with the best products from the weekly harvest.

In Colombia, the chef Alvaro Clavijo, from El Chato restaurant, considered the best in Colombia by LatAm 50 best and 7th on Latin America’s list, is working on the project “Cocinamos com Usted” during the pandemic. With this project, Alvaro thought of a different way to enter his clients’ homes. With some menu options, the client chooses what he wants to eat and what’s his cooking level. Then, he receives at home the chosen dish packed in different portions, with distinct preparations depending on the cooking level they choose to face. To the ones that don’t want to take risks, the menu just needs to be warmed up and served. To the more adventurous, the chef sends a box with all the ingredients, a list of the tools needed, a recipe with all the steps, and a link to a video of one of El Chato’s cooker’s preparing the recipe. Besides the dishes, El Chato also created the “Clase de Cocina” with El Chato, in which the client purchases a Livestream with a cooker from El Chato that will teach them a recipe. For 10 dollars the client receives an online list of the ingredients and tools needed, the access link and the ingredients box to make the recipe at home (available only in Bogotá).

In the biggest country on the continent, the pandemic affected the gastronomic scenario, responsible for more than 6 million employments. In São Paulo, the creative chef Luiz Filipe Souza, ahead of the awarded Evvai, owner of a Michelin star and the 40th position on LatAm 50 Best, did many things to keep up the restaurant and his staff. Besides pop up delivery with reduced dishes from his menu, the chef launched three new brands to survive this moment. In March he launched evv.ita, a project that was already in progress but ended up being launched earlier, online, to supply the comfort food demand during the quarantine. The restaurant serves unusual pizzas, baked in the wood oven: “Evv.ita will propose to reunite clients around the pizza oven in an intimate and relaxed experience after the pandemic is over. Light dough, with natural fermentation and untraditional flavors”, explains Luiz Filipe. His pizzas have different and creative flavors, a lot like Evvai, such as the 2019 Oriundi pizza, made with beet sauce, beet pickles, Marajó cheese, Brazilian pepper, and basil, or the Cazzuo, bringing some Japanese flavors to the Italian recipe: with katsuobushi, mozzarella, ginger, tomato sauce, and chive. Besides the pizza place, the chef

also created Mercato Evvai to help the economic rotation, focused on small producers. Through Mercato Evvai, clients can buy fresh products from the restaurant or from producers they are partnered with – the collected amount is also fully directed to the responsible for the businesses, having Evvai only as a platform for sales. Another initiative from the chef was creating the Blue Cookie store, that sells delicious cookies made with products from small produces, keeping them as suppliers for the restaurant and with all the money from the sales reverted to the restaurant’s staff, to complete their salaries that were harmed by the lack of tips. Recently, the chef noticed his clients’ demand for different experiences at home. So Souza created a tasting menu, with some of the most emblematic dishes from the restaurant, that comes in 7 steps, plated as a tray, bringing the restaurant’s experience to people’s homes.

Still in São Paulo, owner of a Michelin star and on the 50 best list, the chef Pier Paolo Picchi, from Picchi restaurant, reinvented himself. The restaurant, which worked with authorial Italian recipes in sophisticated and extremely delicate menus, searched among comfort a way to rescue their client’s good memories. Therefore, with a reduced staff, they started looking for homemade recipes, that referred to the Italian nonnas, bringing simplicity, affection, and memories to their clients. “I searched for comfort in food. But it is not easy to enter people’s homes, we were very worried about how the food would arrive and how it would look when the clients opened the packages. So we thought we would make simpler recipes that could bring memories, such as tomato sauce, fonduta, and meats cooked for a long period”. Among the recipes, the chef prepared Lasagna Alla Bolognese, rabbit agnolotti with olives and marjoram, marrowbone with truffled purée and, to wrap up with a dessert, his famous Tiramisu.

In Curitiba, South of Brazil, the awarded chef Manu Buffara is also leading many projects. Chef of Manu restaurant, in 42nd position on LatAm 50 Best Restaurants, she recently started delivering a la carte options and a menu with some suggestions from the restaurant, such as a brioche bread with organic flour, a pork paste, recipe from her grandmother, besides snacks made by farmers in the region. The chef also launched Manuzita, inspired by homemade recipes she has been making during quarantine for her family. Among the options of her new brand, roast beef sandwich, eggplant sandwich, homemade pasta such as spaghetti with ‘manteiguinha’ beans, tucupi, and homemade sausage, besides a picnic basket for two people with juices, homemade yogurt, Brazilian fruits jelly, cakes, fruits, eggs, and many other options. Buffara is also ahead of the “Mulheres do Bem” association, which brings women together to offer dignity for the people that don’t have food, delivering dishes and personal hygiene products. “In this period of crisis, in which the popular restaurants in town and the reception centers had to be closed to avoid the circulation of the virus, our job as volunteers is essential to protect the health of the vulnerable people”, says Manu.

In the neighboring country, the famous restaurant Don Julio Parrilla, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, looking to keep their staff during the pandemic, threw themselves in a new project: Don Julio Carniceria. The butchery proposes to sell special meat, once used in the Parrilla, and other products such as coal, olive oils, and loaves of bread with the purpose of their clients cooking at home. Being the head of the project, the chef Pablo Jesús Rivero remembers the butcheries his grandparents would go to, in Rosário, Argentina. “It is time to think of our origins, remember where we came from and how we must continue”. According to him, the new project’s goal is to maintain his staff: “It is a moment of union, not individuality. Currently, we have 40 people working in the restaurant and now, while we work on the butchery, we also do training for service in English, food science, and wine classes so we will be better prepared when we come back”. Parrilla Don Julio from Buenos Aires celebrated its 20th anniversary in March 2020 and it’s known as one of the most authentic parrilla culture places in Argentina. In 2018 the restaurant won the Art of Hospitality Award, on LatAm 50 Best Restaurants, and is currently the best restaurant in Argentina by the 50 Best, in 4th position in Latin America by LatAm 50 best and on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants.

From the same group as Don Julio, the restaurant El Preferido de Palermo decided to rescue its origins. The restaurant, created in 1952 by an Asturian immigrant, worked as a mixture of a warehouse and porteño restaurant, getting famous for being one of the favorite spots of the poet Jorge Luis Borges, that mentioned it in a few poems as the “Pinkish Warehouse”. Bought by Pablo Jesús Rivero’s group at the end of 2018, and led by the chef Guido Tassi, the restaurant keeps the warehouse spirit, now with a new and more technological kitchen and environment, without letting go of the original building’s charm, such as the emblematic pink facade. Currently, with the pandemic, El Preferido decided to reclaim its origins by going back to the neighborhood warehouse-style, but with exceptional quality. Different from other warehouses in the city, the place is highlighted not only by selling their products but also by making them from scratch: “From the gastronomical point of view it is an opportunity to show that besides cooks we are also producers, because we make products from scratch, planting and creating what we use here, different from other warehouses”, says Guido Tassi. With their delivery system, the restaurant produces conserves, cheeses, and homemade sausages, besides wines, ciders, and vermouth. Along with the effective concept, El Preferido also serves their clients with classic dishes from the porteña cuisine, such as Loco (the Argentine version of Brazilian bean stew, Feijoada), Asturian Fabada, Milanese Chorizo beef with endive salad, Galician empanadas, ricotta cannelloni with nuts and milk with free-range eggs, and Dulce de Leche pudding.

With more than 6.000 km of the Pacific Ocean coast, Chile is a large and narrow territory that extends itself to the extreme West of South America, which brings different ingredients to the gastronomic repertory in the country. No wonder the restaurants such as

Boragó, from the chef Rodolfo Guzmán, are highlighted by the use and research of unusual products, unlike the rest of the continent.

In Santiago, chef Benjamin Nast, from the trendy restaurant De Patio, started a new project this year, De Calle restaurant, defined as “fake Asian street food”, serving Asian dishes prepared with Chilean ingredients and techniques. While De Patio, in 34th position on the 50 best restaurants in the Latin America list, stays closed during the pandemic, the chef has adapted De Calle for delivery service. After giving a lot of thought, the idea of creating the delivery service for De Calle came as a required innovation at this time. According to him, De Calle’s delivery is what gives the staff the strength to keep the house open during these unprecedented times. With Asian inspired options, De Calle’s delivers, besides the “a la carte” dishes, boxes that bring the experience from the restaurant to the customers’ table: “We want to transport our experience to the house of our customers, so, inside the boxes, beyond the several options of food, we also send elements that add value, that set the mood, like an Asian lamp from the restaurant and our Spotify playlist…”. There are many kinds of boxes and the customer can choose the one they prefer, such as the burger one, that comes with 2 hamburgers of choice, a pork rib with Cantonese sauce, spinach and shitake gyozas, Chinese salad and a dessert (coconut milk tapioca with banana, mango, and cinnamon or cocoa cookie sandwich filled with cocoa cream), also available in a vegetarian version. The box of dishes from De Calle comes along with bittersweet chicken wings, Korean rice gnocchi, dumplings, and dessert. To make the experience even more attractive, the chef decided to launch box options of ramen and udon, with all the side dishes and sauces to be prepared at home by the customers, and the Korean box, with glazed pork in gochujang sauce, side dishes, and leaves to be tasted like a taco.

Touched by the vulnerability of his people during the pandemic, chef Kurt Schmidt, from 99, in 47th position on the 50 best restaurants in Latin America list, also in Santiago, Chile, facing a closed restaurant with no possibilities for reopening due to its staff’s being on the viruses high-risk group, decided to not only help on actions to feed the local community, but also reactivate the working power from local producers that supplied the restaurant before the crisis. Along with the project “Comida para todos” (Food for All), Kurt, joined social organizations, producers, and other restaurants, with the help of the local community that provides donations, to fight hunger in Chile by distributing food in the form of packed lunches. Other than that, the project also educates the local communities on healthy eating and cooking techniques, promotes jobs on the more vulnerable production sectors, and is also a chance to cut off expenses of restaurants that are closed due to the pandemic, selling about 200 dishes daily.

By Joana Munné and Katherina Cordás, Agência Síbaris