By Patrick Hieger
It was an emotional evening at La Paz’s Gustu last night. At nearly three years in the making, the first-ever class of Claus Meyer’s Melting Pot foundation graduated, and perhaps no one was happier than Papa Claus himself. “When I first thought to do this, I didn’t know it was possible,” Meyer said. But as a dozen students’ parents and relatives, as well as their mentors and friends Kamilla Seidler and Michelangelo Cestari looked on, everything seemed possible, a massive step in a whole new direction for Bolivia.
As Meyer began his speech, telling of the very long road it took him to end up devoting so much of his time to Bolivia, his team of mentors, chefs, and leaders sat listening, the whole room charged with emotion. “To see you sitting here graduating, and to come here as a guest in this building that is so full of life, and to see how many people Kamilla and Michelangelo have trained, it is the most important thing I have ever been a part of.” Although he founded Noma, and continues to be one of the world’s most successful restaurateurs, you could see on Meyer’s face something that went beyond joy, into a territory of satisfaction that even he might have never thought possible. It seemed that none of the praise for having consistently been ranked the number one restaurant in the world really mattered. He had changed lives, and each of them was looking back with nothing but gratitude.
Overall, the ceremony was brief. Meyer told of how he got into the restaurant world at an early age in France, when he left home. Follow your heart in everything you do, was his last bit of advice.
He was followed by Michelangelo Cestari, the reluctant leader transformed into a passionate teacher, friend and mentor. It was only because of Meyer’s vision that he chose to move his life back to his native continent, though one he had never really called home. “Without you,” he told the students, “Gustu and Melting Pot wouldn’t exist.”
Kamilla Seidler, always a pillar of brevity, put it simply, with a very telling hand gesture. “You’ve all had the balls to do this,” she said.
And finally Coral Ayoroa, perhaps the true original student of Melting Pot, who now leads the learning process as well as a whole slew of other projects within the foundation, roughed her way through tears and a flood of emotion. She spoke not of “you,” referring to the students, but of “us,” and the team, the class they had become. “For us, this has changed our lives, given us pride not just in ourselves, but in Bolivia.” She thanked her students for their hard work, Meyer for giving Bolivia a chance.
Finally each student received one of Meyer’s books, a Gustu pin, and a certificate showing their completion of the course. Parents looked on with pride, video cameras rolling, flashes bursting, tears struggling to stay above the cheeks. And the rest of us, just visitors, invited chefs, press, and so on, sat quietly, humbled by such a life-changing experience.
Today marks a new step for each of the students that graduated last night. Some are going on to stages in Lima and elsewhere. Many will stay put and continue to put in work at the restaurant that has given them, and their country, a huge opportunity. And there’s already a new class working hard in the kitchen, learning about good service, finding a great opportunity for their life.
What happened in La Paz last night had very little to do with food, or being a chef, or winning international awards. It was a massive start, and a huge turning point. 12 lives will never be the same, nor will those that surround them. From us here at Como Sur, we wish the first class nothing but our best wishes, and congratulations. Bolivia will never be the same.