By Patrick HiegerLast night in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, 100 hungry guests got the first taste of Encuentros, a new dinner series that could change what diners come to expect from their local restaurants. Sponsored by Jardín de Asia, which has been mixing Bolivian ingredients with pan-Asian techniques for more than seven years, Encuentros isn’t just the chance to bring international chefs to Bolivia for a one-time experience. The series is an attempt to unite the region through cuisine, showing chefs the bounty that Bolivia has to offer, and to give local diners a reason to ask for more. With a sell-out crowd sent home full and happy, as well as another expected for tonight, it could just be the spark that Santa Cruz needs to become a regional hub for innovative cuisine. Kicking off the four-part series, which will feature renowned (though as of yet to be confirmed) chefs from throughout the region, was Peruvian chef Rafael Piqueras of Lima’s Maras. One of the original pioneers in the gastronomy boom that Peru is undergoing today, Piqueras prepared an 11-course meal featuring both local and international ingredients that he had brought from Peru, giving diners a taste of the incredible biodiversity that Bolivia, and the region at large, have to offer. “I love Santa Cruz,” he said, speaking just before dinner began. “We’ve found some great things here. You have everything here to become a great capital of gastronomy.”
Dinner kicked off with a passion-fruit cocktail mixed with local spirit Singani, a grape-based cousin of Pisco. The 11 courses were divided into bite-sized starters, appetizers, mains, and two desserts that saw a massive cloud of liquid nitrogen cover the plating area. Bolivian wines were the pairing of choice, rather than the standard go-to Chilean and Argentine blends. Piqueras’ menu was a playful mix of techniques, temperatures and textures, using local fish (not seafood) like Paiche, and trout from Lake Titicaca, as well as Bolivian beef that he had been raving about since his arrival.
For guests, dressed in their Sunday best, it was the chance to live an experience that no other restaurant in town is offering (yet). Local media came out in droves to cover the event and talk to Piqueras, as well as Jorge Calvo, Jardin de Asia’s co-owner, about what the dinner could mean for local gastronomy. Diners were thrilled to hear that Piqueras wanted to see how he could start importing Bolivian beef into Peru.
More than just a dinner, Encuentros was and is the start of an animated, and necessary conversation. As we saw just two weeks ago at this year’s edition of Tambo in La Paz, the individuals and groups focused on making Bolivia a viable culinary and tourist destination are innumerable. Bolivia sports a biodiversity that, even without a coastline, is as rich as any other country’s in South America. And the public is hungry, literally and figuratively. Last night’s turnout is the proof.
Rafael Piqueras will cook one more round of his inaugural series this evening. Past that, the second installation of the series hasn’t yet been confirmed, though word around the dinner table is that some big names will be participating. Now is the time for Bolivia, and the quality of chefs that are starting to not simply recognize, but also talk about, the real potential that the country has to become a great culinary destination is hopefully only just a glimpse of what’s in store.