If you had asked me last year to guess where the next great destination restaurant would pop up, my answer would not have been La Paz, Bolivia. The second-largest city in one of South America's poorest countries, La Paz is not on the tourism circuit. Getting there from New York City required a journey of close to 20 hours, and once I arrived, it took a few days to acclimate to the altitude. At 12,000 feet above sea level, the air there is so thin that, for my first 24 hours, I felt as if an invisible vise had been secured to my temples and was being slowly, mercilessly tightened.
And yet, La Paz is the city that Claus Meyer, the visionary co-owner of Noma in Copenhagen, chose as the setting for his next and perhaps most ambitious project: Gustu. Like Noma, Gustu is a cutting-edge restaurant that uses avant-garde technique in the service of extreme locavorism. But in Bolivia, Meyer is facing an added degree of difficulty. Here, he doesn't just want to engineer a world-class restaurant. He wants to "combat poverty with deliciousness."
Meyer didn't pick La Paz at random: In collaboration with the Danish nongovernmental organization Ibis, he funded a two-year-long investigation to find the location. The process examined countries around the world in five categories: low crime, high poverty, political stability, biological diversity and a cuisine that didn't effectively showcase the country's incredible ingredients.
On paper, Bolivia was the clear winner. Poorer but also safer and more stable than its neighbors, the country has one of the most diverse ecologies on the planet, with three distinct climate zones that produce more than 1,200 varieties of potatoes alone, as well as an astonishing and exotic array of tropical fruits, fish, grains and herbs. There are hot pink papa lisa tubers, otherworldly fruits like the pacay (a large green pod filled with fluffy white flesh that tastes a bit like lychee) and lots of llama meat (which is surprisingly tender). In contrast to neighboring Peru, Brazil and Argentina, Bolivian cuisine is underdeveloped. Even in La Paz, most high-end restaurants serve bastardized Italian or French food in comically formal, Continental-style dining rooms. "The learning process of creating Noma, and the revolution that has changed the food culture of Denmark, was too important to keep for ourselves," Meyer told me.
Meyer imported only a few things to Bolivia: Two chefs, Kamilla Seidler (who is Danish) and Michelangelo Cestari (an Italian citizen born in Venezuela), who both speak Spanish and have worked at some of the world's best restaurants, including England's Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons and Spain's Mugaritz. Also Jonas Andersen, a six-foot-seven restaurant manager and sommelier who's a blond giant among the dark-haired locals, one American barista and a battery of high-tech gear, including a Thermomix and a Pacojet. Everything else—from the wine to the servers—is Bolivian. The staff was chosen from a pool of 600 low-income families, almost none of whom had serious culinary experience before embarking on Gustu's two-year training course. It's the stuff of reality TV—watch newbie cooks run an ultra-high-end restaurant!—except this is actual reality.
Seidler and Cestari faced other challenges when they arrived here in the fall of 2012. For example, there is only a very rudimentary distribution infrastructure in Bolivia. One of their first orders of llama meat was delivered in an un-air-conditioned taxi by a woman wearing the traditional bowler hat and ruffled skirt of Bolivia's indigenous people; the carcass was wrapped in a colorful blanket. (Meyer is planning to buy a refrigerated truck and open a warehouse for Gustu.) The absurd altitude has meant that nearly every one of the chefs' recipes has had to be adjusted. Seidler's bread dough needs nearly 40 percent more water to rise here than at sea level. Even making an espresso is a difficult project, because water boils at just 186.8 degrees (boiling point at sea level is 212 degrees).
My dinner, a tasting at the chefs' table inside the glass-enclosed kitchen, began with those pink papa lisa from the high plains of the Andes, served with sweet chunks of beets and dried hibiscus pressed into a crackly paper. Next came a salad of amaranth grains, plump dried cherries from the central valleys and watercress stems, all tossed in Bolivian brown butter. One of the simplest dishes was the best, a shallow bowl of choclo, the big-kerneled Andean corn, topped with shredded rabbit confit and a dusting of lime zest. The richest protein was llama meat: thin slices, sautéed in a syrup made with red bananas from the Amazonian jungle and topped with a creamy Brazil nut sauce. At around $60 for five courses, including wine, the meal was hands-down my best culinary bargain this year. Big spenders can upgrade to a 15-course tasting with snacks, a cocktail and wine for $135. A similar meal at Noma would cost around $450.
Comparing Noma and Gustu isn't quite fair, though. Noma, which has been open since 2003 and is considered one of the best restaurants in the world, typically receives around 20,000 reservation requests a month. Gustu, just six months old, is still relatively unknown. I reached out to a few influential, large-camera-toting, continent-hopping food bloggers, and none were planning a trip to Gustu. "I have to admit, I don't know anything about the food that Meyer plans to serve at Gustu, but whatever it is, it doesn't seem to be happening organically," says Bonjwing Lee of Ulterior Epicure. It doesn't help that diners who do make the trek are left, after their meal, in a city with few creature comforts. If Meyer ever opens a boutique hotel—complete with an oxygen bar—that would certainly add to Gustu's appeal.
Still, with Gustu, Meyer has done something incredible: He's created a thought-provoking, one-of-a-kind food experience. In a world of prefab restaurants—with superstar chefs opening carbon copies of their flagships on nearly every continent—that can be increasingly hard to find. I ate at Gustu just three days after the restaurant opened its doors. I have dined out on the story ever since.
Jane Black is writing a book for Simon & Schuster about a West Virginia town's struggle to change its food culture.