Chef Jennifer Rodriguez Is Revitalizing Colombian Cuisine by 'Making Growers the Protagonists'
“Thanks to Jennifer, this lady is now selling her balú here at the market,” says my interpreter for what must be the fourth time as we approach a woman crouching in a low chair, showing off a two-foot-long root vegetable that most closely approximates a cross between a zucchini and a peapod with elephantiasis.
Jennifer Rodriguez, a 30-year-old chef/restaurateur/hotelier, is being greeted like a celebrity by her neighbors as she meanders through the main market a few blocks from her eight-year-old restaurant, Mestizo Cocina de Origen, in the municipality of Mesitas del Colegio, 44 miles southwest of Bogotá. She stops here and there to extend a warm hello and purchase an ingredient for that afternoon’s lunch service.
With its unique-for-the-city festive tiles, fresh flowers and contemporary logo and décor, Mestizo brings in regulars from the business world and newbies from as far as the capital and beyond.
“Since I’ve worked with Mestizo my life has changed because I sell more products, my sales have increased and people listen to me more. I’m a leader in my field, which allows me to have more credibility with my partners in the market,” says Rosana Cerere, a maker of envueltos (husk-wrapped cornmeal patties) who commands twice as much in the market for her wares than she did before winning a traditional cooking contest with Rodriguez.
Rodriguez runs what she calls a “research restaurant,” a relatively new concept in Colombia found primarily in Bogotá. Now that Colombia’s roads and regions have grown safer, a small cadre of (mostly female) high-end chefs are venturing out to elevate and serve what people all over the country eat in their own homes.
Located hours away from the nearest major urban center, Rodriguez is elevating foods from the Mesitas area.
“I discovered the magnificence of local cooking,” Rodriguez says, in Spanish. “We tell the growers about the important ingredients they have on their farms. We dignify their work, we share knowledge and we buy their ingredients directly from them." She says she wants to make them "the protagonists of this story."
At first it was neither easy nor her plan. Though she’d been raised to cook by a mom highly skilled in the kitchen and a grandmother who owned a restaurant, she left to study electrical engineering at university. When she returned home after graduation, it was 2009 and economic times were grueling. Without any formal training, she convinced her parents, brother and then-boyfriend to open a simple bar/restaurant on a busy corner near their house for what she thought would be just long enough to carry her family through the next few years.
But she started to draw some recognition after her ex-husband tested her prowess by secretly entering her to compete in a nationally televised Fox reality show. She won.
Having gained exposure to a greater variety of foods as a contestant, Rodriguez decided to devote her life to gastronomy and set about to fully explore the reaches of what she calls the "peasant food" of her youth. The woman who’d learned humble preparations from her relatives joined her father for car rides to meet the far-flung farmers and home chefs he called on as the locality’s public electrician.
However, “Because of all the violence people had been suspicious of strangers,” she says. But the tenacious chef would visit and visit and visit, and slowly, over many glasses of mango and blackberry juice, she gained their trust.
“I wanted to find the ingredients of the countryside,” she says from her rooftop garden, where she grows pot after pot of cilantro, basils, peas, beans, wild tomatoes and aromatics, nurtured by a 360-degree view of the mountains where they grow more freely.
Rodriguez innovated by incorporating this newfound produce into her traditional cooking while bringing growers into town for coffee with chefs and other merchants. In 2016, she organized the first annual “Sazonar” festival in the town square and atop restaurant tables to promote products, culture, identity, local cuisine and territory. Last year she sponsored a friendly city-wide competition that asked restaurateurs to each write a recipe using an ingredient fresh-grown in the surrounding soils.
Rodriguez has now doubled the size of Mestizo Cocina de Origen, a name that nods both to food from the hearth and the Spanish-Amerindian ethnicity of half of Colombia’s population. Leonor Espinosa, an anthropological chef who’s won the 50 Best Restaurant awards’ title of best female chef in Latin American two years running, has made the two-hour trek from Bogotá with visitors from outside the continent. Twice.
Rodriguez also helps run the seven-room Hotel Mulato her family opened six months ago complete with courtyard, more gardens, a hot tub and the same dedication to rustic cuisine. Yet despite the international attention and the comfortably gracious trappings, Rodriguez remains committed to her cooking as a nourishing representation that her heart is, and always will be, where her home is.
“Entering the mountains of my region taught me to value the effort of the peasant and showed me the aftermath of a war. This knowledge motivated me even more to be part of the change and the solution towards peace,” she writes in an autobiographical article published in October, “giving back to my people how much land they have given me.”