Gustu – culinary inspiration in La Paz, Bolivia 

La Paz is a city that left me breathless – quite literally. At 3800 meters above sea level, the oxygen levels are lower than I’ve ever had to deal with, and the city’s pollution certainly doesn’t help when you’re struggling to walk a few steps uphill. However, we powered through and had an incredible few days there, which included shopping for artesanal products, lots of fresh juices from the markets in town, a crazy downhill bike ride on the so-called ‘Death Road’, and an incredible meal and experience at Gustu, located in the upper class neighbourhood of Calacoto and voted one of Latin America’s Top 50 restaurants of 2016 (at number 14, no less).

View of La Paz from the top of the city, El Alto, after a ride in a cable car

The thing that stuck with me most after spending nearly 6 hours at Gustu in La Paz was the manager Sumaya’s words: ‘The last thing Gustu does is sell food’. And so, for this article, I’ll follow their example and talk about everything that Gustu does before I even mention the (incredibly delicious) food we ate!

I’ve been travelling through South America for 3 months now, and as expected, food has been a huge part of the trip. Argentina has incredible beef and wine, but everything else is rather lacking. Chile is far more diverse, and boasts excellent seafood. And when we reached Bolivia, the thing that immediately struck us was the quality and availability of raw produce. Fruits, vegetables, grain – they’re available in abundance and the quality is just outstanding. So when I heard that Gustu focuses solely on Bolivian produce, I was immediately intrigued.

Gustu works directly with all its producers, refusing to involve middlemen and making sure the Bolivian people themselves benefit from supplying the restaurant, with initiatives such as investing in trucks for transporting ingredients across a country whose roads often leave much to be desired. Gustu also particularly searches for lesser known ingredients, helping to raise awareness amongst its customers about the huge culinary diversity available in their own country. Not only that, they stick strictly to what is in season, changing the menu frequently to reflect this. Bolivia boasts over 1000 types of potatoes, of which Gustu has selected only a couple hundred that are good enough for their dishes. They also use those Bolivian fruits that are unfamiliar to Europeans, for example the tumbo, a sweet, passionfruit-like beauty that is perfect for cocktails. We were given a Tumbo Sour, which is modeled upon the famous Pisco Sour, but used tumbo instead of lemon, and singani instead of pisco. A marked improvement, in our opinion…

I thought it would be merely the vegetables and meats that were local, but no. Every material inside the restaurant, all the alcohol, and even the designers were Bolivian. Gustu takes huge pride in its country, which is interesting as it was originally set up by a ‘gringo’ (foreigner) in Claus Meyer, known for his hugely successful restaurant Noma in Copenhagen, Denmark. He’s not involved in the running of Gustu though, as the head chef Kamilla Seidler (recently crowned Latin America’s Best Female Chef) designs the menu and the cooks in the kitchen are mostly students from all across the country.

A fine dining restaurant with students in charge of the dishes? Yep. I was truly inspired to hear that Gustu runs various cooking schools to train young Bolivians (particularly those from low-income, disadvantaged backgrounds), giving them full scholarships and the chance to work in the kitchen and then finding jobs for them either in the restaurant itself, or else across Bolivia, South America, and even worldwide. One of their current students has just been accepted to the Basque Culinary Centre, and another will be heading to the mothership, Noma, very soon. They work as a team, with the more experienced students teaching the newbies – and they always learn from their mistakes. They’re also given the latest, most sophisticated equipment so they can then use any other equipment worldwide.

At this point, I was already impressed, but our host Sumaya kept telling us about more and more projects Gustu runs. I was flabbergasted to hear that beyond these cookery schools for young people, Gustu also runs cooking certifications for women who are stuck in violent marriages, providing day care for their children and giving them the opportunity to start new lives after gaining their certificates. Gustu has also targeted a number of street food sellers in La Paz, upping their hygiene standards to improve their food for tourists (no more Delhi belly!) and thus giving them a larger clientele to cater to. All the crockery used in the restaurant is handmade in Bolivia, and some of the plates we saw seemed ordinary, but were in fact made by young people in rehabilitation centres. ‘It makes them feel valued – like they’re worth something and are contributing to their country’, Sumaya said proudly. It’s the same principle they have for their students in their kitchen – feeling valued is the ultimate goal. It’s no wonder the UN has chosen Gustu as one of their top Sustainable Development Goals worldwide.

Decorations at Gustu – what is hanging from the ceiling is the typical adorning Bolivian ladies use for their long, braided hair

And finally, to the food. It’s the last thing they sell, but oh they do it well. We visited for lunch where the menu mimics traditional Bolivian dishes, but makes them slightly more gourmet. Every dish was stellar in its flavours and ingredients, and we were absolutely stuffed by the end (they certainly embraced the large Bolivian portions as part of staying traditional!). Our complementary Lake Titicaca smoked trout was a dreamy, melt-in-the-mouth sensation, the quinoa salad was beautifully buttery and the crispy herbs on top were a delightful twist, and the lamb soup was bursting with flavour and perfectly julienned vegetables. The mains nearly made me weep – the duck would not have been out of place in a top-class French establishment, and the beef fell apart at the slightest touch. Everything was served with various types of bread, including the unusual coca brioche, and accompanied by churned coca butter – as smooth and airy as clouds. The only thing I found fault with was the desserts – the basil panacotta unfortunately tasted rather too much like pesto, and the carrot sorbet was slightly flavourless. The lunch menu is priced at 95 Bolivianos for three courses (around £11) – an absolute steal for foreigners, but definitely on the upper end for Bolivians (the dinner is even more expensive). This is why when we looked around, we didn’t see a single local person, rather tables full of foreigners, mostly business people. It seems odd that a restaurant catering mostly to non-Bolivians should be doing so much for Bolivia in general, but it is certainly an interesting way of observing the circle of life.

I cannot finish this article without praising the excellent service. Our waiter, who is also Gustu’s head sommelier, was Danish, and quite possibly the most deadpan, yet attentive and charming one I’ve ever had. He brought us our first cocktail with the simple words: ‘This is the f***ing cocktail. Why the name? Because it’s a f***ing cocktail.’ He also described our lamb soup as ‘soup with lamb and s***loads of vegetables’, before striding off (I imagined a mic drop). We had an in depth conversation with him after the meal about all the wine and various alcohol Gustu has, and his knowledge and passion shone through immensely (as well as a love for Justin Bieber). They were in the process of training a new bartender, and so we were kindly invited to taste all the cocktails she had prepared. Of course, we were happy to oblige! My favourite was the f***ing cocktail, closely followed by the aforementioned Tumbo Sour, though there was another one that included an infusion of aji, a hot chilli used in Bolivia, which set fire to my tongue and was immediately cooled off with ice. So many sensations!

Having lived in London for the last four years, eating at Gustu was a profoundly different and inspirational experience. London prides itself on having everything: Burmese, Korean, Eritrean… you name it, it’s available. And that’s part of the reason why I’ve loved living there. But the pride Gustu has in being Bolivian is something I’ve never quite experienced in London. Sure, you get pubs that focus on British classics, but often there’s a French twist, or a chicken curry on the menu. Gustu is so utterly Bolivian in its beliefs and dishes that I left feeling proud of the country I only knew for one short month. And that, I believe, is an achievement in itself!

I paid for my food, but Gustu kindly comped our drinks and provided a tour of the restaurant and facilities. As always, all opinions are entirely my own.