Marsia Taha: “We are generating tourism that has not been seen in Bolivia before… they come a day or two, just to eat”
We asked Marsia Taha, head chef of Gustu, how the restaurant has been the growth in these 7 years, since its opening. In its first year, 2014, Gustu became the best restaurant in Bolivia and was awarded in the Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants. It is the restaurant of renowned chef Claus Meyer, who initiated a gastronomic revolution in Bolivia and put it in the eyes of the world. He followed the same line that began in Denmark to revalue the Scandinavian cuisine. But what happened “after” this revolution?
Marsia Taha, at her 30 years old, is part of the Gustu family. It is her home, where she learned her greatest training, avant-garde cooking with more techniques. She has seen the project grow from the beginning, going through all areas of the restaurant. And she fell in love from the first time she learned about the project because it combines her two passions: cooking and social responsibility. Gustu dreams of changing the world through cooking.
By Fabiola Gálvez
THE “GUSTU” EFFECT WAKEN UP THE DINERS’ APPETITE IN SEARCH OF NEW CULINARY EXPERIENCES. THEREFORE, NEW GASTRONOMIC PROPOSALS AROSE IN THE CAPITAL
Gustu was the restaurant that put Bolivia on the gastronomic map
Yes, we were the spearhead. Obviously, for this construction to be solid, we need many more bases, and many more restaurants have emerged that are contributing and helping this construction, but definitely, the spearhead began here.
What happened after this gastronomic revolution? What happened in Bolivia?
I might not say Bolivia, but La Paz. Unfortunately, it is still very centralized. In other cities, they see what we do and want to take steps forward, but La Paz is some extra steps in terms of gastronomic development. But yes, after two or three years of opening Gustu, many more gastronomic proposals have been seen, not necessarily of making fine dining or making avant-garde cuisine, but with the same line of pride towards the product, towards ours, 100% Bolivian, kilometre zero.
Each, diversifying the proposals, there are restaurants of popular Bolivian food, but with a touch a little more avant-garde, if we can say so. Another avant-garde vegan cuisine, Ali Pacha, has emerged, also Marco Antonio Quelca with Clandestine Flavors, which also has a super different proposal, is a more reflective cuisine. There is a restaurant, Ancestral, which is more focused on traces, baked, uses simpler techniques, with the same line of product respect. All of them follow the same concept, as we all speak the same language, and that is the beautiful thing, it is what Bolivian cuisine is growing and that’s why we are generating tourism, that has not been seen before.
Who comes to eat?
We have a huge audience that suddenly comes a day or two just to eat and leaves. Bolivia is like a past destination, but it has changed a lot because there are more tourists. Then, the tourist who comes for just a day regrets, they want to stay longer, they realize that La Paz is landscape, is tradition, is a crazy city, built around the mountains at 4,000 m.a.s.l. In the magazines, La Paz has emerged within the 10 most influential tourist cities of the year. Unfortunately, with this political situation, tourists are going to escape, but well, I hope it finishes quickly.
A NEW GENERATION OF CHEFS AND EXPORTABLE TALENT
You’ve been in Gustu since day 1, you’ve seen the project grow, how was that transition?
It has been a super nice transition to watch. Gustu has always gone up and we have always constantly renewed, and we look for him. If one analyzes Gustu since its inception, there is a long list that we have developed, my sous chef is from the first generation of the school.
It started as a nonprofit culinary school to train kids who came from vulnerable places across the country, and after 3 years, the project became much bigger. With Manq’a schools, ICCO came to finance 8 schools, there are already more than 4,000 graduates. So, watch a super small school grow with 25 cooking students, and now I see that there are 8 schools and two in Colombia, see that all these people are opening their businesses, or have a super high position in a restaurant like this, or they are working abroad for years, those things are priceless. Gustu has formed many leaders who are spearheads of Bolivian cuisine. The biggest challenge we have had in growth is to have developed sustainable logistics with producers.
I was going to ask you that, how do you work with the producers?
In the beginning, it was impossible for us to bring a paiche from the Amazon that is 12 hours away. But now, we are working with 35 communities in La Paz.
We are with the “Wild Flavors” project, in collaboration with WSC [Wildlife Conservation Society], in fact at Harvard there is a bit of the project. The idea of this project is to be able to forge links with the communities, to do gastronomic research in situ. Then, we travel for 15 days to a community in the Amazon, the Altiplano, the Chaco, and we get into the communities full of knowledge, see what they eat, see their customs, their techniques. A bit also of anthropology, it is multidisciplinary: cooks, scientists, ethnobotanists who make a deep record.
We identify the products that we find in the communities, we register the ancestral techniques so that they continue to be maintained in the communities, and above all, make contact with the producers, because it is impossible to be able to contact a producer in the Amazon if you don’t go to the place, many of them do not have the possibility of having a telephone because there is not even signal.
THE BOLIVIAN PRODUCT OBTAINED FROM THE COMMUNITIES, IS DEVELOPED IN THE GUSTU LAB AND THEN PLACED IN THE DISHES FOR THE TASTING MENU (INCLUDING WINERY)
All this learning and this record collected from the communities, then it’s applied to the Gustu menu?
Yes, it is super linked. Once the products arrive from each expedition, we put together our tasting menu. The idea of these products is contact, and through that, we can show our menu, our trips, food, culture, and traditions, to the people who eat here and tell them the story behind them.
There is also a laboratory, we have developed a chuño cider. The chuño is a highland lyophilized potato, and we make a cider that is amazing, we have had super good results. Everything that is taken out of this laboratory is also placed on our menu. We work with the Basque Culinary Center, so, every year these guys come to do their final work. They develop a product that we give them, this year it was a beer, 100% with Bolivian product. Here there are many breweries that make good quality beers, but unfortunately, all the raw material is imported, hops, malt, yeast, the only Bolivian product is water.
Then, the guys made the malt itself, we got together with another brewery to grow yeasts, by recycling yeasts that already had the beer, and elements that replace the benefits of a hop, with all the information of the botanists that we have in the Amazon.
Likewise, we try to find umamis of these products, we make fermented, misos with many highland grains mixed with Amazonian fruits, katsuobushi, to be able to add umami to the dishes, all technique is welcome.
PRODUCERS WITH ID CARD
Could you mention some of the producers you work with at Gustu?
Let’s see, the oldest producers we work with:
- The lizards of northern La Paz are the Tacanos, they harvest the lizard meat, once a year with a sustainable program with the help of the WBC.
- The Carmen del Emero community brings us paiche to the city, these producers sell the paiche to 6 bolivianos per kilo to those who outsource, and those who outsource, sell it at 50, 60 Bolivians, in the city.
- The community of Apollo brings us the Amazonian potatoes, which are a type of Amazonian tuber, which would become ñames. The communities consume it, instead of bread, you are going to eat an Amazonian potato.
- They bring us the ants, hormigas culonas, and the sepes culones, which are harvested in one of the strongest storms of the month of December, and also the tuyu tuyu [suri], some larvae inside the palm trees, are exquisite.
- After the hearts of palms supplier, Don Dionisio Estrada who comes from Chapare, Cochabamba.
We plan to make a book of “Wild Flavors” because we really have so much content of the places where we travel. But we are looking for funders so they can finance our project.
I think that right now the biggest project in the future is to give the Wild Flavors project a lot more endeavour and effort. And as a big goal, it is to create an interactive platform, so that a cook or a housewife, can enter different geographical areas in Bolivia, and can come into contact with these products, and also be able to benefit from these products, and therefore, create a larger socio-economic impact for all these communities.
If money were not a problem, what would you do in your chef position?
In 10 years, I want to be able to have my own business and continue working with the producers, to create something bigger that generates an impact, and that the producers do not have to sacrifice so much to have to distribute their product.
Southern Cone Awards “GUSTU, the best restaurant in the Southern Cone” in 2013 and 2014.
Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants, “the best restaurant in Bolivia” and ranked among the best Latin American restaurants, in 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017.
Where in the World to Eat Award by CondeNast Traveler: “among the 11 most outstanding restaurants in Central and South America ”, in 2016.
Forbes, “among the 8 restaurants to know in Latin America”.
50 Best Places in the World to eat Vegetables by the Culinary Institute of America “among the 12 restaurants Worth Traveling Across the World to Experience”.
New York Times, “among the 52 Places to Go,” in 2018.
In Vatican City, Gustu shared her vision of gastronomy as a tool for social change with Pope Francis, in 2018.
If you would like to visit us as a guest or work with us, just contact us: we are looking forward to seeing you!