Hot off the pass

Meet Dan­ish chef Kamilla Sei­dler, whose im­mer­sion in Bo­livia’s pol­i­tics and indige­nous in­gre­di­ents has fu­elled her de­ter­mi­na­tion to change the world through food


When Kamilla Sei­dler was of­fered the head chef job at La Paz’s newly opened Gustu in 2013, the restau­rant’s founder, Claus Meyer (who launched Noma along­side René Redzepi) warned her that it would ei­ther be the big­gest short­cut of her ca­reer, or the big­gest mis­take. Speak­ing to Kamilla, 35, five years later, it’s clear which way it went. Dur­ing her time in Bo­livia – she’s now back in Copen­hagen, but still on the board of Gustu and its af­fil­i­ated chef train­ing pro­gramme, Manq’a – the restau­rant reached No 14 in Latin Amer­ica’s 50 Best Restau­rants, and has since trained more than 3,500 stu­dents from a low-in­come back­ground. Kamilla was voted the re­gion’s Best Fe­male

Chef and trav­elled the world as a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of Gustu. She’s been spread­ing the word about Bo­livia’s in­cred­i­ble bio­di­ver­sity and indige­nous in­gre­di­ents (60 dif­fer­ent quinoa strains and more than 3,000 types of potato is just the start) ev­ery­where from Rus­sia and the Philip­pines to In­dia and Nor­way. She’s “lost track” of how many coun­tries she’s vis­ited – “maybe 50, 60... 100?”.

Flaxen-haired Kamilla is an un­likely poster girl for Bo­li­vian cui­sine. She got in­volved when Meyer was scout­ing for tal­ent to im­ple­ment the prin­ci­ples of the New Nordic Kitchen Man­i­festo in a not-for-profit teach­ing restau­rant (his Melt­ing Pot foun­da­tion seeks to “change the world through food”). Span­ish-speak­ing Kamilla, who has worked for An­doni Luis Aduriz (at Mu­garitz) and Bo Bech (at Geist and Paus­tian), fit­ted the bill.

“The the­ory was that if you scratch the word ‘Nordic’, the man­i­festo makes sense any­where. That’s what they wanted to prove with the whole project,” says Kamilla. So just as Den­mark had gone from the land of Lego and the Lit­tle Mer­maid to a gas­tro­nomic des­ti­na­tion, some­thing sim­i­lar could hap­pen in Bo­livia, too. “If that same re­ac­tion, that same hype could be cre­ated in a de­vel­op­ing coun­try to en­hance tourism and re­spect for the lo­cal prod­ucts, then that would be a suc­cess in it­self,” she says.

There fol­lowed a rapid and to­tal im­mer­sion in the land­locked coun­try’s three ma­jor cli­mates and 12 mi­cro­cli­mates, in­clud­ing sa­van­nah, rain­for­est and moun­tains. “Wow ex­pe­ri­ences” came thick and fast – tast­ing fresh (sus­tain­able) heart of palm from a just-felled tree in the heart of the jun­gle; and go­ing to the Alti­plano (high plateau) and eat­ing po­ta­toes cooked in the ground over coal “in their own dirt”.

“I love French three-star Miche­lin [cook­ing], but it was such a dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ence,” says Kamilla. “You feel so priv­i­leged to have this com­pletely mind-blow­ing meal in the mid­dle of nowhere, made by some­body with the few things they have.”

Work­ing in La Paz – be­cause of the al­ti­tude, lack of oxy­gen and low at­mo­spheric pres­sure – was like “start­ing from scratch... I would do a bread class and noth­ing would come out of the oven. It was su­per em­bar­rass­ing,” she laughs.

In­evitably, the project came in for crit­i­cism – Euro­peans swoop­ing in like saviours. “I don’t think we were res­cu­ing any­body, be­cause no­body needed to be res­cued,” says Kamilla. “But I think some­times when you come with fresh eyes, you can see things dif­fer­ently.” Gustu, she says, in­spired a new pride in lo­cal in­gre­di­ents and in­tro­duced the coun­try’s in­cred­i­ble nat­u­ral bio­di­ver­sity to a wider au­di­ence. “The thing I’m most proud of is work­ing with a team of young peo­ple who, at the be­gin­ning, were very shy and com­pletely lack­ing in self­con­fi­dence. See­ing them now – some of them are run­ning the place or open­ing their own ven­tures.”

Gustu has left an in­deli­ble mark on Kamilla. “When you have a restau­rant in a coun­try where the lo­cal cur­rency, the bo­li­viano, is ar­ti­fi­cially held up with the dol­lar, sud­denly you un­der­stand in­fla­tion. You learn to have opin­ions about the lo­cal econ­omy, the world econ­omy, equal­ity...” Pre­vi­ously, she re­sisted the idea of be­ing a ‘fe­male’ chef; but in Bo­livia, where do­mes­tic vi­o­lence is rife, teach­ing her fe­male trainees that they could be lead­ers, they could be great chefs, was cru­cial. “Now I need to have an opin­ion, and I should have an opin­ion.”

So how do you fol­low up the awards, the ac­co­lades? “It’s very dif­fi­cult – ev­ery­body ex­pects a lot of me,” she says. Kamilla would like her own restau­rant one day (once she’s found a “vi­able eco­nomic model” for one that’s both “right” and “prof­itable”) but is cur­rently work­ing for Fair Fish­ing and the not-for-profit Food Or­gan­i­sa­tion of Den­mark (FOOD) as part of a rov­ing team trav­el­ling the length and breadth of the coun­try con­nect­ing re­gional busi­nesses of ev­ery stripe with the in­gre­di­ents lo­cal to them. She can also be found at the table with politi­cians and thinkers, de­bat­ing the “po­lit­i­cal-slash-gas­tro­nomic” move­ment of which she’s now a part.

“I have had some very good of­fers and it would be the log­i­cal thing – but right now I’m much more ex­cited about im­prov­ing food in a zoo that has 350,000 vis­i­tors a year. Then we’re reach­ing more peo­ple. It means more to me than show­ing my ego in my own restau­rant in a city al­ready boom­ing with amaz­ing restau­rants.”

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