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.” gustu.bo