Alejandro Cuéllar was a well known and loved Colombian chef until his untimely passing in 2019 at the age of 34 in Malaysia, where he was on one of his regular food-cum-diplomatic missions. A man known for his love of flowers in food and his Bogota restaurant, he was frequently sent by Colombia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs to build bridges through culinary spheres and introduce the world to his personal brand of wild cuisine.
I had never met Alejandro or been to Colombia, but I learnt about him through Charles Michel, who promotes joyful, sustainable living and a reconnection with nature through food. Having first encountered Charles on Netflix show The Final Table, I went on to meet him at a TEDx conference where he spoke brazenly and beautifully about food and the environment. He told me about the passing of his dear friend just days before we met and about a memorial day that would be hosted in his honour in Colombia. I felt so moved that I committed to going.
Bogota is a high-altitude jewellery box of a capital, embedded in the plateau of the Andes, packed with boxy terracotta buildings and tree-lined running tracks. It's a busy, cosmopolitan city in a subtropical climate, where I was told with firm conviction by locals that it would be sunny in the morning, thunderstorms in the afternoon and then sunny but cold again in the evening - and they were right. On my first day, as the skies transitioned from bright to stormy, I savoured a six-course tasting menu at the LAB Instituto Gato Dumas, a culinary school.
Here, the team had explored the culinary uses of coca, a sacred and indigenous plant, packed with antioxidants, calcium and potassium. It's considered a so-called "superfood", and LAB Instituto Gato Dumas has used it to make everything from kombucha to focaccia, energy bars to ice-cream. The only hitch with the menu is that everything we ate sits in a very grey area of Colombian legality; coca, when mixed with toxic chemicals and ingredients such as cement, becomes cocaine, and cocaine is at the root of many of Colombia's problems.
Nevertheless, peaceful solutions can often be found on the reverse of the same coin as war. While coca is highly stigmatised, it is a deeply historically and culturally important plant; misunderstood and misused. There are an estimated 200,000 hectares of coca being grown illegally in Colombia right now and, while this isn't likely to decrease, there's a chance that the plant's purpose could shift - as the global demand for food grows, for instance, coca flour could be used to meet this need. Yet this can only happen if deeply ingrained perceptions about the plant shift and if the Colombian government steps in to support this form of agriculture.
A great place to discover local, legal, ingredients in Bogota is Cuarto Frio near Virrey Park. It uses an array of local, seasonal ingredients to create beautiful, tapas-style dishes. Here I tasted yucca in a dish akin to patatas bravas, and lulo, a fruit that makes for a refreshing drink when combined with water or, even better, with milk. Should you visit Cuarto Frio, sit at the bar for the best experience and look down into the kitchen as dozens of chefs clad in Breton stripes craft dishes.
Looking for a place to stay? Try concept-space-cum-hotel Casa Lelyte, which houses four boutique rooms and a vegan restaurant. On my third day in Colombia, I enjoyed a 30-person mushroom-themed dinner here, held in collaboration with Juventud De La Tierra - a collective of environmental activists. The atmosphere was far from an ideological echo chamber; the seating plan (intentionally or unintentionally, I'm still not sure) sat a liberal, vegan, yogi congressman opposite the wife of a conservative cattle rancher. Soon enough they were shouting at each other across the table and hurling insults. Just when I thought their fight would never end, they'd found some common ground on something they both disagreed with or agreed with and were high-fiving over the table. This is what sitting down to eat can achieve between disparate individuals. Change is not made by putting people who have the same views together.
Food is also an easy way to spark conversation with strangers on your travels. La Candelaria is the old part of Bogota, famed for its winding roads and museums including the Gold Museum and the Botero Museum. Here I went to La Puerta Falsa, one of the oldest restaurants in the city that serves a much-loved ajiaco (chicken and potato soup with corn, avocado and rice on the side) and struck up an easy conversation with another solo tourist with a simple: "That looks good. What did you order?"
Food is big business, and doing something game-changing can have a huge effect in a country and between countries. At the airport in Bogota on my way to Cartagena, I discovered Crepes & Waffles, an unassuming chain restaurant, where, of its 3,800 employees across Latin America, 96 per cent are women - primarily single mothers and the sole breadwinner among their respective families.
This was not the original intention of the founders Beatriz Fernández and her husband Eduardo Macías when they founded their restaurant in 1980, but it has proven to be a great way for the business to help lift women out of poverty and fight Colombia's chauvinistic culture. Beatriz says that in Colombia "women are the motor for change". All I had to do to support this was to eat in the restaurant. Turns out, it's true what Charles Michel told me: what and where we eat is a politically radical act.
I also had the fortune of meeting Sebastián Hernández, the co-founder and CEO of Superfuds, a company that helps small organic brands enter the market. In the process, it has identified a gap in the market and created its own brand of healthy, Colombian-grown "super" snacks. Sebastián is just one of the many young Colombian entrepreneurs leading the conscious eating revolution.
In Cartagena, I visited Celele, hailed as one of the best restaurants in Latin America. It works to support indigenous cuisine and communities on the Caribbean coast. The menu here is filled with local ingredients and colourful flowers - after all Colombia likely has the largest number of endemic floral species in the world, 1,500 of which are orchids, the country's national flower.
In the rolling hills outside of Bogota, I attended the memorial day in honour of Alejandro Cuéllar. We ate ajiaco and planted seeds in his family's large garden - a space where he once had plans to create his farm-to-table restaurant. I met his father, a joyful soul full of stories. I said that I had never met his son, and perhaps it was strange that I was even there, but the way that he was being remembered through his friends and colleagues told me everything I needed to know about him. He had left a serious and positive impact on a lot of people and his preferred medium for expression, communication and change was food.
The following evening 15 chefs got together at a small taqueria called El Pantera, next door to Alejandro's restaurant Canasto Picnic Bistró, to celebrate him by each creating a taco in his honour. It was a beautiful sight; chefs flowed around a tiny kitchen feeding way more people than the restaurant could support - there were people spilling out onto the street.
I wasn't expecting to meet so many incredible people working at the cross-section of food and peace in Colombia: chefs, entrepreneurs, activists, vegan congressmen. But I did, and now I have stories of food and sustainability that stretch way beyond the plate. Before Alejandro died, he published a book, in which he asked chefs from all over Colombia to contribute to Cocina y Paz (Food and Peace), a collection of recipes that would support local farmers and communities, history and culture and help the country for the future.
Colombia taught me that food has the power to change everything. It can mend individual relationships and open important conversations; it can bridge opposing views, forge friendships and spark romance. In Colombia, food has the potential to open up pathways to peace, if only it can find the support. Most importantly, if we look at human destruction on Earth at large, the remedy starts with food.