The day-to-day life of a backpacker is wildly varied and disjointed. A lot like La Paz itself, come to think of it.
Six hours earlier, I'd woken up in the quiet bohemian neighbourhood of Sopacachi. For £5, my girlfriend and I had paid for a private double room in Belmont B&B, including breakfast. Nowhere on the Booking.com listing did it say it was to be enjoyed in their garage next to the owner's car.
Amused, I hypothesised that this was not how many visitors to Gustu started their day.
The restaurant, an unassuming concrete cube just off Avenida Costanera 10, was opened in 2012 by Danish chef and restauranteur, Claus Meyer. Among a string of other successes, he's revered for two things: co-owning Copenhagen's two-Michelin-starred Noma and pioneering the New Nordic culinary revolution.
Seeking a new challenge, Bolivia was more of a natural fit than many of the world's press understood. The smorgasbord of natural, native ingredients available to Bolivians alluring for someone so enamoured by ethics, heritage and history.
At the time of my arrival in May 2019, Meyer's philosophy culminated with global recognition - a place on Latin America's 50 Best Restaurants in 2017. Despite her Danish roots, head chef, Kamilla Seidler, was also named Latin America's Best Female Chef in 2016. It was her that made Bolivian cuisine accessible to the herds of international press and food tourists turning up, imbuing it with Meyer's vision in the process.
Lunch here promised to be quite a step up from the llama chicharrones and papas rellenos (a spherical version of Shepherd's Pie, deep-fried for eating on-the-go) I had been buying at local market stalls on my travels.
We travelled 7km via the city's network of cable cars taking first the yellow line, then the green. In retrospect, the colour of the final line taking us to our destination was inescapably symbolic. The lower altitude meant less breathlessness. The streets were wider and calmer like sleepy American suburbs. For the emerging middle class under President Morales' socialist regime that lived and worked there, life was comparatively easier.
On the other hand, the cost of eating here has put it well out of reach of most Bolivians. In most business plans, this would be a monumental problem. Arguably though, Gustu had bigger fish to fry, like igniting people’s interest in Bolivian food. Whilst Meyer's CV ensured that when he built it global press did indeed come, Seidler's stewardship of the kitchen kept writers writing.
In turn, thousands of the city’s tourists converted into bums on seats. To them, the £65 tasting menu presented value for money. And a 3-course lunch menu for just £11? See you there.
Dark wood dominated the relaxed bar and dining spaces. A soft hum of chatter filled the rooms. At the centre of everything, clear glass windows revealed the synchronised movements of chefs at their stations. But for the brightly patterned lanterns and cushion covers, the interiors were simple. We could have been in London, Los Angeles or New York.
The menu was cheerfully translated to us and, with good humour, we were pointed towards the house wines. Others may feel this was snobbish and presumptive. I say that my recently shaved head, dusty Berghaus fleece and Decathlon walking shoes gave her a pass. This probably wasn’t her first rodeo. Said house white - light, floral and of course Bolivian - was the right side of acidic for my enjoyment.
Frankly, given that a large glass was roughly £2.50, I was perfectly happy for it to be the wrong side of it.
With regards to the food, every dish I ate during the 3-course lunch menu came equipped with a narrative. In many ways, it had to. You can't feasibly have a high-end restaurant in Bolivia, one of South America's poorest nations, without a bold USP.
Affectionately known as the ‘Dane of the Andes’, Seidler communicated an awful lot to her diners. Through immersing herself into Bolivia's past, she lit a path for the elevation of humble, indigenous ingredients. It’s a moral obligation for a chef with her craft to do so.
The first course I ordered was Bolivia's national dish, Plato Paceño. In essence, it is a dish that pays homage to the land and its farming traditions: preserved Andean potatoes, broad
beans, choclo (large corn kernels), fried cubes of panela cheese and llajua. Of all the things I ate in Bolivia, this fiery salsa could be the easiest to market.
During a cookery class in Sucre, I'd learned that making llajua wasn't a quick job. I'd rocked the batán, a huge stone utensil, backwards and forwards until the tomatoes, locoto chillis and quirquiña (a citrusy herb like coriander) were pulverised. Their flavours were always melded together by hand: everything here was manual, everything took time, and everything was conscious.
Critics may suggest there's something morally ‘icky' about an ex-pat riffing with a country's national dish, especially when most locals can only dream of buying a portion. I viewed it more charitably as a shrewd way to educate, enlighten and involve. Sure, it was a good plate of food, but that dichotomy of old and new and the effort that goes into moving things forward didn't go unnoticed.
The next course showed all the maturity of a chef that knows what ‘if it ain't broke, don't fix it' means. Three hypnotic rings dominated the plate. Two of these were potato purees, one larger and off-white, the other smaller and violet. The third central circle was more of the intensely terracotta llajua. To the edge, rich and melting beef cheeks with a deeply savoury reduction.
Five unpretentious ingredients were all it took to get across the restaurant's clarity of thought. After all, this was meat and potatoes; it's been done the world over. And yet there was something about this version that was new and exciting.
A love for desserts is a gift I'm yet to receive. Maybe that sweet tooth of mine fell fate to the tooth fairy some years back. Fortunately, a saccharine end this was not. Instead, it was light and cleansing. A quenelle of sage sorbet, both of-the-earth but by no means out of place in the menu's denouement, sat on a deep purple and tart açai gel. Crystallised sage leaves and dehydrated hibiscus flowers further added sweetness and texture.
For the entirety of those two hours, I was in my happy place. And, not to be taken for granted, I left full.
I loved the multi-sensory theatre of street food whilst travelling as much as the next person. However, what I yearned for most was a feeling of being centred. That feeling of being anchored in one place at one time. Only exemplary dining experiences provide this through plates of food rich in physical and mental nourishment. That was why eating at Gustu had carved out such a lasting impression. Not only was the cooking purposeful and deftly executed, but it was also equally deft in conveying its raison d'être. Bolivian gastronomy has been hiding in plain sight. Where have you been?