Why It Really Sucks to Be a Chef in Venezuela Right Now

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Why It Really Sucks to Be a Chef in Venezuela Right Now

In Venezuela, water is cheaper than gas and the economy is in total chaos. In the midst of surging food prices, restaurants are feeling the pinch. I spoke to three of the greatest chefs in Caracas to find out how it's directly affecting their kitchens.

In Venezuela, water is more expensive than gas right now. You can fill your tank with just .25 cents.

It's no secret that the current economic and social climate has been in shambles. Besides the thousands of murders caused by crime every year and the lack of basic grocery supplies—which causes people to wait line for hours outside supermarkets—the economy is a mess. It feels like something straight out of a science fiction movie. In the midst of this financial apocalypse, some of the businesses that are affected the most are restaurants. I spoke with three of the most renowned chefs in Caracas to find out how this crazy economy is impacting their establishments.

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Chef Irina Pedroso with cooks Mercedes Oropeza and Daniel Saldivia at her restaurant. All photos by the author.

This tropical bistro is in Los Palos Grandes, an upper class neighborhood in Caracas. Chef Irina Pedroso has been running Amapola for five years, but two years ago, she began to have serious problems with supplying products for her menu. I stopped by the restaurant to get her thoughts on the current situation.

"We work with what we get," she explains. "In this hyperinflation era, meat and fish have to be substituted by other cuts or types of meat. I used to use tuna, but now I'm happy with sardines."

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One of the fish dishes at Amapola.

For the chefs at this restaurant, chicken has become one of the hardest proteins to source. "Sometimes we get fish because we're good friends with the supplier, who calls us every time he gets something," but she has to buy it whenever it's offered because the prices increase every week. "Salmon and tuna are now impossible to offer to my patrons."

When I ask if she gets frustrated from having to create new recipes with limited products, she responds, "Creativity isn't frustrating." She's willing to reinterpret her menu as many times as necessary. "What's frustrating is that is just too difficult for entrepreneurs to survive in this climate," she adds. "In any other country there's have a structure that motivates and helps them. Here, we don't have any of that. You have to worry about other things, you need a plan A, B, C and X. It's exhausting, stressful and grueling."

So what does she expect of the future? "We need to survive. Our jobs are to keep certain standards of quality. It's possible, but it takes a lot of effort."

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Chef Francisco Abenante inside Casa Bistró.

Francisco Abenante is chef and owner of Casa Bistró and is lucky to have his own vegetable supply, which is sourced from his orchard. He grows almost everything that he serves to customers, but like all restaurants in Caracas, he's constantly uncertain about his meat supply. Abenante has been a chef for 20 years, and has even worked under legendary chef, Pierre Blanchard, but his heart is in Venezuela, which is why he goes through so much to remain as a restaurateur in his homeland. Casa Bistro has been constant in its success since the day it opened in 2014, but Abenante is able to maintain this by gearing the menu towards tourists rather than locals.

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One of the dishes at Casa Bistró.

"To watch a tourist eat a giant breakfast for 3 euros while that same meal would cost a Venezuelan 25 percent of his monthly salary is certainly not easy," Francisco tells me. "The economical hardships are very difficult and make our jobs a constant challenge. Sometimes I have to be creative about the ways to get flour since I need it for almost everything that I do, but I can't complain about it. I take every challenge as an opportunity. So if I can't find flour, I just make it myself."

When I ask what continues to motivate him to run the business, he explains, "It has to be a business," he explains, "but without love, it wouldn't be successful at all."

Alto

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Carlos García, chef at Alto, in the kitchen.

Chef's Carlos García's restaurant, Alto, is on the world's 50 best restaurants in Latin America list, but it's acclaim isn't helping its current state of affairs. It's located a few steps away from Amapola, but besides the location,García shares the same angst that comes with a food supply shortage and the high cost of running a restaurant. García studied at the Escuela de Hosteleria Hoffman in Barcelona, but cut his teeth at El Bulli and Celler de Can Roca. He eventually opened his own restaurant under one important premise: to source all of his products from the smallest suppliers available.

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Dishes at Alto.

It used to be as simple as making a phone call to place an order. Everything would arrive the next day. These days, García is in a constant search for local producers to source his products, but continues to set the prices on his menu to be geared towards tourists and wealthy locals willing to pay astronomical prices with a smile.

Recently, García had to take everything made with dairy off the menu. "Sometimes, three weeks will go by and I won't get a drop of milk," he tells me. There was a moment when it was impossible for him to get meat, and when it was delivered, it looked "really suspicious." More than any other ingredient, the water shortage is making the cooking process difficult. "Every day, I have to buy water and end up spending somewhere between seven and 15 thousand bolivares (approximately $35 to $75 dollars) for less than eight thousand liters. It's not just about the money. It's not a normal thing to do."

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On the right, Samier's tattoo, on the left, a dish at Alto.

He admits that there are moments when he feels like saying: 'Turn off everything and let's get the hell out of here.'"

So what keeps this chef going? "My life's dream is to have a place the way I want it to be," he says. "Besides, I can't leave the people that work with me behind. The cooks here are vital for my kitchen. One of them even got a tattoo with the restaurant logo. I told him: "Chino, I didn't even do that," and he said, "Well, everything I have is thanks to this restaurant."