Everyone from Medellín has a story, explains chef Juan Manuel Barrientos. In the 1980s, Colombia was tearing itself apart through war and Medellín was ground zero, the home of Pablo Escobar's cartel and a city earning itself a reputation as the most dangerous on Earth.
Barrientos' story begins when he was just a child, when his father's business partner was shot dead before work one morning. Within 24 hours, his family was on a plane to London.
"He was killed at 8 AM, and by 8 that night, we were packed," says the chef, now one of Latin America's rising stars. "Sometimes there were no threats—they just killed you."
The family sold their car for cash and stayed in London for a year, with money so tight they ate eggs every night. Biscuits were a special treat.
A little more than 25 years later, Barrientos now helms El Cielo restaurant in Bogotá, recently named among the top 50 in Latin America. The chef's experiments in a particularly Colombian form of molecular gastronomy have earned him a reputation as a "precocious talent behind the stove."
It is a place decked out in finca-style wood with a wall of tropical foliage, a restaurant where a 12-course tasting menu is as colourful and fun as a Baranquilla carnival float, with a coconut spa course for the hands (in which a fake stone is cracked open to release a kind of mint chocolate goo that wraps around your fingers) and exquisite chamomile tea-flavored ice cream.
Here, Colombia's multi-faction civil war may seem a million miles away. But when Barrientos stands beside the stove in Bogotá, or in his restaurant of the same name in Medellín, the conflict is not forgotten. On one side of the kitchen—cooking up delights like 24-hour piglet or pineapple chicha soup—might be a former guerilla fighter from the left-wing FARC rebel group; on the other, a demobilized soldier.
Barrientos calls it "cooking peace," and in the nine years since he first started working with ex- soldiers, nearly 300 former combatants from every side of the conflict have passed through one of the kitchens used by his foundation El Cielo Para Todos ("El Cielo for Everyone"), with some going on to work in the restaurants themselves.
"We started with soldiers, who had lost limbs to landmines. That was cooking to have a job in civilian life or just as therapy. Then we realized there was an emptiness here," he says, pointing to a sketch he has drawn of all the players involved this country's 50-year conflict. "So we started working with the guerillas, too."
While not all of the ex-guerillas Barrientos works with believe in peace, he says that many of them simply want to "try another type of hell." Slowly, though, they learn a new skill, something that can earn them a living outside of war; after what he calls a "forgiveness and reconciliation session," some even stay to work in his kitchen.
Romero, a former army soldier, lost a leg and his vision in one eye when he walked over a landmine planted by FARC guerillas. Now he works in the kitchen of El Cielo in Medellín where the team includes a former guerilla, one other ex-soldier, and two former paramilitary fighters—former enemies working the line together.
"It was very hard for me, but I had the opportunity to talk to some of the demobilized guerillas, and they told me their stories. They were not trying to justify what they had done, but they also feel like victims. For them, the army is the enemy. Some wanted to join but others had no alternative," says the 28-year-old former soldier, who now wears a prosthesis under his chef whites.
"I had the choice to forgive them, and I feel good for what I have done. We go out sometimes, have a drink. Sometimes we talk about the past, but you try not to offend each other. You remember what happened, but you have to have respect."
While the food at El Cielo is cooked by ex-combatants who once eked out a spartan existence in the Colombian jungle, the result is no sad army glop. The dishes range from the beautiful to the whimsical: one looks like a tropical boat floating up the Amazon; another, like a flowerpot of cress and soil. The menu combines juicy prawns with local fruits like lulo and papaya for a plate that tastes like sunshine. Blackened potatoes meet coriander, rosemary, and grilled fish to create a plate that is both delicate and earthy.
That kind of experimentation has grown beyond the confines of the kitchens of El Cielo. Barrientos, who just turned 33, recently opened a new restaurant in Miami, and is working on a hyper-sensory room in his hometown that will seat only eight, blasting diners with sound, smells, and flavors as he takes them on a culinary journey.
But as Colombia inches closer to a final peace deal, one that will end the longest-running armed conflict in the hemisphere, his work helping some of those affected by the conflict motivates him just as much as the food.
"When you see a cook finish a dish and you know he was killing people, or putting [down] landmines, and you see that same person being helpful for society by cooking, doing good, and enjoying it, you realize that it's worth it," he says.
This first appeared on MUNCHIES in July 2016.