Quimbaya, the Colombian restaurant with a surprising Michelin star

  • Edwin Rodríguez, who opened his restaurant in Madrid during the pandemic, offers a menu inspired by García Márquez

  • “When they said our name at the gala, we freaked out,” confesses the Bogotan, who worked for Pepe Rodríguez (‘Masterchef’)

When last December 14 the name of Quimbaya At the gala of the Michelin guide for Spain and Portugal held in Valencia, many were stunned. Where had that restaurant come from? Not a trace of him in the pools that the media, tweeters and all kinds of ‘foodies’ with the soul of a fortune teller had published in the previous days. Edwin Rodriguez, a 45-year-old from Bogota, chef and alma mater of this Colombian restaurant in Madrid (Zurbano, 63), remembers the moment clearly. “The truth is that I freaked out, my head exploded…“, he confesses.

“I had been very surprised to receive the invitation to the gala but, as they had recommended us months ago in the guide, I thought that perhaps they were looking to have the restaurants mentioned on a night like that, which was announced as the reunion after the pandemic. They had announced more than 20 stars and I didn’t expect there to be any more but suddenly they said “Madrid!” and my partner and partner, Mari Luz Cabeza, told me, ‘it could be ours!’ And all of a sudden…it happened.”

Tasting menu ‘Hojarasca’

When it comes to Colombian cuisine, Quimbaya’s history could almost be that of a magical realism tale in the purest style of Gabriel García Márquez. Precisely in him they are inspired for the current tasting menu ‘Hojarasca’ (85 euros), a tour of the different areas of Colombia on the back of the fanciful stories and the biography of the Nobel Prize for Literature. After 15 years in Spain, Rodríguez opened Quimbaya in December 2019, just a few days before the (fateful) change of year. “2020 will be the year, I thought, and boy was it,” he recalls with a smile and bright eyes. “The pandemic came and we couldn’t reopen until September 2020. In March 2021 Michelin already included us in the guide and a few months later the star arrived.

The only Colombian Michelin star in Europe

Now Quimbaya has the honor of being the only Colombian cuisine restaurant with a Michelin star in Europebut, until just a few weeks ago, he was completely unknown to most gourmets in Madrid: a complete cover-up. The place, small and discreet, with just eight tables, draws little attention from outside and Edwin, wearing his everlasting cap, is one of those chefs who prefers to talk to his dishes rather than look for the spotlight.

The merit, therefore, is enormous for a chef who, before embarking on his own adventure, was working for seven years with the popular Pepe Rodríguez, jury of ‘master chef‘ and a Michelin star for the restaurant El Bohío, in different projects. “Pepe was the first person I called when they gave me the star to tell him that part of the success was his. He told me that it was very good and that he knew he was going to achieve it,” says Edwin, who considers the chef from La Mancha his mentor: “When I started thinking about opening my own business, Pepe always told me that this was very hard.”

In Spain by Ferran Adrià

The other person he remembered as soon as he put on his jacket on stage at the Palau de Les Arts de València was his mother, already deceased. “Together with her I began to take my first steps in the kitchen, kneading dough. She made arepas and I made arepitas by her side“, comments Edwin. Then came the experience in five-star hotel restaurants in Bogotá and, finally, the jump to Europe: “At first, I thought of going to France but later, seeing what Ferran Adrià was doing, I decided to change my destinationSpain fell in love with him and he did not move anymore.

From Pepe Rodríguez he learned how to “refine the power of the kitchen”. “La Mancha and Colombian have many points in common due to the strong personality they have.” He then worked alongside Jordi Cruz on the ‘Masterchef’ online kitchen project and also on the reality show ‘My mother cooks better than yours’ together with chef Sergio Fernández. “There I learned a lot about the housewives who were going to compete on the program, the truth,” he confesses with a laugh.

Quimbaya gastronomy, an open book

When one enters Quimbaya, it is easy to feel at home. Not surprisingly, among the regular clientele are staff from the nearby Colombian embassy. That air of an ‘arranged, but informal’ eating house is maintained with harshness to the traditional ‘Michelinian’ requirements in the form of the absence of tablecloths, but it dissipates when one receives the printed menu: 12 passes to enjoy Colombian cuisine? Signature cuisine? “Yes, this is an author proposal based on my roots and my memories”, explains the chef, who also seeks to convey the essence of Colombian cuisine.

“People associate citrus with Peru and hot peppers with Mexico. Through these dishes I present the essence of Colombian cuisine, more balanced and in which sweet touches have a certain role.”.

There is no bread in Colombia

In Colombia we don’t have bread, we have dough such as the arepa or the ‘pandebono’…”, describes Edwin who reserves a pass for these accompaniments and butter, divided between sweet -with panela, “a very important ingredient in Colombia”- and salty -with ‘hogao’, a kind sauce based on tomato and onion-“.

In the ‘snacks’, the menu becomes Caribbean with three passes in which an aesthetic cocktail of prawns on a flower stands out, reminiscent of those that are made in a sweet format in Extremadura, although in a lightened version. In the following steps, the menu will make stops in the rest of the country’s diverse areas: Pacific, Andes, Orinoquía and Amazonia.

Magical realism and good food

The nods to Gabo follow one another from the name of the menu, ‘Hojarasca’, in homage to the writer’s first novel, passing through the wonderful dish of boronía -a mixture of eggplant and banana-, fried red snapper -García Márquez’s favourite- and lemongrass infusion. The habit of the Nobel laureate’s grandmother, Doña Tranquilina, of talking to ghosts is transmuted into the smoke that envelops the scallop, tamarind and mango dish.

This is one of the chef’s favorite dishes from the new menu. “The combination of flavors is good and reminds us of that atmosphere of coffee farms, in which eses of smoke from coal and wood stoves float in the environment & rdquor ;.

Filtered coffee made in the room

As a first-time Michelin star there are things to polish in Quimbaya, although they have plenty of time for it. Perhaps the main ones lower the level a bit, although the duck, with a simply perfect point, comes out better than the lobster. That yes, it is necessary to recognize that the entrance in scene of the chontaduro, a tropical fruit, in the case of the fish, contributes a different and surprising touch. The wine list is also too short, with barely thirty references. However, here the cocktail bar must have development, as it could not be otherwise.

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One leaves Quimbaya with the feeling of having taken an accelerated course in Colombian products and elaborations. The chef’s decision to serve natural fruits such as lulo, starfruit or tree tomatillo as a kind of pre-dessert is correct. The dessert based on coffee, cocoa and rum is also a successful alliance of products and flavors that make us travel to Colombia.

The climax is put by a pleasant after-meal conversation with filtered coffee made in the room to leave the best possible memory not only of Colombian gastronomy but also of the personal journey of Edwin Rodríguez, a chef who, in just over two years, has managed to embark on his own path and make a name for himself among the elite of Spanish cuisine. And that is no story.

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