you just get there
For the past three weeks, I've been on Fede's schedule. Out of bed by 6, we're sipping tinto (black coffee) and blasting salsa music on our way to Paloquemado, Bogotá’s bustling food market. Our first stop is the soup stand for short ribs and potatoes in clear broth, arepas (fresh corn pancakes), and hot chocolate. For the next frenzied half hour we sprint from vendor to vendor to pick up the day's essentials. From there we cart it all back to his little storefront restaurant downtown.
The next time I saw him - six years later in San Francisco - he was considering whether to accept a lucrative offer from a German telecom firm to work in
A few months ago Fede sent me a short email: "Sopa y Seco opens in two weeks. . .if you get here around August I'll be able to take some time off." Since Germany he has promised to show me
Most of Fede's classmates from engineering school wear business suits and work in the tall office buildings in downtown Bogotá. Fede is there too, but in a bright red apron on the ground floor, scurrying around his downtown storefronthuequito. Though he only serves lunch, he works from morning to night. Evenings friends drop by his apartment and grumble about the office while running fingers around the edges of the mixing bowl. Fede's baking desserts for the next day, and with the chocolate cake in the oven he moves on to two mushy black bananas for banana bread. The recipe is from his grandmother, whom I notice he calls often for baking advice. When all the desserts are in the oven, he sits down and balances the books on a complex spreadsheet he designed when this was all just a thesis project.
Sopa y Seco is smaller than a two-car garage, but somehow Fede managed to fit twenty seats and tables and a fully functioning kitchen into the space. Before opening he worked just two months in a restaurant. Admitting he could have learned the food side more, he says, ¨if I waited any longer, I knew I wouldn't have the guts to do it. The only way was to dive in with the faith I would be able to learn as I went along. I found the right location, signed the lease, and from there I went to everyone I had been bargaining with and said, ´remember that fridge I've been heckling you about for the past few months, well I need it by Monday!´ ¨ With 14 million pesos ($7,000 US) and hard bargaining at every turn, Fede opened his doors that next Tuesday. The people came. Free desserts and heatness (Fede's anglicized word for the phenomenon that heat makes otherwise bad food palatable, and sometimes even satisfying) compensated for sloppy service and lackluster food the first month.
Fede is trained to be a numbers guy, not a cook. He dutifully records every expense, right down to the 800 peso (US$0.20) buñuelos (fresh cheese and flour mixed together and deep fried) he snacks on at the market. When he talks about the restaurant he often uses words like 'utility' and 'value added.' But numbers and free desserts can only go so far, and he wouldn’t be where he is now without Doña Emma and Eli. To him they're gold: ¨Unlike anything I've ever done in my life, the restaurant connects me to something larger than myself. The three of us, we all need each other.¨ Eli couldn't find a job as a young mother, and Doña Emma had been unemployed for two years after losing her former job for being 'too old.' They regard Fede with a warm respect, and work hard to make the restaurant successful.
Eli is in charge of salads, sandwiches, and keeping Fede's scampering mind on task, while Doña Emma makes the soups and stir-fries. Her vegetable minestrone is the backbone of the menu. Other dishes may have off days, but everyone savors the rich golden broth. When Fede removes the chicken bones that have been simmering all morning, he always finds a little hunk of meat that she slipped into the soup when nobody was looking. For years the butcher near her house has set aside the good trimmings for her. They were the base for the 'calentado' (leftovers stew) that she lived on, but now they end up in the minestrone - a nourishing soup that reflects the scrappy, homegrown, wholehearted spirit of the restaurant.
The rest of the menu is an appetizing mix of sandwiches and rice dishes that Fede has enjoyed in his travels. Although roast beef 'Philadelphia' sandwiches and stir-fries may not be what people are used to eating, the idea of having a 'sopa' (soup) and a 'seco' (main course) for lunch is not unfamiliar to Colombians.
With the exception of the desserts and the minestrone, the food needed help. ¨Dude, Fede, you can't freeze mushy carrots and green beans and then put them into a stir-fry.¨ I promised I wouldn't change the menu, just tinker with some of the recipes. Thinking about the buñuelos he records in the little black book, I also asked for an expense account. 'Marica, Eric, what in the world is an expense account?' I've never had one before myself, but I explained that it's an agreement in which 'you give me some money and I spend it without having to record every little thing I buy.' I got my expense account for the market, and was at the stove for two weeks until we settled on a few dishes that people really liked, had a good 'utility' (i.e. tasty, consistent, inexpensive), and didn't turn the little restaurant into a smokehouse. The stir-fry with pork shoulder (slow-cooked ahead of time), eggplant, red pepper, fresh ginger and basil has become an overnight hit. With the kitchen in order, the service immediately improved - Fede now sells more desserts than he gives away.
Sopa y Seco is developing a regular lunch crowd and already turning a small profit. Still after studying his spreadsheet, he decides to start opening on Saturdays. ¨Our parents have given us the freedom – in so many ways – to pursue our dreams. We owe it to them and to ourselves to try.¨ The immediate goal today is to establish Sopa y Seco, but there is more.
Fede loves Colombia
There are moments when he looks tired and overwhelmed by all the things that still need to be done. He constantly reminds himself to take things day by day - and a moment or two to appreciate its success up to now. In the next moment he's talking about long range plans to open more restaurants in which employees have a real stake in owning and running them. He’s come this far already. I have no doubt he'll get there.
¨If you want to post my grandmother's banana bread recipe, I should tell you that there is nothing she likes more than digging through her files to give someone a recipe. She will be very happy.¨ It's a simple cake - no distracting spices and nuts - that tastes like it was picked from a tree.
Pan de Banana Sopa y Seco
1 ½ cup flour, 1 teaspoon baking soda,1 teaspoon baking powder, 1 teaspoon cinnamon, ½ teaspoon salt
Blend the wet ingredients to a smooth puree.
Blend the wet ingredients to a
smooth puree.Sift the dry ingredients together, and add them to the puree. Mix gently to combine, adding ½ cup grated carrots near the end. Pour the batter into a buttered loaf pan and bake at 350° for 45 minutes. Enjoy it with butter and a strong cup of tinto.