25 October 2006

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.

I met Fede seven years ago in Munich, Germany. Both fresh out of high school and postponing college to learn German, we struggled through morning grammar classes with Frau Petra, drank liters of beer at Oktoberfest and spent nights in the kitchen cooking the only dish we knew how - spaghetti with meat sauce. In six months we foreigners became fast friends but lost touch after leaving.

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 China for three years, or return to Colombia to finish a degree in Industrial Engineering and write his thesis - a business plan for a small restaurant he was dreaming of.

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 Colombia, always cutting the questions short with the same playful taunt: ¨you just get there.¨ I´m not going to tell you anymore - get there and you will see for yourself. When I finally set out from Lima, it took two weeks on a cargo ship in the Peruvian Amazon, a short plane flight, and taxi ride to 'get there.'

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.

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.

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
. A country of indescribable beauty with good people who grow up dancing salsa and lingering over cups of tinto, but struggle with limited opportunities. The troubled society's problems are compounded by the violence of a decades-long armed conflict fueled by poverty and the drug trade. In more private moments, he reveals the pressure of being among the few priveledged Colombians with a university education who have the opportunity to try new ventures. He doesn't know if this is the right path for him (of course, there was only one way to find out) but the decision to return to Colombia instead of going to China reveals his deep committment to build opportunities in his home country.

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

2 ripe (black!) bananas, ¾ cup safflower oil, ½ cup white sugar, ½ brown sugar, 2 eggs, 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

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. 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.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

danke eric for the pics
i tried several times to figure out how his place looked like.
when when when will we be having our reunion?the three of us.
viel spass meine freunde.vermisse euch.und wenn ich euch zusammen sehe sogar mehr. wir werden uns bald wieder treffen.ich bin sicher.
from zh to bogota -San-

4:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

ciao eric, still around the world? cool pictures as usual! think of me on november 5th, i will be running my first marathon in NEW YORK!!

ps: still making banana bread your way... it always comes out perfect, love claudia

6:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mi baby,
Te extrano tanto!!!! Sin embargo me alegro muchisimo que estes disfrutando de esta experiencia tan increible.
Estoy tan orgullosa de ti. Y pensar que hace solo unos pocos anos malamente podias decir "un bocadillo de jamon con cerveZa".
Mi vida no puede ir mejor. Tengo tanto que contarte.

8:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Que te puedo decir?
Todo esto es como un sueno!
Me da mucho gusto que estes bien y que estes viviendo esta maravillosa experiencia!
Saludame a Fede y dale felicitaciones de mi parte!!
Gracias por dejarme conocer otra parte de Colombia!!
CV (aka: ajito)

8:33 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Simply amazing, hearwarming, and delicious. Where did you learn to write and photograph and cook so well? Tengo celos, pero estoy muy alegre cuando leo sus cuentos. Besos y abrazos muy fuertes,

12:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A lovely description of Sopa y Seco and the energy behind it. I know Federico is going to make a difference in our country, and thanks for coming at a perfect time to help him with the small details.
Glad you like our country too!
Carla & family

5:10 AM  
Blogger the Everyday Anthropologist said...

What an inspiring story of yet another brave soul following his dreams and taking life one day at a time. I could use all such stories I can get. You have amazing skill at portraying the humanity of the people you write about, the vividness of the situations you describe, and at incorporating lessons of life and circumstance seamlessly and compellingly. You should consider putting this all in a book when your travels are done--complete with the amazing photographs, as well. Thanks again!

11:59 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Eric! Gracias! Por Todo!
And because you like Fede- bring sweetness and spice and everything nice to this world. I am so glad you are finally in Colombia...you completed Fede's dream!

besos y abrazos- Ale.

12:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

hola!!....soy Angela..q alegria saber q ya estas por alla, la verdad te envidio porq aunq yo este viajando por bolivia extraño mucho mi pais...espero q Colombia te este gustando...y bueno por alla estare con Miao (y sus amigas) y bueno mi hermano en diciembre o enero...seguro iremos a sopa & seco a ver la huella q has dejado en este restaurante....ola!!No has hecho el pudin de Zapallo??....mmmm...q bueno q estaba!!!!....bueno mucha suerte y te mando un beso PARA ATRASSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS..........jajaja

4:08 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

hello Eric,

( we met in München as well, i went to visit fede)
I was so happy to read your text about Fede's story! You can't imagine how much I love him and miss him (emails are definitely not on his agenda for now) and you brought me close to him again, thank you so much! What an excellent portrait of fede and colombia, the one i try to remember... mi Fede, i'm so proud of you!!!

12:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ericcccccc (and Fede) it's Paola...I'm sooo glad I'm finally deeing pictures of Sopa&Seco after requesting it for a long time!! I'm amazed!!Whoa! SOoo proud of Fede and thanking you for giving him a hand, he's really excited about the help. All you r comments describe very well the whole process and make me feel I've lived it too....I'm dying to see it (and taste it!) in person!!
Great Pictures of the restaurant and Bogota.
Enjoy your trip...I'll be definitely checking back on your blog...I'm also sort of a wandering cook!!

6:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Eric,

this brings back loads of good memories: Salamanca, South America, Travels...
Thanx for the update. Shame we will miss seeing each other in SD.
Besote, Andrea

4:14 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Eric querido....soy CarlosE
Mucha alegría nos ha dado tu visita y mucho más la ayuda que le has dado a Fede con su sueño de Sopa&Seco.....ha sido un value added a lo mucho que el ha trabajado en esa idea y en el deseo de cumplir sus sueños!!!
Igual nos alegramos de que disfrutes colombia....es un pais maravilloso!!!!....aún tiene mucho que ofrecerte. Estamos pensando ir a Bahía Solano en Diciembre...te apuntas?! Bienvenido!!! ojalá puedas acompañarnos.
Esperamos que estes disfrutando tu visita por la Costa Atlántica!!
Abrazos, CES

12:14 PM  
Blogger Namita said...

Hi Eric,
I'm Loni's friend from Chicago. Loni is visiting us in Budapest and we are enjoying bottles of Hungarian wine, and she showed us your blog. We're enjoying all of the love notes from your fans.

Seriously though, your blog is really amazing. Your photographs are incredible! What kind of camera do you have? I would really like to know as I am thinking of buying a new one. I have a blog also (www.budaadventures.blogspot.com), but it's not nearly as nice as yours and no one leaves me comments, not even Loni!! It looks really boring compared to yours.

You should move to Budapest and open a restaurant - this city could use something besides meat with meat and a side of meat.

Enjoy the rest of your travels and hope to see some vegetarian recipies on your blog!

Namita (and Loni and Kal (my husband))

2:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Eric - I enjoyed you and Fede's story, it's lovely (I don't know why but your posts always make me homesick :)) Very best of luck for Sopa y Seco, I'd love to visit the place one day.

Take care and have a great trip!

3:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Que hubo parce!!

Que chimba que este en Colombia. Yo estoy en la paz y los que mas extraño de la tierrita es la comida. Loco, esta en el pais de la buena sazon, COLOMBIA!!!.

Saludos y un abrazo para atras!!

5:38 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello, just met you today in Gualala. What a treat to have someone come to the the table and exclaim...panela!! So glad you know Colombia, and like it so much. Your article on your friend's restaurant is wonderful. So you are not only are a fantastic photographer, but an amazing writer as well! Thanks for sharing both links. The banana recipe sounds great... I bet where it says brown sugar, it is really Panela :) I will try it. May I use it as one of the recipes of panela? Hope you enjoyed our beautiful MEndocino coast. Angela (la Colombiana "cachaca"!

4:43 PM  

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