Juan Manuel Barrientos Valencia – known in the gastronomic world as Juanma – is a Colombian chef, entrepreneur, and most importantly, an advocate of peace. He is the creator and founder of the El Cielo restaurants and the El Cielo Foundation. He has taken his cuisine to areas of major conflict in Colombia and through his cooking has been able to start a process of forgiveness and reconciliation within his country. We had the honor of spending some time with this incredibly inspiring man who has revolutionized traditional Colombian cuisine and has a schedule so packed it made our heads spin.
At age 34 you have been named one of the 50 best chefs of Latin America as well as Young Leader of Peace in Latin America, which title do you wear more proudly?
“It depends really, I think both. If we’re talking about food and cooking, being named one of the best chefs in Latin America is just amazing for your CV. Three years in a row I have been the youngest chef in Latin America to make the 50 Best list and my first restaurant in Medellin – El Cielo – has actually been recognized as a tourist destination. We were deemed so essential to the city that they made us an actual site to see. I’m very proud of all of that, but I’ve also been recognized by several foundations world wide as an entrepreneur working for peace. I have been invited by president Obama and the White House as a panelist of the global entrepreneurship summit – an event that took place at Stanford University – to speak about Cooking Peace, the main project of my foundation. Last year I even received the order of Democracy Simon Bolivar on behalf of the restaurant and our foundation, in the degree Cross Commander. It was given by the House of Representatives of the Colombian senate for our invaluable contribution in creating peace through the culinary craft. We were recognized as a clear example of how civil society can lead initiatives that represent a positive advancement in our country’s key issues; in how cuisine and gastronomy can transform adverse conditions in a society, even beyond its range of action. That’s huge to me and goes far beyond any personal gain.”
How exactly does your El Cielo Foundation ‘cook peace’ in Colombia?
“We train wounded soldiers who have been mutilated by land mines or in combat, former guerrillas and ex-paramilitaries in cooking and the other areas that make up a kitchen, in the hope that they will overcome their adversities and gain the tools necessary to create a new life. Also, so they can reconcile and forgive their former enemies. In the ten years that we have been active we’ve become an inclusive organization, where – in addition to working with soldiers and former guerrillas – we also train wives of kidnapped soldiers, victims of violence, peasants and indigenous people who have been forced to leave their places of origin. Throughout these years more than three hundred people have been trained under our supervision. Thirty percent of our El Cielo restaurants’ annual profits are donated to support these projects and we are the first in Colombia to work with both sides of the fence. Most foundations in Colombia either work for people who have left the army, victims or indigenous people, but we are the first in sixty years to work with everyone and who show our work to the world; who show that peace can be accomplished. Right now this is a relatively safe thing to do, however six years ago during the war it was very dangerous. But, we did it and thankfully we’ve been successful at it. We’ve been recognized by the president of Colombia, the minister of defense, by the army, the police – actually, the police in Colombia honored me at their 125th anniversary as one of fifty heroes in law enforcement history, civilian or police. That was a very big honor.”
What led you to become an activist?
“My mother is not a religious person, her way of teaching me about God was through meditation and social work. Through sharing with others. When I was nine and all my classmates were going to church to prepare for their first communions, I spent my time doing social work and I donated the money my parents would’ve otherwise spent on my party to a family who didn’t have any money to rebuild their house. It was then that I understood the power of spirituality, the power of helping people and of giving back. It changed my life, it became my religion. The very first month I opened El Cielo I had deaf people working in my kitchen, as well as wounded soldiers. Three years later we started working with indigenous people and victims as well. Then a year later we invited surrendered guerrillas and ex-FARC military. Now, everyone is working together.”
Born and raised in?
“Medellin, Colombia. But my family lived in exile in London for a while when I was seven years old. My father was a respected lawyer in Colombia and the mafia was after him. So, we had to escape. I also lived in Houston, Texas for a while and when I started cooking I moved to Buenos Aires for three years and to Spain after that. When I came back to Colombia I opened up El Cielo in Medellín, now we also have locations in Bogotá and Miami as well.”
You live between the three places?
“I do, but I go to about twelve countries each year and am on roughly a hundred and fifty flights.”
The airlines must love you!
“[Laughs] They do, but I sometimes lose track of where I am. For instance, right now it’s Friday and I arrived in Miami last night, then after the weekend I fly to Medellin, where I arrive at one in the morning and get picked up to go to another city at four. So, I have about two hours to sleep and re-pack my bags … It can get a little crazy.”
Do your wife and daughter travel with you?
“On the longer trips they do, but on trips like these when I’m only gone for three or five days, I go alone. It’s easier and better for the baby. But, when we go overseas, when I get invited to Paris or Madrid or the Caribbean for example, we all go and I try to add a few days for us to spend some time together and rest up a bit.”
We already know what your father did, how about your mother?
“My father was a lawyer but he now works in commodities actually. He has his own company and sells paper, starch, cardboard, plastic; any kind of packaging material. Before I started El Cielo I worked as a manager at his company, now my father works with me as well. We have businesses within the company – bottled water, coffee, chocolate – and my father manages all of them. My mother was home with us when I was growing up and now handles all the HR for my businesses. We have about two hundred employees world wide and she makes sure they’re all happy. We’ve become quite the family company actually. Both my sisters work with me as well, one of them runs our catering division and the other manages our so called ‘innovation’. For this year alone we needed to create about five hundred new recipes, my sister helps me with that. We work together, but I am the one who creates and she’s the one who creates order.”
How did you become a chef?
“I had been working with my father as of age sixteen and I was very happy doing so. I kind of decided to study cooking just for fun really and because of this I didn’t really take culinary school all that serious. So, I ended up getting kicked out. After that I decided it was time for something else and I took off to Buenos Aires to work with Japanese chef Iwao Komiyama, an amazing learning experience. When my time there was up I headed to Spain to work with Juan Mari Arzak. I told my parents I was taking a sabbatical and went to work in these amazing restaurants, as a hobby really, but when I came back to Colombia and I was still working for my father – I continued working for him while I was away – I realized I loved cooking way more than I thought. So, I opened El Cielo. Initially I started it as a side business, I thought I’d just cook a bit at night while working for my father’s company during the day. Basically I was pulling eighteen hour days: I would go to my father’s office at eight in the morning, scoured the markets during lunch to buy all my provisions for dinner service, then back to the office and around four or five in the afternoon go to the restaurant to cook until two in the morning. After a while I realized I was really hooked on the restaurant life and, so, I told my father I quit and I started focussing solely on El Cielo. Ten years later it still feels like a hobby.”
If you hadn’t become a chef, do you think you’d still be working at your father’s company?
“Yes, I really enjoyed it. But, I also think I’d be doing a lot of social work. I’m very pro-environment and I’d probably be doing something to raise environmental awareness. Actually, the end of this year we’re going to start teaching kids about nutrition via a plant based foods program. We want them to learn how to feed their bodies with the right foods that are super nutritional and at the same time have minimal impact on the environment.”
Do you feel that becoming a father has something to do with this new project?
“Yes, for sure, everything. When my wife and I started practicing to become parents [smiles] I actually cut red meat out of my diet. Because I am a chef I felt I had to know more about the impact food has on our bodies. Eventually, I ended up eating mostly vegan. I’m still a chef, so of course I have to eat meat every now and then and I still enjoy it very much, but I have reduced about ninety-five percent of my meat consumption. My daughter is raised completely vegan, the only exception we make in her diet is for organic chicken eggs, but other than that she eats no animal products and neither does my wife.”
Has this way of eating impacted your menus in your restaurants?
“Yes and no. Yes, because my menus are my essence and I definitely turned them into healthier menus. No, because my goal in each restaurant is different. For example, in El Cielo we want to deliver an experience to the senses, that’s the goal, and I’m still and always will be faithful to that goal. So, I will use what I have to in order to achieve that goal. But, I have reduced the use of dairy and red meat in El Cielo significantly. That allowed me to think in more healthier ways for my other restaurants as well. For example, I own a pizzeria and we used to offer just regular pizzas. Very gastronomic pizzas with amazing ingredients, but just the regular ones that have gluten, dairy, etcetera. Now, we also offer gluten free and vegan options and that opened a lot of doors for me. I’m actually opening a health food restaurant in Medellin right now. Really healthy food served in a really cool environment.”
Are the Colombians ready for this?
“Absolutely. I think the idea of first and third world countries is no longer relevant. In every country you can get really good food, íf you can afford it. It doesn’t matter if you’re in Paris or in Bogotá, all that matters is you having money in your pocket. There are no tiers of countries anymore, there are just tiers of equality. Medellín was named Most Innovative City in the world one year ago and the city has actually won the Lee Kuan Yew World City Prize two times. Of course we have poverty but ninety-nine percent of the people in Medellín have access to public services and if you are poor you won’t be charged for them. We’re well ahead of the curve compared to some other countries that are considered first world.”
What do you think is the biggest misconception about Colombian food out there?
“I don’t think there is a misconception about Colombian food, I just think people don’t really know what Colombian food is. If we’re talking about Peruvian food, the misconception could be that it’s just ceviche, right? Yet, this is far from true because they have so many other amazing dishes. If we’re talking Mexican food we can think it’s just tacos, which is not true because if you go to Mexico there are a hundred thousand different plates to choose from. The thing about Colombia is that no one can even name one plate. This – and my social activism – is what I want to accomplish with my restaurants and my food, I would like to show the world what Colombian cuisine is. Bring it to the world so people can actually get to know it.”
Guilty food pleasure?
“No, no, with dairy ánd sugar. I’ve cut down my intake of white sugar as well – it’s so bad for you and the environment – but ice cream is just different [laughs]. It for sure is my guilty pleasure. And, even though I know I have an amazing pizzeria, every Sunday I have to eat Papa Johns or Dominos. Don’t ask me why.”
What has been your favorite dish you’ve ever made?
“I did a pork rib with Tamarind sauce and Atollado rice – Colombian risotto – with cumin, vegetables, an apple foam and onions in vinegar. It’s comfort food but it’s so good. I’ve also made a dessert out of a ciabatta bread once. I took all the flavors of raw ciabatta – like the sourdough and the acidity of the yeast – and made seven different textures out of them, including an ice cream with a ciabatta cracker. I guess you could compare it most to cookie dough ice cream, but then ciabatta dough. Really fun. I also really liked my white onion soup with white chocolate nitro rocks. Sweet and savory, cold and hot, crunchy and creamy.”
What advice would you give a starting chef?
“Dedicate yourself. This is not just for young chefs, I think it goes for all millennials. I’m not a millennial, I was raised more generation X or even Baby Boom. My parents would not give me an allowance when I was growing up, I received a salary when I started working after school and if I didn’t go to work, I wouldn’t have any money. Nowadays people are used to being congratulated just for showing up somewhere. Best example, back in the day when you would run a marathon only the first three to finish would receive a medal. Nowadays everyone who participates gets one, even the ones who finish last, and it has created this unrealistic expectancy in people. We expect praise just for doing something. People are no longer taught to commit and it creates this counterproductive short-term thinking. Many millennials start working and after six months feel they need – or deserve – a new experience. But, six months at a company won’t teach you anything, yet there is no one telling them that. Instead they’re being told that life is short and you should chase your dreams. But even though life is short, accomplishments take time and commitment. My grandfather’s father died at age thirty five, my grandfather at age ninety, so his life expectancy tripled in one generation. Even if the world goes fast, you now – hopefully – have ninety years to accomplish something. This means you can actually think long-term and you shouldn’t change course every three months, because the only thing that’s going to leave you with five years from now is a CV worth nothing. Your CV will hold nothing of substance. At the restaurant we call them jumpers, kids who come in saying they’ve already worked in ten different places at age twenty three, thinking this is a great accomplishment. If you come to me with a resume like that, I don’t want you. I don’t care if you’ve been in the best kitchens in the world, if you’re staying only three months I can’t do anything with or for you. But if you’ve had your own hotdog stand in the streets of New York for ten years and you come in for a job, I will teach you everything you need to know and I will give you that job. So, my advice would be: commit to what you love. It’s worth it.”
“So much. This year I’m actually opening seven new restaurants … A few new locations of my pizzeria; the health food concept; another fine dining restaurant; a club and a mixology concept. In September I’m also organizing a food festival in my city and we’re building a small luxury El Cielo Hotel in Medellín right now – which I’d love to turn into a chain of hotels. Then in October my book on entrepreneurship comes out as well, for people who want to start their own businesses.”
You’re a busy man!
“[Laughs] Yes, I work a lot. But I enjoy life and I enjoy what I do, so even if I travel for work, I still get to travel. My main goal is to be a restaurateur and a social advocate, all while enjoying everything life has to offer. I think I’m doing well so far.”
Visit Chef Barrientos in Miami, Medellín or Bogotá and stay up to date of his new work in and outside the kitchen via his social media @juanmaelcielo.
To go behind the scenes of his impressive social activities, make sure to scroll down.
31 SE 5TH St, Brickell On The River North Tower Miami
Florida, 33131 USA
Carrera 40 # 10A-22, El Poblado
(+57)(1) 7035585 –
Celular:316 691 63 45
Calle 70 #4-47, Zona G- Bogotá