How covid-19, passion for nutrition and the Peruvian rainforest transformed a chef’s vision of food

Hello, Roots Radicals community!

I hope that we’re enjoying -in a responsible way- the reopening of our favourite cafes, restaurants and bars. Not too long ago our public spaces with food were shut down for over a year, although it was a very frustrating time, this also taught us many lessons about our eating practices. In the absence of someone else preparing food for us, we may have found in the kitchen space, room for  experimentation and reconnection to our senses. Either through baking banana bread, making pasta from scratch or starting your kimchi ferment, we awakened our cooking knowledge. These back-to-the-kitchen phenomena during the lockdown, also evidenced that how we source food is as important as how we consume it. Local and biologically grown produce regained value in our daily meals, not just because it was trendy but due to the amount of  nutrition they provide. In the light of this, even some of us started to grow edible plants and spices in our windows, balconies and gardens, reaffirming the connection between our body health and nature.

Either if you experience some, all, or none of the above-mentioned actions around food during the lockdown, one thing is certain: we all have a role in the global efforts for more sustainable Food Systems. But to understand this, we need to exchange stories and lessons learned, to speculate different futures for our food communities -on a local and global scale. This is why we invited a very special guest to our Rooted Lives #12, the chef and amateur farmer Matias Cilloniz. 

Matias studied in Le Cordon Bleu in Lima, Perú, and then gained extensive experience by working at different international kitchens in Spain, USA and Australia. When he came back to Lima he kept on learning together with the chef Virgilio Martinez at the kitchen of Central, as well as other restaurants in the city. But he recalls as a crucial learning point the moment he met our dear co-founder chef Monica Kisic. “At that moment I had started to develop a very instinctive way of cooking, and part of these explorations happened during a few pop-ups with Monica,” Matias told us, “we used to go to a farm near Lima, harvest what they had and decided what to cook instinctively and full of love -sounds a bit hippie but it was a great experience to listen to myself and the products and go with the flow.”

Matias Cilloniz, in his open kitchen at Gocta Natural Reserve. Photo: Gocta Natura

“I decided that I wanted to be a chef from a very young age, and I have different sources of inspiration. I grew up in the countryside in the South of Lima, and I come from a family that works the land in different ways. My grandfather, my father and uncles, and now together with my siblings we have a deep connection to nature. So I always had contact with the soil and fresh produce like tangerines, asparagus and paltas [avocados] -which my father used to grow. I was very lucky to harvest my food as a kid, to play beneath the trees or play in the river. So, I’m very close to nature in every sense. My mother and her mother are great cooks, my grandma was an Italian descendant and besides cooking beautifully she was an amazing host. She gave me that, I love being a host. That’s the way I’ve designed my practice: one step in the kitchen, one other in the dining room. So I get to interact with the people I’m working with but also talk to those who I’m serving. Those are my inspirations to become a chef: a close relationship to the land, and great cooking flavours that are shared by great hosts.”

As we all know, the Covid-19 pandemic that has been among us since last year, affected different aspects of our social and cultural lives. Lockdown slowed down our massive consumption and revealed the environmental impact of the global food production chain. And one of the most heavily impacted industries was the gastronomy one, with restaurants, cafes and bars closing down for over a year. Matias, who is a chef and founding partner of Mó Cafe, also experienced this crisis vividly. But, besides the economical and logistic worries, his deepest concern began with the fear of not longer having food security -which is essentially being able to access food that fulfils your nutritional needs. “I started to think how fragile our Food Systems are, and how dangerous it is not to be sustainable and self-sufficient in our food production.” In the search of a more rooted gastronomy practice, and eager to experiment with growing his food, Matias took the opportunity to move to Gocta in the Peruvian rainforest of Chachapoyas. As he said, he had the privilege that the Gocta Natural Reserve was the result of a twelve-year reforestation project, from his parents.

Gocta Natural Reserve, its orchard and recovered cloud forest in Chachapoyas. Photo: Gocta Natura

“Although the lockdown time was pretty difficult, I’m grateful that it challenged me to follow my instinct and come to Gocta. I’ve always shared the ecological values of my family, and now as head chef of the kitchen in Gocta, I get to put into practice all that makes sense to us together with nature. Although, as a child, I learned from the forest to give health to the soil, I didn’t know how to take care of an orchard. So I started to look for information, especially on YouTube channels from farmers in Chile and Australia. I began learning from their experience, kindly shared for free through these videos. But also I took on the lessons from my mother, who had already started the orchard a few years ago, and complemented it with new knowledge. The greatest discovery was the microbial relationship between the nutrition of the soil and the probiotic nutrition of our gut.”

It is a big decision to start an orchard, also known as an edible garden, and surely is not a layback process but from Matias’ experience -and my own- is one of the most gratifying life lessons. First, it teaches us patience, to pre-grow your seeds and prepare the soil with fiber, compost and animal feces nutrients (yes! It can get messy) and give it time to absorb it. Second, it makes you aware of seasons, the changes in temperature, wind and sunlight are crucial to growing certain types of food. Thirdly, it shows you that nutrition and biodiversity go hand in hand, there is a vitamin and flavour richness in endemic and regional crops that cannot be found in generic supermarket food. Finally, it shows us that it is ok to fail, that interacting with living beings is a learning curve and that nature knows more about balance than any human could understand.

“When I arrived, the forest was already 10 years old so it had been absorbing nutrients and laying leaves for a long time. I had an incredible amount of compost that I could use for the paths of the orchard. This first layer was amazing, full of life (worms and bacteria) and delicious soil, which I thought would ensure that my first season harvest was going to be successful. But no, this process is not perfect -after some of the crops die, the dry season came and made everything more difficult. Now, one year later, the soil of the orchard is perfect. I learned that it takes time, not only to grow plants but to grow the soil. The reforestation that my parents started was a long process but it brought so much life and biodiversity back into this cloud forest. It just took a little bit of human help for nature to take over and self regulate itself again. The orchard was the only piece of this forest land that we kept for ourselves, to grow food and, through compost, to give back to the soil.”

Sustainable Gastronomy in the middle of the Peruvian rainforest. Photos: Gocta Natura

Matias also shared with us the importance of working in community and solidarity systems. As we had explored with Tiny Farms or Food in Community, in our previous blog posts, food has the power to foster strong collaborations between collectives and nature. When we start to care about the multiple connections that surround our food production, we can even develop fruitful relationships while sharing responsibilities joyfully. As Michael Pollan said, in his article Why Bother? for the New York Times, growing your food could “re-engage you with your neighbours, for you will have produce to give away and the need to borrow their tools”.

“The pandemic was very hard on the Gocta community, they needed to burn a lot of forest land to grow food to sell and consume, and also to plant grass to feed their animals which could also provide food or money. This survival mode taught us to work in constant collaboration. In our case, because the reserve holds a sustainable hotel boutique, we can’t grow or have animals inside the property by law. For me this was the only piece missing in the orchard to be a complete cycle: we grow the soil, the soil grows our food, the food grows us and we give it back. 

So, although we couldn’t have animals here, some neighbours were especially growing animals, like cuys (Peruvian guinea pig). From them, we get the cuy’s meat for our kitchen menu, and guano (animal feces) for enriching the compost deposits. Also, when we harvest the corn, we give these neighbours the surpluses (leaves and small crops) so they can feed their cuys and other animals- which will again provide guano for our crops. Besides this amazing production cycle, we also support the local community food business, like milk-based products such as butter or cheese. In addition, we are also exchanging crops with a farmer lady that is at a higher altitude than us and she can grow a broader diversity of endemic roots, like mashuas and ocas. We are constantly searching for this kind of alliance with the community, not only to enrich our kitchen but to elevate the nutritional value of our food and soil.”

Gocta community, agriculture and biodiversity. Photo: Gocta Natura

All these experiences that Matias shared with Monica and me are so meaningful because it evidences how important it is to trust your own process into a more sustainable life. For him, the kitchen delimited his realm of experimentation and knowledge around food, but he carried within an ecological curiosity that expanded his practice into the soil -the origin of food and nutrition. His gastronomical education in the city and his working experiences found the missing complement of dealing with the life cycles of food. As it is in the earth, so it is in the body -we need vitamins, minerals and probiotics to grow a healthy gut. We trust our favourite restaurants and cafes to also take care of this fragile balance, and introduce circular processes in their kitchens. “Our job as chefs does not end with coffee and dessert, it ends with digestion,” said Matias, and we hope this inspires our readers, either professional or amateur cooks. This brief glimpse into a very unique path from table to farm taught us that we need to become part –or at least be more interested- of the whole process of food. 

Now that we are “back to normal” let’s not forget what we learn during the lockdown days, how crucial food became in our everyday lives and what links we identified in our eating practices. We may be surpassing this health crisis -although many parts of the globe still struggle with it- but we are all responsible to take action to fight global warming. Being conscious about our food is a good departure, the ecological revolution can be as delicious as our kitchens are sustainable.

Let us know your thoughts, which is your pandemic food story and how did you learn more circular/sustainable ways with it?

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