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Maria Barriga: Colombian Chef Embodying Sustainable Values

Maria began her culinary journey at the age of 11, finding solace and comfort in cooking after the loss of her mother. Immersed in the world of "el canal gourmet" and surrounded by a family with a deep passion for food, she spent hours recreating dishes, leading her ongoing exploration of cooking to become living art, a constant passage into the unknown that expands her mind and fuels her desire to learn and evolve. Maria's culinary odyssey continued as she worked as a Pastry Chef with the infamous Rausch Brothers in Bogotá, leading her to traverse five different countries and contribute her expertise to some of the world's finest restaurants.

Maria spent four years at Roberto Solís' Nectar restaurant in Mérida, Mexico, working her way up to Chef de Cuisine. She then moved to Chicago and got to work at Grace (3 Michelin Stars) and Alinea (3 Michelin Stars), followed by Noma (3 Michelin Stars). After that, she moved to Spain to work at legendary institution Mugaritz (2 Michelin Stars), initially as a Chef de Partie and then eventually as the third female Chef de Cuisine. Maria moved back to Latin America to strengthen her culinary skills at MashipiLAB in Ecuador and Maximo Bistrot in Mexico City as the Chef de Cuisine. She most recently worked at Oxalis (1 Michelin Star) in Brooklyn and is now a freelance private chef with 12 years of culinary experience.

By Maria Barria as told to Chefs for Impact

C4I: How has your upbringing impacted you with your approach to food and sustainability in general, and what does sustainability mean to you?

MB: Well to me I think sustainability is very related to my cultural background. I think I started seeing it when I wanted to learn traditional Colombian cuisine because I felt like I had the responsibility to pass this information through new generations or through new cooks but I didn't even know about it because it's something that you're not really taught in school so I learned. When I went to culinary school they teach you French cuisine but to me sustainability is really related. It started becoming something that people are talking more about and it just kind of makes me more aware of the place I am in and the context of the people that I am working with, and where the ingredients come from.

I left Colombia when I was 20 years old and coming to America has been a big shock in a way because I grew up in a culture where waste is noteven an option. Where I grew up you always try to make the best out of the ingredients you have because sometimes you're not going to have them. But here in America, you have so much of everything. It's kind of crazy the amount of products that are produced here, and at the same time, you have things that go to the garbage. To me this is something that I'm really passionate about. I like to try to think about other ways to to use food. This does mean more work which is something people don't realize and they don’t want to do it because everything we do in the kitchen is already very tiring. But at the same time it's our responsibility to try to be more aware and more conscious.

When I moved back to Latin America to work on a project in Ecuador which was based on working with communities in one of the most biodiverse regions in the world so it's protected, but at the same time, there's a lot of deforestation happening. Our project was really inspired by food that can change the world. That food can change the way you live your life, how you relate to the environment, how you work in a community. So that's when I started to really get into it especially because I was working with people who have done this for many years so that was really inspiring. We even started thinking about what techniques in cooking would be less harmful for the environment. Things like, how much C02 you would generate by grilling, how much food would you need if you wanted to grill - so that project to me was very special and it ended because of covid. It was a research lab so we were going to do it for five years but we could only do it for one year so that set the basis and then that's when I had to leave but to me sustainable living is something that you practice every day just by conscious decisions that you make daily. Like I said, in a restaurant we're not really aware of many things that we could take care of - we actually think resources are infinite but they're not. That's something that I'm really trying to always keep in mind. In my cultural background and what you see in most cultures you reuse everything, but it's not part of trying to be sustainable because it is just like that to begin with.

C4I: What are some practices or techniques or elements that you've picked up from working abroad in so many different places that you try to incorporate into your own work?

MB: I could go country by country. For example, Denmark is so different to where I come from so this was very interesting. When you come from a tropical country where you don't have seasons it's really hard to think of how to keep progress until the next season so you try to use everything you can but this is mostly due to the economics. This is why in third world countries resources are limited even though they're not, but when I went to Denmark it was different to see how they would preserve everything. They were so mindful about preserving produce because produce was going to be limited for 6-7 months a year and that opened a new window of ideas, not just in the shape of preserving food but also how you can enhance and bring different flavors. There was a guy named David at Noma, he was the head of the fermentation lab and now he's teaching a master class about fermentation. I worked with him on fermentation and learned about how it's beneficial for your gut and so the more time that goes by, the more you start learning about it. To me going to Denmark and Europe was a lot about preserving for the future and preserving for just developing your taste buds. Mexico has a really strong cultural background where they preserve their ancestral knowledge so much and to me that's fascinating. Preserving traditions is something that is so important and sometimes we're not aware of it and we think more about what's coming next but we're going to look back and see like hey there's a reason why this has been done for so many years in history. In Colombia we don't really think of preserving food, it's more about whatever you have is what you have for the day. The more that people go to other places to learn and come back, the more knowledge they bring which is really nice and I think those are probably the places that have had the most impact in my career.

C4I: Do you think that there is something that women bring to the food world that stands apart or stands alone that really enhances it?

MB: Women have always been involved in cooking so once it became a career and menstarted being a part of it and I was like “ok you're a chef, but throughout history, we've always been here.” Our ancestors, like our mothers and other women, have always been cooks. I talk a lot about how important it is to have women in a kitchen and to have an environment that feels more balanced. In all the kitchens I've been in, I was the only woman and I think I'm very masculine because of that. I used to be kind of ashamed but it's part of who I am because I had to be like that in order to survive in environments that were so masculine and there is so much pressure, and you have to deal with so many emotions.

I think women bring this nourishing part to food. I believe a lot in energies and how the masculine and the feminine energy play an important role in this and I don’t think only women can be feminine.I think we both have both but of course as women you bring this nourishing environment. The older I grow, the more I realize how important the human component to food is. For example, how it can bring us closer together, how we can learn from each other, how you can be a better person about what you’re doing so women definitely bring this nourishing part that I think is always needed. We grew up in the world and they would tell you like women are your competition and you feel like you are fighting for attention. Now that I am older, we are here to create and I get a lot of women who send me DM’s and say “I admire your work so much” and that inspires me a lot to keep doing this for women.

C4I I think in my Greek family the gender dynamics are very strong, still very patriarchal and it is the woman providing everything, but cooking isn't seen as very respectable in a way. it's just the job and the duty that comes with being a woman. Would you say that is the case in Colombia, has that changed at all?

MB: Yeah definitely, so I grew up in a kitchen as well but always with all the women. Men were playing cards, drinking and the women did the cooking, cleaning, and taking care of the kids. When I said I wanted to be a chef, my family was like well why do you want to be that? The only one who really supported me was my dad because he always cooked which was nice. But yeah, In Colombia it's the same, it's like a very patriarchal system. That's why to me it is very important to create a space for women to be safe, to express themselves, and to create a professional future. I really love to work with women and be that nourishing space to create that for other women too.

C4I: How important is the connection to farmers for you and the relationship to producers in what you're doing and what you're creating?

MB: I think it's everything. I mean I have a kind of like love/hate relationship for the restaurant industry and how it is because you learn so much but at the same time it creates a disconnection because sometimes you're just focused on doing so many things and the day doesn’t have enough hours for you to have a life,and even less so for you to foster a relationship with producers. In Spain I used to have a super close relationship with the people that sold the produce to the restaurant because we work with three small producers so I would go in the morning to the market and in France I would go pick up the water somewhere and pick out the cheese somewhere else. You have to develop a relationship. It made me respect and treat the produce even better because you're getting to know someone that's devoting their life to do this. I think it creates a better sense of awareness of where things come from. I used to help a friend with a little farm so everything we used at the restaurant came from the farm. My friend who was also my mentor, she eventually got her own farm and I would go and help out and I could just see the amount of work that it was. I think the more you are connected to that the more respect, admiration and awareness you have for what you are doing and it keeps you in check.

C4I: We’re doing a pop-up dinner at the end of March together, so I wanted to ask what people can expect from your cooking?

MB: Honestly that's something that I've been trying to figure out over the last months because I've been working for somebody else most of my career and of course I've been creating my own things in that process. This is something that I've been thinking about lately because I've had more time to think about what my style is and how I can define what I do because I do get inspiration from other places. What I really want to kind of dig into more is my roots which is why I'm going to Colombia now to travel and research. I grew up in Colombia but Colombia has been in war for 50 plus years so it was really dangerous to travel in Colombia so I didn't really get to know my country when I was little. So now my plan is to go there and travel and try to contact the communities to try to build a relationship with them and try to see how they live, what they eat, what their habits are because that honestly is one of the things that inspires me most in my career. The human part I go back to again because it's what inspires me, and being able to share my background through my roots and through my food is what really moves me. So everytime I go to Colombia, I come back and I try to createeither a menu or a dish, and I always bring back produce. I like learning where the food comes from, what it's used for, and who produces it. That to me creates a strong connection with not just the produce but with the people that are behind it and I like to put that in my food. A lot of my food now is really inspired by Colombia and me trying to reconnect with my roots.

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