By Julie L. Kunen - Chefs for Impact special contributor
Chef Marsia Taha did not grow up cooking at her mother’s knee. The head chef of the renowned restaurant Gustu in La Paz, Bolivia did not inherit recipes handed down orally by her grandma. No, Taha grew up in a family of independent working women and it was her father who did the nightly cooking. But she reveled in the colors, aromas, and flavors of La Paz’s bustling markets and vibrant street food culture, where Bolivian women play prominent roles. At first Taha studied organic chemistry, hoping for a career related to medicine. But she lost interest in chemistry and decided to pivot to culinary school 13 years ago. There, she quickly demonstrated her talents, winning a spot-on Bolivia’s team at the Bocuse d’Or competition in Mexico. While there, she not only delighted in a bustling street food scene reminiscent of Bolivia’s own, but also witnessed the enormous pride Mexican chefs had in their cuisine. Taha left Mexico thinking of the potential to create the same celebratory gastronomic ethos elsewhere in Latin America.
Gustu, whose name means flavor in the Indigenous Quechua language, was founded by restaurateur Claus Meyer (of Noma fame). The enterprise had a dual mission: celebrating a new Bolivian cuisine and establishing a cooking school to train youth from vulnerable populations. Brought into the project by its opening chef, the award-winning Kamilla Seidler, Taha rose through the ranks from sous chef to co-head chef to helming the kitchen herself. Along the way she staged at eminent restaurants in Copenhagen, including Geist and The Standard.
Today, Taha oversees a restaurant deeply committed to exploring and celebrating Bolivian culture and identity through gastronomy. Her restaurant embraces a “kilometer zero” philosophy, meaning that every ingredient that finds its way onto the plate or into the glass is produced in-country. As Taha explains, “to be a Bolivian and a chef demands great responsibility these days, since we are in a process of consolidating a gastronomy with strong identity, that revalorizes what is ours. Everything I do in my kitchen clearly reflects my culture and identity.”
Taha and her team are the co-founders, together with the conservation non-profit Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), of Sabores Silvestres, an effort to advance the conservation of biodiversity, the preservation of food heritage and the promotion of Bolivian gastronomic culture. Among its signature activities are culinary expeditions throughout Bolivia’s far-flung ecosystems, which traverse the high altiplano and cross the snow-capped Andes to arrive in the dense forests of the Amazon. Together, chefs, conservation scientists, and journalists discover ingredients and culinary traditions through intimate exchanges with indigenous community partners living in these unique regions.
Dr. Rob Wallace of WCS, who co-leads Sabores Silvestres, says, “Marsia Taha is an exceptionally talented chef and her career trajectory at Gustu involved sourcing quality Bolivian products. That foundation combined with the Sabores Silvestres expeditions has crystalized her commitment to the producers, harvesters and local communities who provide those ingredients, as well as the incredible places where they occur.”
Taha and her team return from these journeys laden with new knowledge, new understanding of traditional preparations, and new ingredients, which they then work to translate into innovative dishes presented to their urban clientele. As Wallace continued, “by featuring ingredients sourced from remote communities whose market connections are challenging, Marsia and Gustu are providing novel economic opportunities. For example, 15 Tacana families are now providing paiche fish (Arapaima gigas) to restaurants in La Paz, quintupling their income per kg as compared to local sales, while helping to promote the harvest of this invasive fish in Bolivia.”
As another example, during one expedition to Charazani, the high Andean land of the mystical Kallawaya people, the expedition learned about ancestral traditional medicine and explored the production of Andean herbs and tubers. In the indigenous community of Aguas Blancas, Taha and her two sous-chefs cooked al fresco with members of the community, then back home in La Paz designed a tasting menu inspired by ingredients experienced on the expedition (see photos). The success of these dishes means that these villages now supply Gustu with two little-known specialty Andean tubers, oca and papalisa.
Taha believes in the role of chefs as activists, given the influence they derive from their high media profile. “I think it is very important that chefs play an active role in positively impacting the building of a more just and sustainable world,” she says. In particular, Taha feels that chefs should do everything possible to create value chains in which local food producers and processors, who are often given very little voice or stature in society, are granted the respect their work deserves. For Taha, this commitment to sustainability and equity also translates into a comprehensive environmental ethic at the restaurant, including reducing kitchen waste and eliminating plastic, minimizing the consumption of animal protein while emphasizing plant-based dishes, cutting the restaurant’s carbon footprint by buying 100% local, and utilizing specialty foods endemic to the many ecoregions of Bolivia to combat the environmental damage caused by food grown in industrial monoculture farms.
When asked what she is most proud of having achieved, Taha says, “knowing that I have the power as a chef to make a big impact in people’s lives is definitely my most important accomplishment.” But perhaps hers is the life most impacted, as it is through the lens of gastronomy that Taha has come to know Bolivia intimately in ways very few have the opportunity to do. For her, the future is for continuing on the journey to learn all that she can about the immense cultural and biological diversity of her country.
Pictures: courtesy by Marsia Taha
Huevo isaño - Organic fried egg, native potatoes cooked in mashua salt and caramelized with Amazonian balsamic
Papalisa y yougurt - Ulluco ice cream with goat yogurt
Cordero urucu - Fillet of lamb, freeze dried potato mash with achiote Caya - Souffle of freeze dried oca
For more info: https://www.saboressilvestres.org/en/
To learn more about Gustu: https://www.gustu.bo/en
To learn more about Julie's work: https://www.passions-fruit.com/