Updated: Feb 1
An exploration of the ancestral gastronomic traditions of Colombia that gathers people, and raises awareness for the protection of the environment.
Photo: courtesy Stephanie Bonnin
“Food heals. Food is a therapy”
Colombia native Stephanie Bonnin was set to become a lawyer. When she decided that she wouldn’t and that she wanted to pursue a career in the food industry, her family was very apprehensive. Where she comes from, being a Chef isn’t a career - she says. She decided to move to the US, where her journey as an immigrant was filled with novelties, experiences, and opportunities. In 2014, her father passed away, sending her into a depression that lasted two years. She found her way out through cooking, that she describes as a therapy. As she was feeling home sick, she started to explore her gastronomic origins closer to her home country. She then attended the Institute of Culinary Education, which set her foot in the stirrup to a career path that quickly led her to work in some of New York's most renowned fine dining establishments, including Cosme. Inspired by the world’s most famous and talented Chefs, such as Daniela Soto Innes, who she trained with, Bonnin decided to launch her own business.
La TropiKitchen, a pop-up dining series that she hosts at her home, turns Colombian cuisine into a food experience that gathers New Yorkers in an intimate setting. Proud of being a Latina woman, her curiosity and pugnacity have led her to realize her dreams: explore culinary traditions, cooking, and bringing people together. A visionary and passionate about innovation, her journey as an entrepreneur will surely not stop there, she’s one of these under-the-radar chefs you need to know around NY.
Welcome Stephanie to Chefs for Impact!
By Stephanie Bonnin as told to Chefs for Impact
What brought you to launch La TropiKitchen in NY?
“I went to law school, but I quickly realized that I didn't want to become a lawyer, let alone in such a corrupt country as Colombia. I decided to go back to school to learn English. During this transition time where I was learning a new language, a new culture, I met my husband who got a job in NYC. I feel so blessed to be in that city that gives you the opportunity to do so many things. But when my dad passed away, I was so depressed, I was really confused and so home sick. That’s how I started to cook, as a therapy. I found in cooking a way to reconnect with my Colombian origins. I started inviting friends over before going to culinary school, it was a hard decision for me to make, because I was afraid my passion become a career, and become discouraged about it.”
Where do your recipes and culinary knowledge come from?
“I worked at Cosme with the inspiring Chef Daniella Soto-Innes. This was such a beautiful experience. Working there made me realize how important the Latin community was in this country. Most of the kitchen workers are Latin, some of them undocumented and not as privileged as I am. It was eye-opening somehow, and such a real-life experience to be with these people who work so hard to support a whole family. Learning from Daniela how to transform a traditional Mexican taco into a real food experience, inspired me to move forward with my project. If she was able to do it, why wouldn’t I? I decided I wanted to elevate the Colombian gastronomy in New York.”
How would you describe your project LaTropiKitchen?
“This project is about me being proud to be a Colombian woman, it’s about my passion for food, it’s about gathering people and it’s about raising awareness. I want to introduce my culinary traditions to New Yorkers and make them understand that there is other Colombian food other than beans and rice.
As soon as you leave your country, you become an immigrant everywhere and you no longer belong anywhere. I’m using food as a vehicle for the immigrants to belong somewhere. I started with cooking for my friends but quickly people would come from all over the city. I turned my living room into a 16 seats dining room, and with the word of mouth it became successful. Few weeks later, New York Times, was on the paper.”
How did you adapt your activity during the pandemic?
“Similar to everybody, I am navigating in uncertainty, I had to refund all my clients and I had to cancel travel plans. While I was figuring out what I should be doing, my clients quickly began to miss my food. So, I started to do delivery service. It became big pretty fast. Two weeks later, I was already producing 60 meals by myself, in my tiny kitchen, and delivering all over New York.
A few days later, my husband and I had the idea to cook, and to have people pick it up from my kitchen window. People love it, and I love seeing them happy in front of my house. It’s also a way to support my community. I believe that food heals so, I wanted to provide food to my fellow friends and neighbors in this time of discomfort.”
What are the challenges with sourcing the compostable containers you use?
“Compostable is obviously more expensive than plastic, but I truly believe that it’s not good karma if you’re generating profit for a much bigger cost on the environment. I use craft containers thus reducing my margins. But I don’t feel like using a cheaper plastic alternative. Food is nature. If I don’t respect it, I won’t be able to cook the delicious products that nature has to offer.
I also used to do a lot of sous-vide because it was so practical but I reduced dramatically because of its negative impact. I’m going back to ancestral ways of cooking where the impact on the environment is less detrimental.”
Research is a big part of what you do, what are your learning from these?
“My research started as a part of my therapy, to look for traditional recipes, techniques and ingredients. I travel a lot around Colombia, even in the most remote areas as I wanted to learn more about every different local and traditional recipe. I went to places where, ten years ago, it was almost impossible to travel to because it was so unsafe. I needed to deepen my knowledge on the local culinary traditions from every different part of the country such as the Amazon, the pacific coast, and in the mountains. As I was traveling and visiting the local markets, I would carry back ingredients from the Amazon. I realized how beautiful and diverse the Amazon was. I also realized that the government was authorizing projects that are destroying the environment. I felt the need to raise awareness for environmental protection and be even more committed to that.”
What do you hope is next for La Tropikitchen?
“For now, I just wish I had a bigger kitchen and a bigger window!
I wan to become a Chef that connects art with food while cooking traditional food, carrying tradition and supporting the communities. How will I materialize all that in the future, I don’t know yet!
6 years ago, I moved to NYC, 2 years ago I finished culinary school, 1 year ago I was working at Cosme and less than a year ago I launched my own business and I started selling Tamales at Smogasburg. 2 months ago, I was featured in the New York Times. Today I’m selling food at my window. Life is full of opportunities!”
Learn more: https://www.latropikitchen.com/