Although in Venezuela the cuisine realm seems to have a male accent, four female chefs have put on the table their talent, creativity and respect so as to gain their space in a circle where men stand as leaders of the international proposal. The harshness of life behind the stoves seems to be mitigated by the almost poetic strength of this cooks when it comes to showing their passion for this art of stews and tastes, which connects people through their palates. Their main contribution has aimed the enhancement of local culinary traditions, autochthonous ingredients to prepare their recipes and the rescue of the Venezuelan people’s taste memory.
There are no Michelin-star restaurants on Venezuelan soil; nevertheless, the richness of the national cuisine is so remarkable that gastronome, journalist and researcher Micro Popic defines the geographic frontiers of the country in terms of the food: “Venezuela borders on corbullon de mero, carite en escabeche, pabellon criollo con tajadas, bienmesabe and lobster to the north; carne a la llanera, pisillo de chigüire, olleta de gallo, zapoara orinoquense and telita cheese to the south; empanada de cazon, cuajado oriental, talkari and funche to the east; and pisca andina, mojito de lisa, chivo en coco, paloapique, pastelitos andinos and huevos chimbos to the west”.
Helena Ibarra: “the cuisine is something to be respected and you can’t deceive people with false presentations”
Mrs. Ibarra is the first Venezuelan female chef in charge of the menu in the restaurant of a five-star hotel, Palms. “I’m 55 years old and I’ve been behind the stove since I was 13 when I had to make the private catering for my father; afterwards, I passed a cooking school named Cocido a mano and I subsequently opened my own restaurant ‘Helena Ibarra’. I’ve been working for 11 years in Palms”, she says. Her education enriched between Venezuela and France, where she improved her cooking skills by the hand of Joël Robuchon and Gerard Vié. Her experience made her win an international recognition at the Gourmand Cookbook Awards, in the Woman Chef category, in 2012, because of her book entitled Cocina Extra-ordinaria (Extra-ordinary Cuisine), where she put together the recipes of thirty years of work. According to Helena, the cuisine is a way of communication and, in that sense, it’s necessary to “create a culture that supports quality and humbleness, aimed at gastronomy and food”, she points out.
As for the Venezuelan cuisine, she thinks that “it’s still in the shadows; history has not been fair with us. That’s the reason why we must introduce in Europe products that have been left behind since the age of the conquest”, Mrs. Ibarra explains. Some of the most acclaimed Venezuelan ingredients overseas are “parchita or fruit of passion, which has scented many chefs from France; and sweet pepper that is a part of our identity in terms of aromas, it’s our Armani in the kitchen.”
In her exquisite talk on metaphors and history, you can feel her interest in surprising and appealing to the taste memory of her patrons, thus creating “a new alphabet in terms of food”.
Irina Pedroso and Mercedes Oropeza: “Arepa is as good as hamburger”
For this dynamic cooking duo the variety of tastes of Venezuelan gastronomy surprises the most discerning palates. “Our cuisine is characterized by peaks of sweet, salty, spicy and the inevitable sweet pepper, which give a generous connotation. We have an important heritage from emigrations, and we have welcomed them and adapted our recipes”, Irina Pedroso pointed out.
Mrs. Pedroso has been cooking for over 16 years and her career began with Helena Ibarra at Cocido a mano cooking school. Subsequently, she opened her first restaurant, El Cafe del Museo, and she later went to Amapola, where she already counts four years. Her “morocha” as they affectionately call themselves, Mercedes Oropeza, has over 20 years of professional activity and she has been recognized with the Gold Folk Award, National Product mention in 2005 and Armando Scannone Award in 2009, given by the Venezuelan Association of Gastronomy.
They have been working together for 2 years at Amapola restaurant, in Caracas, with national recipes and a proposal that has perfectly combined the classic and avant-gardist elements of both chefs. “We don’t transform recipes, ingredients or tastes; the traditional cuisine must be respected. First you have to know how to prepare caraotas (black grains) and then you can go creative”, Pedroso underscored. That’s why these enthusiasts of national tastes bet on rescuing taste memory. “The new generations don’t know our cuisine. We want to show that we’re way more than pabellon and asado negro”, Oropeza said.
“Arepa is the most internationally known element of our cuisine. People make arepas in the Canary Islands, New York, Miami, Peru, there are food-trucks; it’s a unique dish based on America’s mother ingredient: corn. We applaud the internationalization of arepa, but we believe that our cuisine goes far beyond that recipe. Venezuelan emigrants could help us develop our gastronomy abroad”, Pedroso underlined.
Maria Fernanda Di Giacobbe: “my cooking style is women’s”
This lady from Caracas is a researcher of national gastronomy, and she spent most of her childhood surrounded by cookers, stews and recipes. Her gastronomic career includes Vinosfera, Cafe Soma and Kakao, which she presently manages and it has boosted her national and international scope as a chocolate master.
Her studies, visits to plantations and contacts with growers have given Di Giacobbe the possibility to develop unique pieces with purely national tastes and aromas, as well as to show the quality of Venezuelan cacao abroad. Her experience has also been useful to foster social enterprising with women in Barlovento (the central region of the country) and support the From bean to bar movement in Tokyo.
She prefers to be called cook, instead of chef. “I never studied in a formal cooking school. I learned everything from my mother and numberless women throughout the country. I profoundly respect that army of anonymous cooks out there”, she expressed.