Diplomatic Pouch / January 29, 2010
By Larry Luxner
Quail egg with banana-passion fruit. Heart of palm soup. Braised snapper and coconut rice. Mongomongo cheesecake with yucca crust — not your usual D.C. diplomatic dining experience.
Then again, Catalina Vélez isn't your usual chef.
Flown up to Washington specifically for the occasion, Vélez, 32, is considered one of Colombia's top up-and-coming experts on regional and national cuisine.
On Dec. 9, she joined Terri Cutrino, head chef at Café Atlántico, to create an innovative four-course menu with wine pairings provided by the restaurant's beverage manager and sommelier, Jill Zimorski.
The lavish event — co-sponsored by the Embassy of Colombia and the Cartagena Bureau of Tourism — was aimed at promoting tourism to Cartagena, a charming colonial city on Colombia's Caribbean coast. It attracted over 70 guests, most of whom paid $85 each, and put the spotlight on Café Atlántico, itself a Washington institution that in late December celebrated its 20th anniversary in business.
"In one day, we were sold out, and 30 people were left on the waiting list," Vélez told us during an interview in the restaurant's kitchen, in between preparing the meal's first and second courses. "I thank Washington so much for giving me an opportunity to show who we are."
Born in the Colombian city of Pereira, Vélez was something of a child prodigy. She began studying business at age 15 and finished when she was 20. Vélez went on graduate from the Culinary Art Institute of Atlanta. She's also lived in Denver and in Austin, Tex.
"I'm a promoter of Colombian cuisine, or cocina de origen.I work with communities across the country to create cooperatives so that people will have a better way of life," said Vélez, adding that she's also done promotional work for the Colombian government in Argentina, Peru and Japan.
"We are just starting to show a different identity to the world," the aspiring chef told us, noting she's tired of people associating Colombia with its past image of violence, kidnappings and drug cartels. "We have many cultural expressions, and cuisine is one of them. We're trying to put it all together."
Vélez owns two restaurants — Luna Lounge and Kiva — in the city of Cali. Both restaurants are supplied with her own grains and fruits, which she later incorporates into such dishes as el arazá, el camu camu and quinua. Vélez also hosts two TV shows in Bogotá, "Origenes con Catalina Vélez" and "Cocinando Ando," which teach people how to use local ingredients in their cooking.
As diners enjoyed their dessert — mongomongo cheesecake served with 100 percent Colombian coffee — Luís Araujo, director of the Cartagena Bureau of Tourism, extolled the virtues of his city of over one million people.
"Cartagena is a wonderful place because it touches and caresses every one of your senses. I promise that when you go to Cartagena, you will feel the love our city has for its visitors," Araujo said, adding that the 477-year-old town — which in 1984 was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site — is enjoying a tourism renaissance at the moment.
"While tourism has fallen an average of 9 percent worldwide in 2009, in Colombia it has gone up 8 percent," he told Diplomatic Pouch."Some 90 percent of passengers who come to Cartagena get off to tour the city. That compares to only 50 percent on average for the rest of the Caribbean."
Araujo, noting that the State Department no longer advises U.S. citizens to avoid Cartagena, said visitors are completely safe there. The tourism official, who's worked in Bogotá, Madrid and Washington, D.C., conceded that "it took 10 years of living outside Cartagena for me to really appreciate the value this city has."