By Stephen Vargha
The “farm to fork” concept is getting more and more popular among restaurateurs. Count Javier Patiño is among the believers in maintaing strong relationships with nearby farms to buy fresh in-season food to serve to customers.
The chef and owner of Venga Restaurante has returned from a two-year hiatus while his restaurant underwent major renovations. Many may know Venga in its first life. From March 2015 to November 2018, it served a regular menu. Everything was a-la-carte. The meals were made to order.
Now, everything is different at this neighborhood restaurant.
“The focus here is enjoying. Venga is not a place to eat fast,” Patiño explains. “This is like a French bistro where people enjoy their meal and expect to spend several hours. They know the will eat well for a very good price.”
There is quite a bit of history for this restaurant at Calle Paseo Río Tarqui and Calle Paseo Río Miguir. Patiño grew up at the address that now houses Venga. It was his grandfather’s home, but he has turned it into a bed and breakfast as well as a restaurant. His wife and three young daughters live in a portion of the building.
There are warm memories of growing up in the house for Patiño. “Always in my house, we ate great. My grandmother was an excellent cook. My mother was very good,” Patiño fondly remembers. That love of cooking made it easy for him to decide to study tourism in high school.
That lead him in 2007 to attend the School of Gastronomy Mariano Moreno, in Buenos Aires, Argentina. During that year, Patiño learned how to cook Spanish, French, Italian, and Japanese cuisine. He returned to Cuenca to be a sous chef for two years at the Cuenca Tennis and Golf Club.
His ambitions took him to Le Cordon Bleu Perú in 2010. For six months in Lima, Patiño worked at Central Restaurante, the flagship restaurant of Peruvian chef, Virgilio Martínez Véliz. Patiño says it is consistently ranked as one of the top-five restaurants in the world.
To top it off, in 2012, Patiño spent three months as a temporary chef at Martin Berasategui, in San Sebastián, Spain. The restaurant that is named after the famous chef has been awarded three Michelin stars since 2001. Berasategui holds twelve stars in total, more than any other Spanish chef. Three stars is the highest honor as it means the restaurant has “exceptional cuisine and is worth a special trip just to visit,” even when it will set each diner back $350 for the meal.
Finishing off his culinary studies at world class restaurants, Patiño worked in Madrid at the Michelin two-stars rated Coque, run by the Sandoval brothers, Mario, Diego, and Rafael.
“I learned to work with freedom, working with good products with good techniques,” Patiño says. That is why Venga has become prix fixe – fixed price of $25 per person for a five-course meal. “I feel more freedom to create good food. I prefer change as I use what is fresh and available.”
Venga is only open Thursday, Friday, and Saturday with two sittings each day. One is at 6 p.m. with a second one at 8 p.m. Reservations can be made online at Venga’s website: http://www.vengagastro.com/.
It is a family affair at Venga. Venga’s wife and his sister help in the kitchen. It is just the three of them preparing the food as well as serving it to their guests.
Last week for Thursday dinner, Venga had fresh shrimp from Guayas Province. It was a limited supply, but that did not bother Patiño. “If I don’t have shrimp tomorrow, I can use fresh fish instead!”
Unique and unusual ingredients are used at Venga. Patiño’s grandmother in Guayaquil makes banana vinegar for him to use with his offerings. Unlike some flavored vinegars, flavoring has not been added. It is made from fermented plantano machos, a breed of bananas somewhere between a regular banana and a plantain. Most people flip when they smell and taste the vinegar.
His creations can take a lot of time. Patiño marinates some of his meats for 25 days before he serves them to his customers. For Christmas, Patiño used red fruits for the holiday meals. “They were all marinated in 25-year-old balsamic vinegar of Modena,” Patiño boasts. Traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena is one of the most precious treasures of Italian cuisine.
Attention to the details distinguishes Venga from many restaurants. For an appetizer last week, the gifted Cuenca chef treated a wooden platter to take one’s eating experience to the next level. Patiño wiped the slice of wood with a garlic infused olive oil. The scent fills the diner’s nose with the most pleasant smells, accentuating the experience of the first course.
Though the desserts change with what is fresh and available, Patiño has an affinity for chocolates, which are beautifully presented on a special wooden board. There are several choices including truffles. It will be difficult to choose a favorite.
Patiño recently stated online, “The passion for that free kitchen without filters without the formality of the living room, but with a product that stands out, that honest kitchen that transmits feelings that fills your soul, that reminds you and impacts you.”
He worries that Cuencanos may not understand his philosophy and special restaurant. “It is difficult with my concept in Cuenca. People are used to low prices and fast food.”
It is why every course that is brought to your table comes with an explanation and description by Patiño. He is patient and eager to answer your questions about his latest creations that he has personally brought to your table. It is all part of the pleasures of a great meal.
“You need to know when you come here, you will enjoy your time. It will be a quiet experience,” Patiño exclaims with a huge smile. “We are waiting for you in our house!”
Photos by Stephen Vargha