Cuenca’s newest chefs, including the first indigenous graduate, take the stage at culinary arts graduation
By Jeremiah Reardon
Christmas approached in Cuenca when I heard from my friend and fellow University of Maryland graduate, Carol Leutner.
Hi Jeremiah, I hope you and Belinda are doing well during this crazy holiday time. I am wondering if you can help me arrange some press coverage since you know people in the business. Do you want to call me and I will explain? Thanks. I am home all day.
When we spoke on the phone later that evening, Carol explained, “For graduation at this year’s Instituto San Isidro’s Culinary Arts program, my boyfriend Edgar Moina has graduated top of his class and will be its valedictorian and giving the commencement address. What’s notable for the Cuenca press is that he’s the first indigenous student to graduate from San Isidro.”
“Well, that certainly is newsworthy, Carol. Let me see how I can help,” I replied.
In a personal vein, she added, “Edgar felt discouraged about his thesis. I prompted him to finish the program. No way I’d be with someone who did all the course work but didn´t complete his thesis to graduate. Not after finishing my degrees and seeing my daughters through college.”
My friend’s message had such fervor that I simply couldn’t ignore her plea. On the afternoon of the event I first entered San Isidro’s campus on Avenida Solano, situated conveniently between my home and El Centro. I wanted to be sure that the Sala de Cuidad (City Hall) in Carol’s email as the ceremony’s location was in fact the Mayor’s Office, an ornate stone structure dominating the intersection of Simon Bolivar and Presidente Borrero.
At the Institute’s parking lot the security guard directed me onto the compact urban campus. Only a handful of students gathered outdoors. In a long first-floor hallway of the former family residence I approached the secretary, a friendly young woman who had on eyeglasses and wore a long-sleeved white blouse over her colorful yellow print skirt. After hearing her detailed description of the location, I felt satisfied it’d be at the Mayor’s Office where I’d attended art shows in its ceremonial lobby. After thanking her I headed downtown under gathering clouds just before sunset.
Just as I feared, however, I’d spend the next half hour looking for the correct Sala de Ciudad. At the Mayor’s Office the entrance was blocked with a black metal gate and no notice of San Isidro’s graduation in sight. I next tried Teatro Sucre, the Justice Center building’s auditorium. Then, I walked around to the opposite side of the Center, just in case. No luck. Across the street I heard singing within the Old Cathedral so I checked there. Then, I walked diagonally across the green square plaza, Parque Calderon, to the old Central School, recently refurbished for city events; its doors were locked.
A light rain fell and I pulled up my rain hood. I’ll go back to the Mayor’s Office and try to find someone to help me, I thought. There, the parking lot guard suggested I try Salon del Pueblo where I’d also been to an art show. I walked in front of the high-rise city hall building. Vendors and pedestrians gathered on its broad steps with a fine view of the park. Ah, perhaps it’s here. I never entered the building over eight years residence in my adopted city, so I had no idea what to expect.
Well, the sixth times must be a charm, I guess, for San Isidro graduates were assembled on its second floor. They wore uniforms of blue slacks and white jackets. Chatting quietly, they prepared to march into a well-lit auditorium. Eighty of them, in fact, as Carol told me once I’d found her just a few rows from the stage. I grabbed an aisle seat in front of hers, a great spot to take photos. These graduates, given the coronavirus outbreak, finally got their day to shine.
What earned my silent praise was how well-planned and executed the event was. I cherished this opportunity to connect with the technological institute established in 2009. In the hallowed hall I learned how it channels discipline and study to open career paths within the community for its graduates in gastronomy and the culinary arts.
Though printed programs had not been distributed, events unfolded coherently. Once the eighty students had been announced and taken their seats, the audience arose to sing the national anthem, Salve, Oh Patria (Hail, Oh Homeland). Then, we heard speeches by two faculty members, including one who wore the chef’s toque, a symbol of authority in commercial kitchens and restaurants worldwide.
Along with the students, a couple of hundred family and friends politely listened. A phalanx of photographers recorded the event as the individual graduates were called to rise and receive their diplomas. Six at a time stood in front of the faculty to have a chef’s toque placed on their heads. After all eighty had received diplomas and toques, the faculty on stage arose as one and applauded. Just as you’d see at a West Point graduation, the exuberant student body tossed those toques high in the air!
Once the students reclaimed their toques and sat down, it was time for the top two to be recognized; Leonela Cartuche, summa cum laude, Class of 2020 and Edgar, magna cum laude, Class of 2021. They stood on stage to have gold pins attached to their white jackets by a parent who accompanied them. In the case of the pony-tailed Edgar, his mother had arrived from Gualaceo, an ancient Cañari settlement, for the ceremony. Gladys, wearing a black and white print top and black slacks, pinned his for which he gave her a hug. Alongside, Senor Cartuche in a blue shirt and dark slacks did the honor for Leonola whose brown wavy tresses framed her smiling face under her toque.
Next, Edgar stood at the speaker’s microphone and addressed his fellow students and the audience. “We will see in the future what life has planned for us,” he said to admiring faces. Finishing to warm applause, he emphasized, “You deserve your dreams.”
At the ceremony’s conclusions the students stood and took an oath of responsibility to their profession. I felt stirrings of joy and hope for the well-groomed graduates. Again, patriotic music played on the PA system, with “Ecuador, Ecuador, Ecuador,” proudly sung by all who stood at their seats. The graduates soon mingled with family and friends who snapped photos.
With Carol insisting how important an event this was for Edgar and the indigenous Ecuadorians, naturally, I’d gone the extra length to get there. And how glad I was that I did, once meeting him, Gladys and his two younger sisters; “Katia’s a licensed nurse,” Carol proudly told me. “And Andrea is studying to be a veterinarian.” I felt respect for the Gladys and her children who along with the graduates, in spite of two years of the pandemic, had persevered with their education. And, on this solemn occasion which I felt privileged to have attended, they had been properly honored and the value of their education confirmed.
A couple of weeks later in the New Year, I met with Carol and Edgar for afternoon coffee at El Centro’s Hostal La Cigale. In a story I published in CuencaHighLife, “Condors in the Clouds,” Carol stated that her indigenous friend felt that I had been blessed to spot them on my hike in the El Cajas. That friend was Edgar. Condors in the clouds: A cold morning in the Cajas turns into a blessing | CuencaHighLife
I questioned Edgar about what he’d told me earlier how his father lived in Otavalo, an indigenous city famous for its outdoor Saturday International Market. “I’m mixed,” he humorously replied. “My father lives in the north and my mother in the south.” Edgar’s home, Gualaceo, is a bustling city east of Cuenca where my wife Belinda and I have shopped for handcrafted shoes and ikat shawls.
This time his hair hung loosely down to his broad shoulders. Reflective blue-lens sunglasses perched upon this head. When I asked about his present employment, he replied, “I’m independent. After working eight years at a pizza restaurant, I have my own catering business, TRIYU-Bakery-Gastropub.” Triyu is Kichwa for “trigo,” the Spanish word for “wheat.”
When I inquired about his struggles in becoming valedictorian of his class, Edgar said, “I attended school for three and a half years, paying $20,000 tuition, while I worked fulltime till midnight. From Monday to Friday, I attended class from 7 a.m. till 1 p.m. At the restaurant I felt held back. And as I closed in on completing my degree, I sensed envy. Because of my race, too, I suppose. So, I quit and became self-employed.”
Asking about his thesis project, he and Carol explained how he prepared for the faculty a power-point presentation of “Andino Sourdough Bread.” His year’s study involved use of quinoa, mashua, and maiz morado in creation of indigenous-style sourdough bread. “The project also required chemical analysis of the process,” Carol emphasized.
“And who was your faculty adviser?” I asked.
“Professor Fabian Velez. He owns Primitivo Bakery.”
“Belinda and I have shopped there, near the ECU 911 building,” I replied. “About six months ago, our friend recommended that we try it. We bought his sourdough bread and some pastries. Very good.”
To more fully understand Edgar’s achievement, I visited his professor at Primitivo Cafeteria, on Primero de Mayo. A larger branch of the original bakery and opened this past April, he greeted me at its sliding glass door with a hand spray bottle. “Are you Fabian Velez?” I asked the man dressed in casual clothes who appeared to be forty-years-old.
“Yes,” he replied. I explained how I contribute articles to CuencaHighLife and was now writing on one about San Isidro and Edgar’s academic journey after having attended the graduation. He offered a chair at a table to answer my questions.
I first asked about Edgar’s thesis. “He used seasonal fruit like apples, and potatoes for its sugar to create mashua, part of the fermentation process in baking sourdough bread,” Fabian explained.
“I learned from Carol how he almost quit yet he accomplished a great deal at the institute, graduating as class valedictorian,” I said.
“Certainly, he struggled, but he didn’t give up,” Fabian nodded in agreement.
“And it’s true that he’s the first indigenous graduate of San Isidro, Professor?”
“Yes, that’s true,” he replied.
“Do you know the name of the song played at the end of the graduation ceremony?” I asked while singing its refrain, “Ecuador, Ecuador, Ecuador.”
“No, because I didn’t attend. I had to work,” he replied.
Fabian told me he chose the name Primitivo to emphasize his use of basic, natural ingredients. Before leaving I shopped for bread and pastries, selecting rye bread, along with a chocolate croissant and a slice of cheesecake displayed in a glass door frig.
I shook hands with the hardworking man after paying the bill. “Thank you, Professor, for taking the time to speak with me. I enjoyed meeting you.”
“Thank you for visiting my shop,” Fabian replied with a pleasant smile and handshake. From the warm touch of his hand to the cleanliness of Primitivo’s appointments, I better understood how Edgar benefited from Fabian’s guidance and patience in achieving his academic goal, along with the support of Carol and his family.
Photos by Jeremiah Reardon