Cuenca’s rapidly changing restaurant scene and the fiery passion of its practitioners

Nov 8, 2020 | 23 comments

The restaurant business is a difficult undertaking no matter how you slice it. For the patrons, it is only after the rent, utilities and credit card bills are paid, as well as the other myriad expenses of daily life are set to rest, that they decide it is time to reward themselves with an evening dining out.

There are plenty of dining options in Cuenca from which to choose, even as the pandemic continues to upend many cafes with devastating results. More often, and sooner than one would think possible, another restaurant door is shuttered, almost always with sadness and a sense of loss.

However, there is also good news. Nearly every day, another ambitious chef places a sign over the door of a new venue, turns on the lights and announces that he or she is open for business and eager to serve you. In my neighborhood three new places opened recently and another is on the way — all of the established restaurants surrounding San Sebastian Plaza have lengthened their hours and one has expanded into a music venue on weekends, as well.

The survival rate for restaurants in Cuenca mimics that of Portland, Oregon — a market that I am intimately familiar with — where 97% of the independent cafes and restaurants that open in any given year will survive less than three. The reasons are complex and varied, but most often center on two mistakes, opening the doors prematurely with a poorly designed business plan, and the lack of appreciation for the herculean effort required to become established and thrive.

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Ronny Bustamante and his wife, Verita Boonyatarp, owners of Thai Connection (Honorato Vasquez 639 and Hermano Miguel) are stalwart culinary artisans buffeted by the headwinds of Cuenca’s chaotic market. They work over 12 hours a day, six days a week, arriving an hour or more before noon and leaving around midnight. The routine is not expected to change. They understand that a successful restaurant requires personal attention, creative expression and sacrifice.

I recently sat down with Ronny and Verita and asked them why they chose this most time-consuming commitment. Both are bright-eyed, although like most restaurateurs, worry lines are beginning to appear on their forehead. Like other restaurateurs weathering the Covid pandemic, they have been forced to shift their focus from dine-in to carry-out service.

“We want to chart our own path in a constructive way that sustains our community, and satisfies us,” Chef Boonyatarp said.

We are fortunate to have a cadre of indefatigable creatives with an unshakable belief that nourishing people is the highest calling. As a consequence, Ronny and Verita and other serious culinary professionals are setting a new standard of quality in cooking and service in Cuenca — an ambitious mission we should all toast.

The restaurant scene in Cuenca is rapidly changing. It is no longer enough to stake your claim simply on the strength of your cocktails, or a menu trending in the media. The best culinary venues now require their staff to have knowledge of culinary history, agriculture, a curiosity about new flavors, and above all, a desire to do the strenuous work of adhering to the exacting techniques of proper food preparation.

Working in the kitchen is often an oppressively hot and dangerous environment. Coupling this with the long hours necessary to achieve success makes the restaurant trade among the most challenging of professional pursuits.

Fortunately, Cuenca provides ample resources for success. Over 60 percent of our food is family farmed, delicious, and grown within a 40-mile radius of Parque Calderon. This contrasts with the typical meal in the U.S. that requires a radius of 1,400 miles for all its ingredients.

The rest is up to folks like Bustamante and Boonyatarp, dedicated professionals who chose to immerse themselves in a calling that consumes them in fire.

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