The super chefs of Cuenca prepare vegan and vegetarian dishes as well as standard fare
Editor’s note: This is the second in a two-part series on vegan and vegetarian dining in Cuenca. Here, Cuenca chefs Giovanni Cambizaca and Yasu Umet talk about their culinary development and their philosophy of food preparation and service. Although both serve fish, chicken and meat dishes in their restaurants, they take pride in their vegan and vegetarian cuisine. To read part one, about two of Cuenca’s best restaurants, click here.
Compiled, with photos, by John Keeble
Giovanni Cambizaca: My family lived in the jungle near Limón and I worked with my parents on their tomato plantation. One day, at the age of about 10, I fell and injured my leg. I had to stay at home while I recovered and my father told me I had to cook for the family. It was fun. I did not know how to cook and I had to learn by myself. I think that is where my passion for cooking came from.
At the age of 24, I emigrated to the U.S. I was lucky. A friend introduced me to people who owned restaurants. I learned and learned.
When I came back to Ecuador, I said I wanted to build a restaurant on land owned by my family. They said I was crazy and that no one would come because it was outside Cuenca. Only my wife believed in my idea. The restaurant can be difficult to find but only for the first time and I help all I can. In four years, the number of guests has grown so much that I have had to hire people to help us.
My guests are my friends and I always want to cook what they will enjoy. It is something I love to do. I try to remember everyone’s name. That is polite and important. It is nice.
I have respect for vegans and I am creative for them. Nothing comes from recipes – what I cook comes from my ideas. It is not just vegans who need special meals. There are vegetarians and people with allergies. We have to be careful for everyone. We cook for them. We have fun.
I am very happy with everyone who comes here. I do my best for everyone.
Yasu Umet: I lived in New York City for 20 years after moving from Osaka, Japan. The only job I could get was to work as a waiter in a Japanese restaurant. It felt like torture and, out of severe frustration, I’ve developed my other personality. I became a “super waiter.” People around me could hardly believe what was happening to me. I learned so much during this period: the English language, life, people, food, culture, etc. I just knew what the customers were thinking intuitively and knew how to draw people to the restaurants. I also was dining out frequently in the city’s top restaurants in 1980s and 1990s. Also, I explored ethnic neighborhoods for cheap bites, which is satisfying equal to dining in 3 and 4 star restaurants.
I spent hours learning the technical stuff. Cooking pretty much depends on understanding the logics of cooking. Once you get the logics straight, you can apply it in many different ways. Everyone can learn the logics, but discerning the quality of the ingredients and the visual part of cooking are things you are born with, and I think I have them both.
The reason I started cooking professionally was that I thought I could do better than the chefs I watched cooking. The first cooking job was in a new restaurant owned by a couple of drug dealers. The interview was informal, and they assumed I had a cooking experience. Three days after I was hired, the head chef got fired. “You become the chef,” one of the owners said, and I started running the kitchen.
I don’t like to cook food in big quantities. It’s factory production, and there is no soul in the food. My philosophy of cooking is, “Think big, keep it small.” My background as a waiter makes me see from the diners’ perspective, which most of the chefs lack. I cook to satisfy the diners. Keeping the operation small makes it easy for me to adjust the menu for certain people, but, once I establish the trust, I can expand the menu for those who become more open to different ingredients.
I had a restaurant in Vilcabamba, which was called Cafe Cultura, for five years. I did multi-course meals on Thursday and Saturday. So I had to come up with different dishes every week. It was quite a challenge in the beginning especially in a place where the ingredients were limited. So I had to make everything from the scratch and invent new stuff. But I realized that making the basic ingredients, such as vinegars, enable me to have the total control from the beginning to the end of the process. So the end product became pretty close to what I had had in mind. Also, during this intense hours of cooking, I started taking rather a passive role. It is almost hearing a voice, “put this and that.” I always follow the voice. I think that’s what people call, “being in the zone.” I try, so I fast when I write the menu or when I cook.
Many things I do are time-consuming, and the vegan meal is no exception. But also it depends on the menu of the specific week. Some menus are laden with meat or dairy products. Then I have to make my vegan menu completely aside from the regular menu. But I don’t mind doing it at all. Setting a boundary makes me to come up with new things. In Vilcabamba, there were more people with restrictive diets; I was always making vegetarian options.
Personally, I am not vegan and admit that I am a hypocrite. I love animals and can’t kill them. If I can’t kill them, I shouldn’t eat them. Also, I believe our bodies are not meant to digest animal protein. I wish I were a vegan. One day I will be.
Where vegans & vegetarians can eat in Cuenca
All restaurants listed, except the dedicated vegan and vegetarian restaurants, also offer meat/fish menus
Gourmet vegan (special orders)
Le Petit Jardin
Vegan and vegetarian restaurants
Cafe Libre (vegan)
La Quinua (mostly vegan)
Good Affinity (Chinese, mostly vegan)
Essere (Italian, vegetarian)
El Sabor de Zen
El Paraíso (chain, lower prices)
Vegan- & Vegetarian-friendly restaurants/cafes
A Pedir de Boca
The Bar of Cuenca (southern Indian)
Seven Spices (Indian)
Ali’s Kitchen (Mediterranean)
Pho Vietnamita Casa del Fideo
El Tokte (salad & fruit bar)
Pizza restaurants (most offer vegetarian but will leave off the cheese; check base ingredients)
The Vegetable Bar
La Tosta (panaderia-cafeteria)
O Dining Room
Chill n Grill
This list was compiled by the Cuenca Vegan & Vegetarian Facebook group has been growing by more than two new members a week for the past 18 months. If you are vegan, vegetarian, transitioning or just interested, join us for community-contributed recipes and recommendations. You could be the 200th person to join.