23 January, 2015
A highly gastronomic interview with John Guerrero: Part I
‘Any creative gastronomic process must include innovation, creativity, self-assurance and have no dogmas”
At the age of 35, the renowned Venezuelan chef John Guerrero has stood behind a stove since he was 16 years old. “I have spent more time working inside a kitchen than outside”, he points out. His training and professional career are his very own life experience.
He started work in Caracas in a restaurant (Café Olé) which offered a very sophisticated cuisine. He went on to work as kitchen assistant to the chef de partie in another catering establishment (Citron Café). In the late nineties he decided to travel to Spain, and Frankfurt, to discover other cultures, interact with other professionals and find out about the cooking techniques used in other societies.
During his long professional career, of note is the practical experience gained with the prestigious chef Santi Santamaría (Can Fabes) and Jordi Picamont (Vic, Barcelona). In Madrid, after acting as advisor to several restaurants, he decided to set up a gastronomic bookshop aimed at the culinary world and cooks, called ‘Cocineros.info’, the first specialised bookshop at national and international level, and a significant step in his career. A space, both physical and online (14,000 visits per day), with books published in Spanish written by the leaders in avant-garde cuisine, offering a certain technical level and a broad transfer of culinary knowledge of the time: Arguiñano, Arzak, Santamaría, Manuel de La Osa, Quique Dacosta, Adúriz, Adrià, etc.
The initiative led to what has, in short, defined the current proposal from John Guerrero, providing services offering advice and help in the development and management of projects. ‘A company of chefs with a multidisciplinary approach for developing concepts, ideas, projects, products and anything we can offer to gastronomic development at both an intellectual and an operational level’.
– How did you start off in gastronomy? How old were you when you started to feel drawn to the world of cooking and everything that goes with it?
I really didn’t feel any special attraction to the world of cooking and the profession, it was more a matter of chance. I was preparing to study Political Sciences and my encounter with cooking was a one-off, I didn’t at that time see it as something to make a career out of. Several circumstances came together at the same time. Then I began to think about working in cuisine, and it was in a restaurant in Caracas where I first worked on a culinary level and began as a self-taught basic kitchen assistant. That was when I started to understand how a kitchen operated.
-How would you define your self-taught apprenticeship until becoming a prestigious chef and gastronomic advisor as you are today?
The chef mentors who had an influence on the start of my career decided that if I wanted to study at a cooking school to get a qualification in cooking that was fine, but that I had already taught myself what I would learn there. They advised me to travel and get to know other restaurants and to carry on learning in the form of culinary practice. I thought this a good idea not least because in Venezuela going to cooking school was viewed as a luxury career. In fact, the first book I bought, ‘La ética del gusto’, (The ethics of taste) by Santi Santamaría, helped me a great deal, conveying what it was to be a self-taught chef and giving me a fairly personal vision of gastronomy.
-What is the concept of ‘multidisciplinary gastronomy’ based upon, a concept that you praise on a daily basis as a recognised businessman in the sector?
It is a way of conveying that gastronomy is the combination of science, culture and the idiosyncrasies of a society or a professional medium such as that of the culinary world. It aims to make it easier for professionals from the sector, explaining certain technical concepts for an idea or a product, this is the essence of multidisciplinary gastronomy, and this is why our workforce is aware, both on the administrative side (management, finance…) and on the creative side, that we have chefs who interact with architects, designers or food and product engineers.
-In this respect, what do customers most need to improve or update their cooking methods when they employ your services?
It is not only chefs seeking to improve their way of cooking who employ our services. We actually have very little work directly involving chefs with regard to projects at a gastronomic consultancy level. Normally, our typical customer is an entrepreneur wanting to set up a business or product idea (doughnuts, hot-dogs, tapas bar).
It is true that we offer a range of services and products aimed at chefs through another of our companies, Chef Creativo (chefcreativo.com.ve and chefcreativo.info) based in Bogotá (Colombia). But with ‘John Guerrero Gastronomía Multidisciplinaria’ we aim to provide advisory and consultancy services for shareholder groups, businesses from the food sector and investors who wish to set up in or enter the catering and food industry, and we help them to develop franchises, restaurants and cafés.
We rely heavily on new technologies for this -under the slogan ‘the technology is always on the table’-. Just as we operate on a culinary and gastronomical level, we also operate on a technological level in project management and the development of the potential of our workforce through different applications. We store everything in the ‘cloud’ where we have our virtual office beyond the physical office. Our contribution is a multidisciplinary vision that encompasses the idea of business from ‘A’ to ‘Z’ and from zero, in order to direct the complete vision of the business until the moment of operation and start-up. In addition, there is the relationship with the customer and our responsibility to ensure that it is long-lasting .
-In the area of restaurant consultancy, what lines of work do you instil in your customers and what methods / criteria are of priority in your work?
Above all, good administration and management. We believe it is easy to develop a project beyond the management of the creative potential of each of the lines of work (gastronomical, architecture, business idea). We try to make the entrepreneur see, with their potential or financial limitations, that after developing the project the difficult part is not reaching the shore, but getting the project to a good harbour in terms of operations, management, and the everyday running of the project.
-Communication about your projects, achievements and tips using social networks and new technologies on Internet is another of your strengths. Do you consider this to be an essential tool for publicising new items and initiatives?
Yes, in today’s world, knowing how to provide information about what you do is as important as doing it. It sounds good but sometimes it is not so easy in practice. We keep it on a close, everyday, social level. I love technology, and I read as much about cooking as I do about technology. I encourage people to do the same, especially those who work with me and those over whom we have some influence.
You have to be present on social networks and on a Web page where you offer your services and people can get to know you, as well as references from third parties, and your own communication and publicity (screen shots, photos, recommendations). In our case, we try to ensure that people are able to communicate directly with us, that they can see what we do, what we can offer to their business idea or their project if it is already operational, and that the market recognises we have something to offer.
-There is also a personal blog (http://www.johnguerrero.es/servicios/blog-corporativo/), which offers recipes and gastronomic sensations. What are you trying to give users?
We are not trying to give a lot, it is more about making a natural selection of what we like, of what we have achieved, and what we feel is relevant. We share it on the corporate blog of our Web page, which is automatically linked to our social networks. As well as knowing how to communicate, it is important to provide content (photos, screen shots, links, relevant news) that may attract followers and people who see you as a reference or an influence in their everyday life.
-What projects or culinary developments in the field of ‘multidisciplinary gastronomy’ have received more recognition or attracted more attention for being innovative in the sector?
It is a definition which I have claimed as my own, as a means of explaining to customers what we do and how we do it. We could say ‘multidisciplinary kitchen’ but we don’t want to just stay in the kitchen, we want to reach out a bit further with respect to what comes with this concept, such as the publishing of a book, the development of a product for a food company, or a chef who arrives with a recipe for a sauce that everyone in their restaurant loves, and that they want to produce for bottling or vacuum packing with a shelf life so that it is easy to buy and store it.
We have the technical and technological capacity to develop this type of product and we fulfil this role. A chef may have excellent culinary knowledge but not know how to use a food preservative, a stabiliser, a flavour enhancer or a type of packaging, and this is where we come in, to help develop the product and take it to the market with everything that this involves.
-From your intensive training period in Spain, what gave you the experience? What most stands out from everything you have seen, cooked and learned?
The relationship with everyday Spanish life is continuous and on a daily basis at a professional and social level. I would say living the experience, and being part of the new gastronomy age of the Spanish culinary avant-garde (2000-2010), a marvellous decade for Spanish cooking that has influenced the rest of the world.
I have nothing but thanks for Spain, for the professional milieu, and if I envy something we are missing here in Venezuela, it is that we are a young country and we lack the institutional vision and judgement of gastronomy as it exists in Spain, through the Spanish Academy of Gastronomy and other key institutions for maintaining the high levels that must characterise a professional milieu that provides significant income to the Gross Domestic Product.
-Passionate about Spanish and Basque cuisine, how do you go about conveying this culinary cuisine in Latin America? Is it one of your priorities?
Spanish cuisine is part of my catalogue, although the task of conveying this culture is not altogether a priority for me. I love it and I try to introduce it into the Latin American culinary culture, but I consider that conveying it is a task for Spanish chefs who are an advanced armada for a number of reasons at global level. That a potential such as the one in Spain can go beyond frontiers is really important for the professional milieu.
-At what point is the Venezuelan gastronomic culture and what level do you think it has reached on the international scene?
Santi Santamaría said in the book ‘Palabra de cocinero’ (Word of a chef) that the development of the professional gastronomic environment (chefs and the industrial environment) is proportional to the cultural development of the diner and their capacity to perceive and understand what the chef really wishes to portray.
In Venezuela I can do creative cooking, avant-garde culinary projects that go beyond the rules, but I cannot change the gastronomic culture of a country in professional terms because this requires the general development of the society.
Right now, Venezuela, with 31 million inhabitants, a huge territorial space and excellent geographical location, is experiencing a somewhat complex political situation. It is also a country with much to do and with huge potential; this will be a competitive advantage for us. There is a whole market waiting to be developed, and this includes updating the study plans of the majority of cooking schools and making an effort to obtain much better prepared professionals.
We have a gastronomic culture that is recognised internationally, because Venezuelan cuisine is immediately associated with yapa, arepa, papelón… a gastronomy that is the result of the intermingling of races and the migratory flows between Spain, Italy, France, Portugal and the Middle East; and that today merge with the Pre-columbine or Venezuelan gastronomy. But I think it will be a few years before Venezuela is exploited gastronomically. In the case of Peru and Mexico, these are two gastronomic cultures that have always had a significant role in the gastronomic world just like China, France and Spain.
-You are a specialist in Venezuelan and Mediterranean flavours. What ideas have you had in this area, and what projects are you planning to develop?
I don’t think that at a professional level our cooking can produce purely Venezuelan flavours, but nor are we able to create a project in which the cuisine is purely Mediterranean. We see more and more Latin American chefs opening restaurants in which the techniques and the process are taken from avant-garde Spanish cuisine, but which are transferred and assimilated into our own gastronomic, historic and cultural heritage.
This is the case of Chilean cuisine, where restaurants are being opened based on experience gained in European kitchens, but which are taking traditional Chilean recipes and adapting them to the menus of four- and five-star hotels and restaurants, with the resultant significant media boost. In the case of Venezuela, the projects we have at the moment are all technically adapted to the national and local gastronomic environment.
-It appears that one of your next areas of expansion is in Colombia. How is this going, and what other countries in Latin America already have the use of your services?
It is natural for any entrepreneur to look at the neighbouring market. We are sister countries with our historic and cultural differences, but we get on well. There are two totally different markets. The Colombian economy is a free market while the Venezuelan economy is regulated by the Government in almost all respects. You need to understand both to know how to operate in them. I believe that Colombia is important for us, and that 2015 will be the year in which we spread our wings into this market.
-What features are essential in any gastronomic and creative process?
Our creative process must include innovation, creativity, self-assurance and have no dogmas. For each proposal we start off with a brainstorming session based on what the customer wants, or the product needs or the business concept suggests in its operation or structure. It is quite difficult to define but we always manage to find a departure point.