Food and Drinks

An Exclusive Interview and Tasting With One of Medellin’s Best Chef’s

I’m seated for lunch in the charming oak and turquoise space that is Osea, Parque Poblado’s most distinguished restaurant and favorite culinary gem. Osea is the creation of head chef, Salomon Borenstein, a former Paisa expat and dual American citizen, returned to his homeland to usher in the new era of delicious, conscious cuisine.

Celebrated by the culinary savvy of Medellin, Borenstein’s kitchen borrows from his Colombian heritage, the restaurateurs of California and the teachings of famed NOMA Chef, Klaus Meyer. Four years since the uncompromising creative returned to the breadbasket of Antioquia, he’s serving his boutique, nourishing fare with a flare unlike any before.

And to great effect. The result of his studies and passion is food at its most flavorful and essential. Honest in its simplicity yet inimitable, his cooking brings forth robust natural tastes that are at once savory, sweet and hearty in their organic delights.

Today, I’m excited to eat, to drink and to listen. Salomon is serving his inspired farm-to-table fare and staying for an interview about artisan food and his favorite spots to eat around town.

What did I eat for lunch?

After setting the table with a raspberry-infused homemade tonic water, Salomon brought out a medley of pickles. Medallions of unripened avocado, green figs and dill-spiced homemade kimchi all mingled in a tangy, piquant vinegar drip.

Next, the red lentil blinis with roasted eggplant, mango, mint and sour cream were an unforeseeable yet unforgettable assembly of flavors and textures. Pretty, too.

The main dish, chicken chorizo cutlet marinated in bourbon, combined the best elements of the lean poultry with all the rustic crunch and juiciness of pan-fried chorizo, omitting the grease while retaining each rich, mouthwatering flavor inherent to both. Cores of yucca and leek greens played along nicely with the tantalizing, smoky aspects of the bourbon.

Dessert arrived reminiscent of an elegant s’more. A toasted cloud of marshmallow covering a deep, luxurious pool of cardamom chocolate cremeux mousse that bottomed out in a crushed salty cookie with crème anglaise.

Once I’d had my fill, Salomon joined me and we talked about his creative processes, the need for sustainable food now more than ever and his favorite places to eat and relax in Medellin.

Ian: Why did you move to Medellin, of all places?

Salomon: Well, my family is from Medellin. I was actually born in the States. Due to some complications with his schooling, my father had to find studies outside of Medellin after his undergrad and found that in New York. So, that’s where I was born.

I spent a great part of my life in the States. My parents moved back here around 15 years ago, and I came to the point in my life where I felt I had been away from family for so long and I wanted to be back near family again. I took the leap and moved back to Medellin.

Where did you spend most of your time in the States? We were talking about Oakland before, are you mostly a West Coast kinda guy?

No, actually. I was born in Manhattan. My dad taught at Rutgers for a little bit, so I lived in Princeton. I moved to Indiana around two or three years old, moved to Ohio for college, then back to Indiana to finish college, then to Miami, then to Savannah, then to Oakland, then to San Francisco – now, I’m here. I’m a permanent nomad.

Wow, you’re a regular ramblin’ man. At what point, in the long and winding road, did you pick up a love for cuisine?

From a very young age. My grandmother had a restaurant here in the 60s, a boarding house and restaurant in Centro. Food was always important for my family: Big family get-togethers were always based around food. I just had an innate love for food. I worked in pizzerias, an off-track betting place – I kinda kept falling back into the kitchen.

One day, I decided to make it my career. I decided I needed something I could rely on and travel with. It just called to me.

Something about food … something about the idea of feeding people, sharing with people your energy and your soul … feeding them good things. This was a very noble idea to me. And hard to come by. Noble professions seem fewer and farther between these days.

The way people think about food needed to be saved, in a way, and I wanted to be a part of that. I fell into that aspect of food in California. It’s not just what you feed people: It’s what you feed the things that you feed to people; it’s all about making responsible decisions.

Sounds like you run a restaurant that sources things locally. So, you’re trying to give people a unique, healthy and sustainable experience. What’s your food gathering process like?

I have a specific fish purveyor that brings in-season fish from wild caught and artisanal fishermen who go out with a canoe, a hook and a line – Hemingway’s “Old Man and the Sea Style.” I source vegetables from small farms and my father’s farm and I always look to know where things are coming from.

We make a concerted effort to find these people. For example, there’s one guy who brings me honey and asparagus; I know his wife and I know his kid. I try to grow these relationships. And this idea is growing here in Medellin.

As far as thinking of food like modernized countries, Colombian’s can be kinda behind, but if you look for it you can find organic, biodynamic food … people who think about the process, the health of it all. I’m more than happy to buy those products from them.

So, you’re a part of the farm-to-table movement in Medellin?

Yea, I look to my friend John Zarate, chef at Legumberia, and he’s been doing it a lot longer than me. Lots of my sourcing comes through sharing his contacts. There’re lots of people who are doing the same. This is starting to push and it makes it easier to find these things.

How would you describe the food that comes out of your kitchen?

I don’t want to say it’s Colombian food, but we take aspects. I don’t want to call it traditional.

We change the menu once a month. We try to make it – well, we can call it high-end cuisine in a very relaxed atmosphere. You call it food for food fanatics. Really, what I’m trying to do is take all my years of experience, of travelling and tasting and things from my family and taking what I can find and mixing it with things that are fresh, fun, full of flavor – and pushing the bounds.

I was very spoiled in California, spoiled to work in Paris, to work in Copenhagen: You can get everything; it’s all readily available. Here, it’s not. It’s a challenge.

For example, I would have never used fruit in savory plates, but comparatively, the number of vegetables here is small. They could grow whatever they want, but what they have in abundance is fruits. So, how can I adapt certain fruits and certain aspects of the fruit and its character into something more than savory or just dessert?

It sounds like art, always limited by the materials available. I swear I learn about a new fruit every week here.

There’s always something new and delicious. And that’s great for me to sample a new flavor profile. Having been here for 5 months, I love that. It’s inspired and grounded in the character of the place.

What are some things that inspire you these days, in terms of food?

I’m doing a lot of off-cuts of meat with slow cooking processes. I am a traditionalist with meat prep. I steer away from experimental styles mostly because it’s not the way I was trained.

Or, for example, I’m working with an organic chocolate company here in Medellin, created by an expat, and we’re doing some really cool things. Finding certain bread makers who are importing really cool flours, traditionally unavailable here, and getting some really exciting breads going. I’m also playing with a lot of indigenous root vegetables, different potatoes, arracacha (Peruvian parsnip) – it’s got a nice sweetness and versatility … I never get tired of finding new ways to do things.

There’s always something new coming around. This month, it’s chocolate, a cacao sourced from Colombia, roasted and processed in Medellin. I have this personalized material that’s beautiful and very true to itself. That’s what I look for.

There’s also a natural coffee from a local roaster, Urbania. What they do is dry the bean inside the fruit – I’d never heard of that before. It opened my mind to something new, my palate to something new – even having lived here for 4 years now. It’s exciting. Plus, the quality is amazing.

You mentioned you studied in Paris, in Copenhagen. Was it traditional, old world training? What was it like?

I went after my time in California. Things were similar: very healthy. The healthy aspect was also the process of cultivation, from the grass fed beef, humane slaughtering practices, treatment of flora and fauna. Yea, I learned old school techniques but very modern techniques as well. Copenhagen opened me to things I hadn’t seen before, techniques I had shied away from in California. When I got to Europe, I got away from the old world – I forced myself to find more modern cuisines. They had the toys and experiences playing with these toys. Chefs in California didn’t have thermomixers or thermocirculators, and it was more all-natural.

“Staying within tradition is an easy way to die,” said chef Ed Lee. It means you can’t advance and you can’t learn. You can borrow from tradition. However, if you don’t stay moving forward you’ll be like a shark and you’ll end up on the ocean floor.

What’s your process for matching food and drink?

A lot of the time I think traditional wine rules are dead. Now, I’m obviously not going to put a big tannic wine with fish, but it’s all personal taste. Our wines come from small, boutique vineyards that are beautiful, light. I think 90% are organic and 10% are biodynamic. With wine, I try to show something new. We’re lucky to have some interesting wine that comes from small wineries which aren’t going to be seen or tasted by many.

Wines come from Chile, Argentina, France, Portugal, Spain – I chose the wine purveyor because you can’t find his wines anyplace else. And they’re made sustainably; it’s an exclusivity thing, not to sound elitist, that lends itself to what we do here. We don’t sell Coca-Cola here. Our beers come from small breweries. We try to change the way the Medellin populace thinks about consuming products.

What’s your favorite Colombian food?

I always loved, so simple, white rice with a fried egg and some chopped tomato. My grandmother would make that, and I could die happy. It hit the spot. Breakfast, lunch, dinner – with a little aji – you’re good to go.

Is there a favorite drink of yours right now?

A biodynamic Pinot Noir called Coralillo. It’s very light while being both balanced and intense at the same time. A beautiful wine.

For spirits, we’re doing our own version of mint julip with a few extra touches.

My favorite beer is a Dubbel, from a local brewery called Apostol. It’s a Belgian-style beer they’re producing here. It’s a bit heavier. I wish it was a fermented, sour beer! I love those – sour with a little bit of cherry in there!

Do you see craft beer and craft spirit culture moving down to Medellin?

I think there’s a prime opportunity for people to do these things. I feel like Colombia, Medellin, is on the cusp. The world is smaller now and there are innovative people and forward-thinking business minds here. When people who know about those businesses come here, it will be very beneficial.

Every great chef has his secret spots in the city. Where do you go out to eat in Medellin?

Quite a few places. My top ones are La Legumbreria, Ocio, Na’an, Carmen, and there’re some places that don’t even have names; I just go and eat. There’s this 24-hour place in this carwash that I love. There’s so much stuff I haven’t gotten to try. There’s a great trout place up in the mountains. All they serve is trout and they have their trout pond right there. It’s called Sierra Blanca. They serve great wines, too. So, it’s great for a nice bottle of Viognier or Saucier and to eat fresh trout. There’s also a great Vietnamese place called Limoncillo in Envigado.

When you’re not eating, what’s something that you love to do in Medellin?

I like to go hike. There are beautiful trails in Envigado, in Parque Arvi. I love the art museum here. What else … I like Rio Claro. It’s three hours outside the city and I try to go paragliding every now and then.

I try to go out and support local artists at small galleries and small venues. Quite a few friends are in the local music scene; I’m not a big party scene guy, but I love music so I love the Medellin Philharmonic and the EAFIT University Philharmonic. I guess I’m just an old soul; I just like to find quite things to do. I also like to drive. The roads are great to drive here. I love to drive fast on these beautiful, curved roads.

Signing off here: As a chef, what’s your last meal look like?

It’s a three courser:

Start off with that bowl of white rice, fried egg and tomato.

The second part would be a really beautifully cooked duck breast with roasted potatoes and some nice, beefy sides of vegetables – lots of vegetables. With a nice wine.

For dessert, my grandmother’s blintzes with a blackberry crue.

I eat very simply. I believe in simple food and simple cuisine. I try to cook what I want to eat. I think people misinterpret simple food for being easy to do. It’s easier to blast people with so many flavors and sauces that they don’t know what’s going on. I try to make something honest, that you can taste what it is you’re eating.

Sounds awesome. Thanks for the time, Salomon.

Thanks, guys.

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