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Latin America

At Colombian restaurant, former rebels and soldiers work side by side

Chef Juan Manuel Barrientos employs former guerrillas, paramilitaries, soldiers and victims of the country's 50-year conflict.
14 Sep 2016 – 05:16 PM EDT
Juan Manuel Barrientos has restaurants in Bogota, Medellin and Miami. Crédito: Kris Jacobs

BOGOTA, Colombia - In the kitchen at El Cielo restaurant, young men dressed in white rush frantically around the kitchen holding pans and ladles. Some pour sauces onto plates; others chop and clean up. One man transforms a handful of straw into a nest inside a small wooden box. There, his colleague delicately places an egg shell topped with a corn tortilla, a reinvented arepa, or Colombian corn cake.

While Colombia prepares for the end of its 50-year conflict, this restaurant - considered one of the 50 best in Latin America - is ready for peace. Here, former guerrillas, paramilitaries, soldiers and victims all work together with civilians. Most are unaware of their colleagues' pasts.

"When they enter that kitchen, they turn the page, close the book and throw it away," says 33-year-old chef Juan Manuel Barrientos, sitting on a leather couch at the restaurant, surrounded by tropical plants. "They come here to achieve something.”

He explains the process involved in onboarding new employees: At the restaurant's foundation and school in Medellin, demobilized rebels and soldiers recovering from war learn how to make haute cuisine or cocktails. The project began in 2007 to reintegrate former combatants.

Astrid Elena Quintero, one of nearly eight million victims and seven million Colombians displaced by the conflict, works at El Cielo. Her family had to escape from the central Colombian town of Pueblo Nuevo when guerrillas invaded. She remembers spending a night hidden under mattresses to avoid stray bullets. She knows she's working with former combatants but says she doesn’t discuss that with her colleagues.

"The guerrillas took the village,” she says. “The next morning, there were dead policemen, headless, without hands.” She says she's willing to forgive, but admits it's hard for her. Still, she says she probably would have ended up unwittingly in the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) if her father hadn't gotten her out of the area where she grew up.

Barrientos, who lived in Medellin during the bloodiest years of the conflict, went into exile in London at age eight to escape the bombs, murders and threats. He now spends his time traveling between his hometown of Bogota and Miami, where he opened the third El Cielo restaurant last year.

Barrientos and his team cook a variety of creative dishes from the Andes, the Caribbean, the Amazon and the Pacific, including a crab-shaped and filled empanada, a beer-glazed risotto, and a crunchy corn and lemon dessert.

Que es lo más peligroso que has hecho en tu cocina? Cuéntanos y arriésgate a cocinar diferente.

A photo posted by Juan Manuel Barrientos (@juanmaelcielo) on

Ex-soldier Ruben Dario Romero, who lost part of his right leg to a land mine eight years ago, works at El Cielo in Medellin. For him, the hardest part of his journey has been planning a future without thinking about the leg he lost fighting the FARC, he explained over the phone. Reconciliation is the last step in El Cielo's training process, before entering the kitchen.

"At first I was very angry and unable to forgive, but then I realized that many of the guerrillas were boys who had nothing," he says.

One of Romero’s colleague’s stories really stuck with him. Dulce María joined the rebels after being raped and losing her parents and is now a single mother of five.

Like many former guerrillas, she doesn’t use her real name. She named her fourth daughter Dulce Maria, or Sweet Maria, as well, and says the name represents her desire to get ahead. In the three-and-a-half years she was part of the FARC, the young woman transported explosives and searched for enemies. Now, she works with Romero.

"Although he was a soldier, he's very supportive and has a big heart," says Dulce María.

She says she left the guerrilla in hopes to put an end to violence in the country. She wants her children to grow up in a different country.

Both she and Romero plan to vote "yes" on Oct. 2, when Colombia will hold a referendum to decide whether to approve the government's peace deal with the FARC.

"Enough,” Dulce María says. “Let the conflict end.”

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