By Josefina Barrón
Photos: Alejandro Salazar
The dishes we prepare, like our homes, reflect who we are and what we are made of: how we dream, how we venture out, and of course, how we apply ourselves. They are mirrors and as such, there is nothing we can hide in them. Good taste has nothing to do with fancy tricks but instead relies on personal touches, seasoning, sensitivity, and honesty. “What is in it that made it so delicious?” The chef gives a sideways smile. He added some special touch that our senses detect and enjoy. We experience the simplicity of the recipe and the nobility of the ingredients; cooking must be sincere to win over diners’ palates. This brings us to Colombian André Tarditti, a chef by experience, necessity, and genetic legacy. Like all good cooks, he relies on his intuition to captivate us with a simple menu that features many special touches.
In 2012, André had his stove. He cooked there, nurturing his dreams, day after day. He decided to set up a small catering business where he could cook for his friends and acquaintances; he went to the homes and establishments of his clients. Those were hard times. He was trying to recover from bankruptcy and it was not easy. Luckily, he had his wife Laura by his side, believing in him and giving him the strength he needed.
One curious diner after another climbs a steep and narrow stairway to the second floor of the unassuming building where André launched his venture. He added a table and a few chairs where he could serve what he prepared each day. The table sat in the middle of the huge enclosure, which had previously served as a billiard hall. André cooked and served. There was no menu. What he cooked was what he brought to the table.
He had rented space in a neighborhood not known for being residential or trendy, nor for its elegance or exclusivity. His economic situation forced him to look with fresh eyes at the space in 7 de Agosto that would become his culinary workshop. No one came to this neighborhood to dine. If they dared to walk its shop-lined streets, it was generally to get auto parts, sometimes of dubious origin. In that neighborhood André lived and work among contractors, plumbers, carpenters, small factories manufacturing all kinds of things, bottle vendors, wholesalers, including wholesalers of good Colombian coffee, men pushing dolly carts on the corners, and prosperous brothels.
He distributes fliers and spreads the word among his friends. In front of the 7 de Agosto market, André cooks over a low flame. He selects ingredients and peels, cuts, dices, fries, fuses, plates, and smiles. He has at his fingertips fruits, vegetables, herbs, and other products that reflect the exuberance of the Colombian soil. What a pantry this is! Everything is within arm’s reach, especially the friendship and warmth of the people. André leaves his bicycle at the entrance of the building and walks to the market every morning, very early. “What is that handsome gringuito doing here so often?” ask the saleswomen. “He’s a chef,” someone responds, and André approaches. He selects some ripe bananas, a bit of mint. He leans toward the basil and smells it, and then chooses the most beautiful onions, tomatoes, and peppers. One by one, he touches the produce, observing it…. “Three kilos, please.” His voice is soft, his manner even more so.
He becomes popular, his name is on the tip of everyone’s tongue in 7 de Agosto; his visits to the market are anticipated by the vendors. “They say he cooks really well,” another woman comments. André says goodbye, always friendly, and leaves the market, crosses the street, greets the prostitutes who always give him a coquettish gesture and climbs the stairs to his second floor world that is spontaneously becoming a restaurant. It is a place for him to make magic. To cook. To survive. A new era has begun. He had not had time to dream or imagine it. He just cooked. And he conquered. Like all good things in life, this project had humble beginnings. He began with pure intuition and an instinct for survival, without even having studied cooking. He had to provide for his family. For Laura and the children, who were growing up. And he had to feel complete. Cooking helped him achieve it all.
Little by little, the single table became inadequate; there didn’t seem to be enough furniture and André couldn’t keep up with the demand for his food. Diners arrived, attracted by the provocative aromas given off by this corner of 7 de Agosto, the generous and delicious dishes, the glowing review written by a famous journalist, André’s cooking, the neighborhood, and Andrés’ simplicity. Even more visitors arrived because of the Facebook photo a woman posted of her meal there, the conversations about the restaurant being held all over town, and the unique neighborhood where André began to shine. He had to get another table, maybe two, more chairs, more plates, more tomatoes, more fresh pasta and maybe someone to help in the kitchen, because he had been doing everything himself. He was both staff and boss. He had to make the place beautiful, at least a little. Laura would help decorate. It felt like making a new house beautiful and in a way, it was.
André was smart; he went around the neighborhood in search of a carpenter to make the tables, a contractor to solder the details, a painter with a broad brush to give color to the walls and doors, a framer to frame his beloved poster of Marilyn Monroe, who kept him company while he seasoned, a local to help in the kitchen and perhaps another to help with the service. He rescued forgotten furniture, repairing it, repainting it, and giving it a new life. The furnishings reflected his careful choices and it was evident in the used dishware, which he selected with love, taste, and care. The neighborhood of 7 de Agosto became his second home. There, he found people who were supportive, enterprising, hardworking, and positive. His family grew larger.
There was something about this place that attracted people of all types and from all parts; reporters, writers, former presidents, intellectuals, artists, entrepreneurs, homemakers, and tourists came to see André and his kitchen. It was his dishes: plentiful, fresh, hot, aromatic, leafy and honest. It was the quality of what he served and the low prices. The location’s inexpensive rent allowed him to keep his prices low. It was his baked tomatoes, ripe, soft, somewhat sweet, with fresh oregano sprinkled over the top, those same tomatoes that he had selected from the stand of his newfound market friend. It was his veal ossobuco in red wine, his pork chop in an orange reduction sauce, his grilled octopus accompanied by mashed potatoes with chorizo. And it was the ingredient that he used to season everything: the neighborhood, which should have been an obstacle, but instead provided excitement and added flavor to the adventure.
Life is responsible for teaching André what he knows. Blood played its part too: he is Italian on his father’s side and Brazilian on his mother’s and also very Colombian. This combination could only produce a lot of flavor. He lived with his his nonnos, or paternal grandparents, for many years in Chiavari, Genoa. Italy was his school. Carlos, his nonno, was an exceptional pastry chef who bequeathed his knowledge to his grandson. From both grandparents he learned about good Italian and Mediterranean food. From his mother, he learned the secrets of Brazil’s gastronomy, mestizo roots, and exotic flavors. And from the market square of 7 de Agosto, he learned the essence of Colombia and how it can be expressed on the stove. There has always been love for the country and the land in the heart of this chef.
He named his restaurant, now full of people every day at lunchtime, La Trattoria de la Plaza, because that is what it is, a trattoria, an informal place, homey and simple like its owner. He receives diners who become parishioners, coming back again and again to eat, to try something new, or to order the same thing as last time. An extensive wine cellar on display in La Trattoria, perhaps the most elaborate in Bogotá, includes bottles from around the world. André has explored the universe of wines to achieve simply perfect pairings.
He has certainly grown from his humble start. Today, as we talked once again, he was in a hurry. He has opened other restaurants with other concepts and names: La Tapería, a small, intimate place half a block from La Trattoria in the same neighborhood, serves tapas. André knows he must continue choosing the tomatoes, selecting the highest quality ingredients for whatever he serves, since his hand is indispensable in the kitchen of La Trattoria, his standard-bearer. Quality always wins. Those who recognize it will seek it out, wherever it may be.