Less me, more us: a kitchen works because there’s a team, people who contribute significantly to get things done. Always think as a team, not as an individual.
As part of our series about the lessons from influential ‘TasteMakers’, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Camila Lechin.
Camila was appointed among the 50 Best female chefs of Latin America in 2020 at 33 years of age. Born in Bolivia, she graduated top of her class in French and Peruvian Cuisine from Le Cordon Bleu Peru, and studied Political Science prior to becoming a chef. Sorrel Moseley-Williams, the renowned British critic, describes Camila as a rising star in the culinary world. At her young age, Camila has already worked and trained in many corners of the world, including Colombia, Denmark, Bolivia, New York, Peru; volunteered at ‘elBulli Foundation’ in Barcelona, Spain, with renowned chef Ferrán Adriá (3 Michelin stars), appointed ‘world’s best chef’ in multiple occasions, and listed among the most influential people in the world by Time Magazine in 2014. She was a stagiaire at top restaurants like ‘Astrid y Gastón’ in Peru (Gaston Acurio’s signature restaurant). As a sous-chef for the ‘Jardin de Asia’ restaurant at the five-star Los Tajibos Hotel in Bolivia, nikkei cuisine, she was appointed to reinvent the menu. Camila’s new menu concept earned several international recognitions, including the ‘Best Asian cuisine restaurant in South America’ and ‘Best South American cuisine globally,’ granted by the World Luxury Awards. Today, she serves as the Executive Chef for all five restaurants of Los Tajibos Hotel.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to ‘get to know’ you a bit. Can you share with our readers a story about what inspired you to become a restauranteur or chef?
I have loved to cook since I was in preschool. Growing up, food was always at the core of all reunions and traditions at home, regardless of the occasion. One way or another, I never failed to take part in the cooking process. However, I think my defining moment of inspiration was at the age of 5. My father bought a copy of Le Cordon Bleu’s cooking book, and it became our father-daughter hobby. We used to prepare four-course menu feasts for parties of eight that involved challenging French dishes and required us to cook for three days straight. It was absolute fun.
Still, during my senior year in high school, culinary school wasn’t on my radar. To a large degree, my family background guided my career decisions back then. My paternal grandfather was a prominent Bolivian political figure, a union leader that made dramatic changes in people’s rights. And my maternal grandfather was a notable banker. My father is an economist focused on politics and foreign affairs and a renowned novelist. My mother is an extraordinary and successful woman, also an economist and a high-ranking United Nations (UN) Official. As a first-born child of such a conservative family, your career path should lead to political science, economy, business, or law degree — anything but becoming a chef.
I followed the expected path and moved to Buenos Aires to study Political Science. I hated every minute of it since day one! I calmed myself through cooking when Marx and Hegel were stressing my life to the point of madness. It took me four years to realize my true passion and how far I was from it. I quit political science and moved to Peru. Dropping the news on my parents was just as difficult. However, after much debate, my parents supported my decision to join Le Cordon Bleu culinary school, and my life changed forever.
Do you have a specific type of food that you focus on? What was it that first drew you to cooking that type of food? Can you share a story about that with us?
I love creative cuisine. I found my voice by mixing all I’ve learned — techniques from the French; passion from Peruvians’ love of their culinary culture; and precision, perseverance, and thirst for knowledge from Spanish Chef Ferrán Adria.
When I graduated from Le Cordon Bleu, I knew that I had to learn from different world cuisines to find my own style and voice. And that is what I set out to do precisely. At that point, I have already worked in a couple of restaurants such as ‘Astrid & Gastón’ in Lima (Peru) and ‘Leo, Cocina y Cava’ in Colombia. Months later, I moved to Copenhagen to work at a Meyer’s Group restaurant. From there, my next stop was New York City, where I made stagiaire at Daniel Humm’s elite ‘Eleven Madison Park’ restaurant. Later, I ventured to Southeast Asia to learn about their culture and cuisine. After my time overseas, I went back home to work as a sous-chef for a renowned Bolivian chef. However, two years later, I was back abroad in Barcelona (Spain), working with Ferrán Adria at the prestigious elBulli Lab. The work focused on culinary investigation through history, produce, tools and concepts. Although I never even touched a knife during my time at elBulli Lab, I’ve learned from Ferrán one of the most important lessons of my career, ‘knowledge is creativity.’
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you became a chef or restauranteur? What was the lesson or take away you took out of that story?
I am a fairly shy person, although I’ve learned to speak out over the years. So, I am aware that I have to work harder than others at first impressions. While working at elBulli Lab in Barcelona, I knew that somehow I had to make an excellent and notable impression during my early days at the job. I researched and read as much as possible about self-growth, tips on how to stand out in different work scenarios, among other topics. One suggestion was to jump when a new boss asks for volunteers. During my first week, Ferrán asked who wanted to organize the library. I quickly raised my hand without hesitation.
It was my first individual assignment, which allowed me to have one-on-one time with Ferrán. I was able to learn first hand his Sapiens methodology, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. After accomplishing that task, he entrusted me with another critical assignment — the evolution of cooking tools from paleolithic to present. This project gave me the incredible opportunity of traveling with him and a team of archeologists to a neolithic settlement in the Catalonia region. It was a phenomenal experience.
These episodes taught me that with determination, one could not only overcome one’s weaknesses but rise above them.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? How did you overcome this obstacle?
While working in Denmark, the most challenging obstacle was the language barrier. The restaurant staff spoke English, working hours felt endless because everyone spoke Danish when mingling or socializing. The feeling of exclusion was inevitable, although everyone was amicable and proper. I then realized the importance of preparing yourself and also the real value of patience.
In your experience, what is the key to creating a dish that customers are crazy about?
You have to create dishes from the heart, dishes with a meaning, a soul, and a personality. When you put your heart and soul into a dish, it transcends into its flavors, aroma, and ultimately the customer.
Personally, what is the ‘perfect meal for you’?
A perfect meal is one that becomes more than just the food served. An ideal meal is a mix between an explosion of flavors and the perfect balance they create in your mouth. The perfect meal becomes a great story, a beautiful memory, and if you’re lucky, an inspiration.
Where does your inspiration for creating come from? Is there something that you turn to for a daily creativity boost?
My inspiration comes from history, traditions, and flavors from around the world. Sometimes, it can be a feeling, a childhood memory, or a meaningful story.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? What impact do you think this will have?
As an Executive Chef of a hotel with five kitchens during the Covid pandemic, my main project this year is to reboot all our restaurants and recover our pre-Covid sales. Most importantly, all without sacrificing our high standards but instead raising them.
What advice would you give to other chefs or restauranteurs to thrive and avoid burnout?
Whenever you stop enjoying this job you love so much, extreme stress, lack of sleep, and grumpiness sink in. Disconnect yourself from work. Turn off your cell, read your favorite book, watch your favorite movie or TV show, video call with friends and family, and sleep as much as possible.
Never let burnout make you hate what you love the most. Take any cathartic or therapeutic action to preserve your love for cooking and keep your passion alive.
Thank you for all that. Now we are ready for the main question of the interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started as a Restauranteur or Chef” and why? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Be more proactive and less hesitant: focus less on doing something perfectly and more on just doing it. Even though you will make mistakes, it will help you grow your skills and your self-confidence.
- Less me, more us: a kitchen works because there’s a team, people who contribute significantly to get things done. Always think as a team, not as an individual.
- Words exchanged in the past, stay in the past: the kitchen rush is hectic and can be stressful. Don’t take it personally when someone snaps; it’s just the heat of the kitchen. However, always make sure to talk about it later, when work calms down.
- Research is as important as technical skills: staying up to date on gastronomic advances and reading about history, culture, and traditions is a mandatory skill for creativity.
- Have a couple of sweet skills under your belt: as a savory chef, usually, pastries are our Aquiles heel. Memorizing a couple of brilliant elaborations is essential.
What’s the one dish people have to try if they visit your establishment?
It is called Metamorphosis, one of my favorite dishes in Jardin de Asia (Nikkei-inspired restaurant). A fresh and decadent Amazonian ‘Arapaima’ fish — among the world’s largest freshwater fish — wrapped in banana leaf, chargrilled with ceviche sauce made with smoked Amazonian chilies and Peruvian citrus-based marinade called ‘Leche de Tigre’ (Tiger’s Milk), fresh hearts of palm, and ‘Patacones’ (fried Plantain).
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Throughout my career, I’ve met too many struggling single parents in the culinary industry who had to leave their young kids alone at home while they worked. Restaurant hours tend not to be the best for parents, forcing them to leave their kids alone at home or in the care of strangers. As a gastronomic community member, I would love to start a self-sustainable daycare where children would be provided healthy nutrition and be safe. Thus, help culinary colleagues pursue their dreams and passion while they provide for their families.
Thank you so much for these insights. This was very inspirational!