Chef Daniel Castaño's Colombian Revolution

Courtesy Gordo

The Colombian-born, New York City–trained chef is helping to redefine what it means to dine out in the burgeoning South American country. 

The coolest thing in Bogotá right now is American food. Barbecue, burgers, bacon—trendy Bogotanos can’t get enough of its northern neighbor’s down-home classics. One spot in particular, Daniel Castaño’s Gordo (Carrera 4A No 66-84; 57/1/345-57-69), a chilled out bar-cum-restaurant named after the chef’s French Bulldog (does it get more Brooklyn?), draws the city’s hippest crowd with their pork belly tater tots and custom-made beer.

Castaño’s American culinary venture is a departure for him gastronomically, but it fits perfectly into the hectic pattern his life has taken in recent years. The 37-year-old chef—who rejected a career as a mechanical engineer when he fell in love with New York on a visit—spent a decade in Manhattan working in Mario Batali’s Babbo, Lupa, and OTTO. His flair for Italian food led him to open Emilia Romagna, an Italian trattoria in Bogotá, and the first of what’s rapidly becoming a restaurant empire (Calle 69 #5-32; 57/1/346-26-20). Born in Medellín, Castaño’s now a committed Bogotano, opening restaurant after restaurant and riding the wave of Colombian cool that’s been cresting for the last couple of years.

“In 2007, Camilo, my business partner, called me in New York and asked if I wanted to open an Italian restaurant in Bogotá. I figured this was a great excuse to come home more often and get paid for it. We opened Emilia Romagna while I was still living in New York. There were a lot of Italian restaurants in Bogotá then, but we were doing something different, using imported ingredients, not making ‘Colombianized’ Italian food. We made our own pastas, cured our own meats, grew our own vegetables. We still do that. We brought seeds from Italy and commission local farms to grow them for us.”

Daniel Castaño's Emilia restaurant, Bogota

Emilia Romagna remains one of the city’s top tables, and Castaño traveled back and forth between New York and Bogotá until 2012, when he and his Houston-born wife relocated permanently. He launched the first Pizzeria Julia in a tiny alleyway in 2011, and just launched the restaurant’s fourth outpost in the city in July (multiple locations; There’s also the much-lauded Italian coastal cuisine of Vera, located inside the Tcherassi Hotel + Spa in Cartagena (Calle Del Sargento Mayor N 6-21; 57/5/664-4445), and a recently opened ramen shop, Tomodachi, in Bogotá (Diagonal 70A No. 4-66).

Castaño credits much of his success to Colombia’s recent liberation from under the shadow of civil war and the subsequent place its made for itself on the tourism radar. Bogotá, as compared to buzzier Cartagena and Medellín, has been slower to appear on tourist itineraries, but much-lauded New York chefs, like Carlo Mirarchi, Frank Castronovo, and Frank Falcinelli have been drawn south recently, and the culinary scene has been steadily accruing accolades from people like Frank Bruni.

Pizza in the oven at Daniel Castaño's Julia

“At the time we opened our first restaurant, Bogotá was getting ready for a real change in attitude and consumer habits; we were about to get into a very good economic and political space,” says Castaño. “It all came together to make us very lucky at that point in time.”

With that, Colombia is set to become South America’s next gastronomic destination.What happened in Peru and Mexico is happening right now in Colombia,” Castaño says. “All the improvements in security have brought more tourism to Bogotá. Soon we're going to sign our peace treaty [between the government and the left-wing rebel group Farc] and that’s going to open the doors to a lot of foreign investment. We're getting ready for it. We're preparing for this country to despegar [take off].”

As any smart chef well knows, good food has always been the fuel.

Photos: Santiago Chacon