Restaurant News & Reviews

How food scarcity, protests forced Venezuela’s best chef from his home — and to Miami

Venezuela’s best chef to open a new restaurant in Miami

Venezuelan chef Carlos García, whose world-renowned fine dining restaurant, Alto, is two blocks from the heart of the demonstrations in Caracas, will soon open his second restaurant, Obra, in Brickell.
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Venezuelan chef Carlos García, whose world-renowned fine dining restaurant, Alto, is two blocks from the heart of the demonstrations in Caracas, will soon open his second restaurant, Obra, in Brickell.

Police and protesters clashed with signs and fists outside the windows of one of the 50 best restaurants in Latin America.

From inside, Carlos García watched it unfold, as he had been doing for years.

You can’t ignore it, not when your world-renowned fine dining restaurant, Alto, is two blocks from the heart of the demonstrations in Caracas, where the government violently quashes citizen protests.

Not when your job is feeding people and food scarcity is driving those people, your people, into the streets — or worse, out of their homeland. Not when you’ve seen it happen to your line cooks, your waiters, your friends. You can’t ignore it when it happens to you.

“The situation is even worse than what you see in the press,” he said. “The word ‘dictatorship’ says it all.”

Today, Venezuela’s best chef is in Miami, covered in dust and sweat.

Venezuelan Chef0016 JAI
Chef Carlos Garcia, who has one of the top-ranked restaurants in Latin America, has been struggling to keep Venezuela's Alto afloat amid the chaos in his country, including violent protests and food shortages. He has established U.S. residency, and is opening another, Obra, in Brickell to help offset the unpredictability in his home country. But he refuses to leave or close that restaurant, despite clashes between police and protesters literally outside his window. Jose A. Iglesias jiglesias@elnuevoherald.com

Circular saws and cordless drills wear away in the background on a recent Tuesday as García, 44, stands in what will be his second restaurant, Brickell’s Obra. It’s his first restaurant in the United States, where he recently established residency. Soon, his wife and daughter, living in Panama for the past three months, will join him in his nearby apartment.

He still owns and runs Alto, last rated No. 32 on the continent by The World’s 50 Best Restaurants Academy. He commutes for several weeks at a time to oversee his staff, the core of which has been with him since he opened the ground-breaking restaurant in his hometown in 2007.

But his reality now — like that of so many Venezuelans who have fled to Miami — is a life of divided loyalties.

“I have a hand here and a hand there. But both feet are here now,” García said.

García’s migration happened gradually, like Venezuela’s shift from a strongman president, Hugo Chavez, to another caudillo, Nicolas Maduro, whose constitutional changes threaten to install a full-fledged dictatorship.

READ MORE: Maduro profiting from nation’s hunger, ex-prosecutor alleges

As far back as 2013, after Chavez’s death from cancer, imported products started to get harder to come by, García said. Olive oil, sugar, flour — you could still get all of them, but the prices started going up. Sometimes the fish markets were inexplicably without inventory. His restaurant had been mainly Mediterranean and Catalan influenced, since his own training was in Barcelona, working alongside giants in the industry at the late three-star El Bulli, once named the best restaurant in the world.

García considered whether he couldn’t make better, more interesting cuisine with food that was easier to get — and much closer to home.

García skipped the fish market and struck deals with local, independent fishermen who were struggling to make a living. He took everything with dairy off the menu since he would sometimes go weeks without being able to get milk. He found nearby farmers he could keep in business by growing produce for him and other chefs at high-end restaurants near him in the ritzy Chacao neighborhood, what has been called the Manhattan of Caracas. His main source at Alto today is a woman with a vegetable garden two blocks from the restaurant.

Instead of aping European cuisine, his restaurant elevated dogfish, arepas and locally grown cacao.

“The unfortunate crisis brought out the best in us,” he said. “We saw it as an opportunity to grow, to change.”

Venezuela Chef0010 JAI
Chef Carlos García (left) continues commuting to Caracas to oversee his staff at Alto, but he has established U.S. residency and moved his family to Miami. Jose A. Iglesias Photo courtesy of Alto Restaurant, Caracas, Venezuela

But the economy, and the increasingly restrictive government, continued to squeeze. As protests broke out around the capital city, responses grew violent. People stayed in their homes out of fear when they weren’t out protesting.

Venezuela marked more than 100 days of protests last month as the government sought to amend its constitution to give Maduro greater power and the people less. García understood when a handful of employees left the restaurant, and then the country.

His business plummeted by 45 percent. He took money out of his own pocket to make payroll.

“Streets that were once packed with people are empty,” he said. “Some days, you might not see a car go by for 20 minutes. It’s a ghost town.”

READ MORE: In Venezuela power grab, Maduro’s ruling party takes remaining congressional functions

Hunger spread. García learned children at the nearby J.M. de los Rios Children Hospital were going without lunch. He visited one day when a doctor passed out from fatigue after giving a patient his own lunch.

So he roused several local restaurants to join Alto in cooking 250 lunches every day for the children and staff. He chose to make a hearty soup, since “when you’re sick, nothing feels better than a warm bowl of soup.” His project, Barriga Llena, Corazon Contento (full belly, happy heart) was born. It has spread to include a local nursing. And at his new restaurant in Brickell, Obra, there will be a soup on the menu every with all the proceeds going toward the foundation.

“You learn to adapt to living in a situation you never imagined,” García said.

Meanwhile, he started to look out for his own family.

García, whose parents still live in Venezuela, visited Miami with an eye toward opening a restaurant in a stable country. He liked Miami over New York because, as someone raised in the Caribbean, he had to “see the sun and ocean every day.” He met with a Venezuelan friend and financier who had helped broker several deals for Alto and had also made the decision to make Miami his home.

“Miami is Miami because of the good people who have immigrated here,” said his business partner at Obra, Omar Montesinos, 49, who is now a U.S. citizen. “My heart carries the Venezuelan flag on one side and the U.S. flag on the other because this country opened its arms to me and my family.”

Montesinos and García found 3,000 vacant square feet on the bottom floor of the Jade Brickell Bay condos for Obra. And, like the name of the restaurant implies (Spanish for labor), that’s exactly what García was doing on a recent Tuesday, sweating through his heather blue henley alongside the construction crew.

At night, he cooks at popups and as a guest chef, as he did on a recent Friday at La Mar in the Mandarin Oriental, trying to get his name out in a new town.

“We hope Obra will be a place for Venezuelans to feel at home,” Montesinos said.

Venezuela Chef0011 JAI
Because of Venezuela’s flagging economy and wide food shortages, these outside dining areas at Carlos García’s Alto are filled mostly with tourists. Still, business is down by more than 45 percent at what was called one of Latin America’s 50 best restaurants. Jose A. Iglesias jiglesias@elnuevoherald.com

Meanwhile, he travels back to Alto, where he still has lunch and dinner with his staff before service. He mentors younger sous chefs by taking them with him to guest cook at restaurants around the world. He will be their passport to get their feet wet in Miami.

“We have 33 families that depend on us there,” García said. “Alto was my dream. And I won’t let it go because someone else decides it ... . Venezuela is where my roots are. You can’t just tear up your roots just like that, from one day to the next.”

But it is also clear García is ready to put down roots in Miami. Obra will be his anchor. And the reason is simple.

“For my daughter,” he said. “So my daughter can have a different expectation for the future. But I’ll never lose hope that one day everything in my country will change.”

Carlos Frías: 305-376-4624, @Carlos_Frias

Obra

1331 Brickell Bay Dr, Miami

Carlos García’s Brickell restaurant is set to open in October

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