By: Bernarda Carranza
Photos: Jorge Vinueza
Let’s lay this down from the start: where can you find one of Ecuador’s finest restaurants, one worthy of being included in the list of 50 best culinary experiences in Latin America? In Saraguro. Yes, the small, tiny Saraguro of southern highlands fame. And we dare to stick our necks out further: the restaurant is worthy of being featured in the Michelin Guide and deserves a star, or two. After all, the chef of this particular kitchen has been trained in two of the finest restaurants in the world: El Bulli and El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, Spain.
When you enter Samuel Ortega’s “culinary space” (as he calls it), it’s the experience of the food itself that slaps your eyes and taste buds and challenges your preconceptions – even more so Ecuadorians with their ‘culinary baggage’ in tow. We ask for a locro, for example: but what do we get… Where is the soup? Where are the papitas? The avocado? What’s the octopus doing in there? “This IS NOT a locro!” we gripe, in anger… in confusion.
More than one customer has gotten up and left, “without even taking the first bite”, the chef admits. But for the curious who do take the plunge, who overcome the initial “what the heck?” and are somehow able to retract their preconceptions from the dish they ordered, these happy gastro-adventurers are rewarded with an explosion of flavors and memories the mind struggles to compute. Get ready for locro with octopus and gel-cube cevichocho…
It tastes just like what it says it is supposed to be (and even better), but it looks completely different; its ingredients isolated, its recipe deconstructed.
Samuel Ortega, he claims, became a cook by chance. He seems unable to acknowledge, even now, his natural instinct and talent for cooking. He assures us that he was simply in the right place at the right time. “The opportunity was there… and I was lucky to have great teachers.” His mentors were some of the Europe’s crème de la crème: Joan Roca, Jordi Puigvert, Ferran Adrià…
In 2000, he emigrated to Spain along with his mother and brothers to join his father. His brothers ended up studying to become doctors and architects. But Samuel, or Shamuco, as they called him since he was a child, left school at 16 and went off to work (despite his parents’ obvious disapproval). He started as a waiter. Little by little, he became interested in the world of the kitchen.
He studied cooking for two years in Girona and quickly put into practice what he learned at school in a restaurant, the world-famous El Celler de Can Roca (a three-star Michelin restaurant). Strangely, Samuel didn’t realize he was part of the super-chef world at all. His hard work and dedication soon took him to the top of the class. His reward was to work a season at El Bulli, the temple of the so-called “Salvador Dalí of the kitchen”, Ferran Adrià. “When I finished the season there, I went online and saw that the restaurant was considered the best restaurant in the world for 5 years in a row,” he tells us smiling, to our amazement.
“What do you mean you did not know?” we ask. “I guess I was too focused on working hard and learning,” he says with a shrug.
Return to Saraguro
Samuel knew that he would eventually return to his hometown. “You have two lives. And my life in Spain was coming to an end. It was time to return,” he says. Initially, he wanted to start a high-end restaurant in Quito; after all, in the capital, surely more people would be keen to flirt with the avant-garde. But when he was back in Saraguro, he saw its culture, cuisine, and tourism potential anew, and something clicked… perhaps simply because it was so much closer to his heart.
ShamuiCo was born as a cafeteria. He sold cakes and bread. However, his patrons asked for more. He expanded the kitchen and began to put into practice the techniques he had learned in Europe. Together with his sister Toa, he restored a 180-year-old house off the town’s main square to create ShamuiCo Espai Gastronòmic.
The concept was clear: a new vision of Ecuadorian cuisine that breaks away from tradition while maintaining identity through local ingredients.
“Living in a place as privileged as Saraguro, surrounded by so many fields and orchards, we’re gradually creating a completely organic supply chain, while supporting those who continue to sow their crops, protect their seeds and eat well. It’s key for us to promote produce that is fast being abandoned and forgotten.” Most of what ShamuiCo employs to prepare its dishes comes from local suppliers, including Samuel’s parents, who have been farmers all their lives. His yen to help his neighboring community has even led him to create spaces in the restaurant for Saraguro artists to display their artwork.
Home was always present in what Samuel cooked in Spain, as he constantly evoked the flavors that had always remained in his memory… his modern dishes, “deconstructed” and creative today, always hark back to that memory. “For us, a dish is not simply a combination of flavors.
For us it is a way of conveying a story, a history,” he says.
It is fascinating to observe the clientele that walks in (and stays..!). There are foodies, tourists and business people. They seem to enjoy the challenge of making out the textures and tastes in every bite. More than one ambassador, mayor and minister has booked a table. But there are also young Saraguros – members of a profoundly Andean culture where men dress in traditional black, with black hats and black trousers to the calf and the women don their distinctive, patterned white-and-black hats, embroidered blouses, traditional dresses and gold necklaces — who come to taste not the dish they know, but their very memory… something far deeper and more meaningful than any trending-now adjective could describe.
If the criterion to merit three Michelin stars is to have a culinary proposal so good that it is worth making the trip just to eat at the place, ShamuiCo deserves it. We gladly give it our three Ñan stars!
Avenida Loja y 10 de Marzo, Saraguro, Loja
(+593) 9 8586 0736
Facebook: /Shamuico Espai Gastronòmic
TripAdvisor: ShamuiCo Espai Gastronòmic