Move over Buenos Aires! Medellín is a rising star in today’s global gastronomic scene.
Positioned in the forefront of Medellín’s booming culinary scene is the eponymous Carmen, a restaurant and bar co-owned by husband and wife team Carmen Angel and Rob Pevitts along with Carmen’s father and founder, Diego Angel. In 2007, both Angel and Pevitts were graduates of Le Cordon Bleu in San Francisco when the idea of opening up a spot in the unlikely Medellín came to them. Angel remembers, “My father is Colombian so I have been visiting Colombia since I was a child. When my dad came to visit Rob and I in San Francisco in 2007 we were running our own catering company, he proposed we open a restaurant in Medellín. We loved the idea, so we sold our apartment, car, and most of our belongings and moved in late March of 2008.”
When Angel and Pevitts arrived in Medellín, the gastronomic scene was still very traditional, without much variety. Today Carmen is a veritable hot spot, serving up elaborate contemporary meals in a modern, light-filled oasis with an incredible garden. Of course, the food takes priority, says, Angel, “We are inspired by dishes and flavours from all over the world. We love to use Asian ingredients and traditional French cooking techniques along with more modern ones. Our concept is based on high quality products, creativity and variety. We wanted to bring something new to the food culture. We like to think we’ve achieved that.”
Still, the food at Medellín is very respectful to its roots. The menu is frequently changed and the majority of products are culled locally from artisanal purveyors. Take the Big Ass Ant BBQ sauce for example. Sourced from a Colombian species of ant the (in)famous sauce is slathered on their slow-cooked ribs, then served with guineo chips, made from local small plantains. Kitschy as “ant sauce” may seem, it’s part of Angel’s mandate to keep things local and to use everything: “We also use a lot of Colombian fruits in our cooking, like mora and agraz (Colombian berries), lulo and passion fruit, to glaze duck and pork dishes. And we make a puree of peach palm to go with a salmon tiradito dish and make the leche de tigre (traditional ceviche sauce) for this dish from local tree tomatoes,” says Angel. You just know with ingredients like these, you are going to present something extraordinary.”
But the kitchen doesn’t hold the monopoly on unique ingredients, as everything on their cocktail menu is made in-house, including their infusions, bitters, syrup, liqueurs, and tonic water. Add these to cocktails made from fresh Colombian fruits, and you’re in for a treat. The Carmen bar director, Lilibeth, is regularly coming up with these punchy potables, which Angel describes as “impressively balanced and surprisingly delicious,” her most recent being the “El Mariachi,” mezcal shaken with tobacco bitters, and a nasturtium flower infusion of rum, rose, pink peppercorn and raspberry jam.
Over the years, Carmen has built a strong clientele and dinners are busy, with reservations a few days in advance recommended. The year-round, spring-like climate of Medellín is perfect for patio dining in the garden conservatory. Or, if “roughing it” in the outdoors isn’t your style, Carmen has two-floors of dining choices — a more formal dining room, and a relaxed eating area overlooking the open kitchen with floor-to-ceiling windows. This success with the Medellín location inspired the family to open a second Carmen restaurant in Cartagena, and a year and a half ago they opened Humo, an American style BBQ & Bar, with some local partners in Medellín.
As Colombia’s second largest city, Medellín is coming into its own on a national and international level. The city itself has undertaken huge urban development projects like metro systems, parks, libraries and museums, eager to put its past behind it. “Locals are really expanding their palates and want to try new flavours and tourism seems to increase daily with people looking for exciting gastronomic experiences,” says Carmen. “We still have a ways to go, but the future of our food scene is bright.”
The people in Medellín are extraordinary. They are passionate, caring and hard-working.
In the end, Angel says it comes down to the people: “The people in Medellín are extraordinary. They are passionate, caring and hard-working. Really, it’s what sets Medellín apart. There is just such a friendly atmosphere here, which is not as easy to find in the other large cities of Colombia.” With such careful consideration of its people and surroundings, it’s a small wonder Carmen is making its mark on the global gastronomic map.