This Chef Made a Dish with Cannabis, Coca and Poppy

By David Jenison

Juan Manuel Barrientos, affectionately called Juanma by friends and family, is widely considered the most innovative chef in Colombia. How creative and daring is the 33-year-old Elcielo chef? He received an award in the U.S. for a dish made with cannabis, poppy and coca.

Let me guess, you like him already.

“I did a plate called The Mine,” says Chef Barrientos of the bomb-shaped dessert, “and I made it with poppy seeds, coca leaves and marijuana. It has a sea of chocolate full of red grape sauce, and it has a rice-paper fuse to activate the bomb. I created a lot of textures with Colombian ingredients and the poppy seeds. I did a caramel of marijuana, a foam of coke and a muffin of poppy seeds and other ingredients representing the illicit harvest. We light the fuse, so it is like a bomb in a cartoon, and people have to smash it before it goes off. It melts all the red grape sauce, which represents the blood of the soldiers. This dish was in honor of the soldiers who have died in the war.”

In some ways, the dish is even more radical than Barrientos explained it. The berry sauce includes the potent Colombian spirit aguardiente, and the dish itself includes a dragon fruit veil and a nougat of ants (turrón de hormigas culonas). The Mine represents a larger effort by the chef to address the wounds of internal Colombian conflict involving guerrilla military groups, and it landed him an award at the Global Nonkilling Center in Honolulu, Hawaii in 2010. Among the 200 young leaders recognized for their efforts to promote peace, Barrientos was the only person chosen from Latin America.

As a young man, Barrientos trained for a year in San Sebastián, Spain at the Michelin three-star restaurant Arzak (widely considered the precursor to El Bulli) and for two years in Buenos Aires, Argentina under master itamae Iwao Komiyama. When he returned home to Colombia, Barrientos wasted no time opening his first Elcielo restaurant in Medellín at age 23. He later opened a second Elcielo in Bogotá, which is currently ranked No. 46 on Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants list. Only four Colombia-based chefs are on the current list, and among them, Barrientos was the only chef to move up the list from the year previous. Furthermore, he opened a third Elcielo in Miami last year, making him the only Colombian chef on the 50 Best list to open a major U.S. restaurant. Still, the chef admits that it is his age, not his heritage, that creates the biggest hurdles.

“The pressure is because of my age, not because I am Colombian,” he explains. “It has always been about my age. I am 33 with a successful restaurant company, but a lot of people tell me I look 25. Maybe people don't take me serious because I am younger. That is the real challenge, and that has been the challenge since I started, but I have learned to overcome this.”

Age might be the bigger hurdle, but he admits that Colombia’s lingering stigma from past instabilities also made him feel like a underdog, which itself added to his motivation. The chef continues, “That stigma is what motivates me to do things better and show the world that we have resilience, that we are like the phoenix. We have been reborn from the ashes, and we are now a different country.”

With a style described as applying neuroscience to food, Barrientos merges molecular gastronomy, farm-to-fork freshness and traditional cuisine with emotionally charged presentations that play to all five senses. For example, his Colombian restaurants utilize liquid nitrogen to engulf dining tables in smoke, while a non-edible course involves a liquid that becomes solid when rolled between your hands and back to liquid when you stop. Elcielo Miami features similar presentations, but it also benefits from a larger culinary cupboard. This makes the new restaurant an ideal international stage to showcase Colombian sophistication in the culinary arts.

(Photos left to right: The Mine Black Pollack, Sangria Decostruida, Zorta de Langostino, Chef Barrientos, Elcielo Miami and the foundation) 

“The restaurant has some Colombian things, but 90 percent of the ingredients are local, taking advantage of the biodiversity of the sea, of Florida itself,” says Barrientos. “We have in Miami a base of eco-friendly and organic farms that supply us with many things. We have a lot of fish, and I love branzino, which we don't find in Colombia. I love scallops, and we have here giant scallops and crabs from Alaska and lobsters that come from the north. Seafood is the most influential change that Elcielo had when we came to Miami. The menus in Colombia are not very seafood-based, but here we have big delicious octopus, maybe 10 different snappers. I love snappers, and we only have two or three varieties [in Colombia].”

Despite some changes in ingredients, Elcielo Miami maintains Barrientos’ multisensory approach and narrative style.

“My dishes are story tellings, and it is about expressing your feelings,” explains Barrientos. “I don't have rules, but I try to maintain my Colombian soul and roots. For me, it is remembering the ingredients I ate when I was a child, and those are the basis for my creations, but there are also other inspirations like art. We have a dish called Black Pollock. [The visual aesthetic] is inspired by Jackson Pollack, but when you finish eating it, the plate looks more like an Antoni Tàpies painting. It is really cool because it has one type of painting when it is plated, and it becomes another type of painting while you eat it. Also, in Colombia, half of the dishes are inspired by the country, like Colombian empanadas, morcilla black sausage crackers with a plantain sauce, homemade chorizos. We go from super avant-garde to super traditional cooking and put them all on the same menu so people have that contrast between their roots and top-level emulsion.”

As examples of his creations, the aforementioned Black Pollack is a chicken dish with pepper sauce, applesauce, mashed potatoes, black garlic and black rice with squid ink, while the Tree of Life (as seen in the image up top) blends boiled and pulverized yuca with cheese and yuca starch propped up on twisted copper wires. Elcielo Miami also features a molecular cocktail tasting with various alcohol-based foams. Elcielo restaurants produce so many visually stunning dishes that the 50 Best Restaurants people ranked Barrientos No. 3 in the world for chefs you should follow on Instagram, topping the likes of René Redzepi (Noma) and Jordi Roca (El Celler de Can Roca). Food nerds know that is Straight Outta Compton huge. And the chef accomplished another stunning feat this past summer when he created an edible wedding dress for the Colombiamoda fashion conference in Medellín.

“The dress was made with 4,000 rose petals in sugar, and we cooked champagne with gelatin to give it elasticity so we could create the corset,” he explains. “The flowers are edible, and the jewelry is 24-karat gold dust with caramel. Colombiamoda, the most important fashion show in Latin America, asked me to do research into macro trends for edible textiles, but instead of doing textiles that are edible, I did food that is dressable. The inspiration was a wedding night. Everyone drinks champagne and eats dessert, so the concept was to make the bride the dessert. The concept is about the sexuality involved in the wedding night.”

Barrientos bounces between his three restaurants, but he also devotes significant time to his Elcielo Para Todos foundation. Just as the cannabis-themed Mine dish was in honor in the country’s wounded warriors, his foundation helps heal the wounds that still exist between Colombian soldiers and ex-guerrilla revolutionaries.

“We teach the ex-guerillas and the ex-soldiers to cook in separate groups because they are enemies,” he explains. “To get an ex-guerilla and a wounded soldier mutilated by a landmine to forgive is really difficult so we changed the speech. We tell them, ‘You are not going to forgive the ex-guerilla or the military, you are going to cook.’ When they become cooks, they develop a passion, and then we tell them, ‘You are not going to meet another ex-guerilla, you are going to meet a cook who shares the same passion.’ Even if it was his enemy, they understand that now in the present they share a passion, so forgiveness is all about the passion of cooking and how that passion can blend sworn enemies.”

Just as the U.S. federal government seems to hate cannabis, many Colombian nationals hate the guerilla, yet Barrientos is not afraid to get his hands dirty making both better through his culinary expertise. The same can be said for Elcielo Miami. Colombia has epic chefs like Leonor Espinosa and Jorge Rausch, but it is the equally epic Barrientos who risked the big open in the states. As his track record suggests, it is always a bad idea to bet against him.

Images by Mario Alzate

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