Jun 8, 2021 • 1HR 29M

Episode #8: Stephanie Bonnin

Barranquilla, Colombia born founder of La TropiKitchen.

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The New Worlder podcast explores the world of food and travel in the Americas and beyond. Hosted by James Beard nominated writer Nicholas Gill, each episode features a long form interview with chefs, conservationists, scientists, farmers, writers, foragers, and more.
Episode details

Stephanie Bonnin is a chef and documentary filmmaker from Barranquilla, Colombia. Her project La Tropi-Kitchen, a pop-up restaurant in New York, specializes in regional Colombian cooking. I visited her in the Catskills mountains, a couple of hours north of New York City, at the Deer Mountain Inn, where she has a residency. It was a pretty incredible set up. First of all, the view of the mountains and forest is really spectacular. But then her food comes out. And I had maybe the most perfect patacones I’ve ever tasted and arroz de camarón wrapped in a banana leaf. And then, suddenly, a deer walks by. It’s a very surreal set up and when the day comes where she has her own restaurant, pay attention. Her story is absolutely incredible. She studied to be a lawyer, but her heart wasn’t in it and gravitated towards cooking. She has dedicated all of her time and energy to learning as much as she can about her country’s cuisine. She is a kind, warm, and very motivated person that you just know is going to do great things. I have no doubt everyone is going to be talking about Stephanie Bonnin very soon.

You should follow La Tropi-Kitchen on Instagram and Facebook to find out where she will be popping up next, about her forthcoming documentaries, and whatever else Stephanie is working on.

– Nicholas Gill

Episode Highlights:

On why she was cooking regional Colombian food in the Catskills Mountains:

Stephanie: I’m still wondering how this happened. So, I started doing pop ups here and I have a really good friend that does content direction for a creative direction for this beautiful space. And one time he asked me to cook food here. And I had never done a pop up before. So, I did my first pop up here like three years ago, and I showed up with tamales and everybody loved them. They all sold out. So, they’ve been doing pop ups with different chefs from different places. As soon as they knew that I was getting back to New York, they offered me this residency for two months. And for me it has been super difficult to get a kitchen. I’ve been doing pop ups. I’ve been doing things from my house. I’ve been doing things in the streets of New York. For me it was a great opportunity to run the concept to work in a kitchen setting and that’s why I’m here.

On starting La Tropi-Kitchen:

My first winter [in New York], I was kind of homesick. And I really, really wanted to try food from my country. I tried to go to places and I didn’t feel that I was eating kind of like the Colombian food that I’m used to. Everything that I found was just like rice and beans. And that’s how I started to try to learn recipes about home and trying to make them. For comfort. Then I was making these meals for me and my husband and then I started inviting friends and then it becomes a plan of the weekend where we will put a whole pot with firewood in my backyard on the Upper East Side. And that’s how we started the Sancocho Bailables, and then it became a place where people will come. My husband one time was kind of upset. He asked why I was feeding people for free. So, started charging money for that. And then friends of friends and that’s how the project started. I always tell people I didn’t even put the name myself. It just like happened. My friends would say “Let’s go this weekend to La Tropi-Kitchen.” Because every time that you go to my kitchen, you will find a basket with fruit hanging, the different colors, the clay pots, you know, all these all the different things. The huge coconut shredder, so it’s kind of like the proper kitchen.

Nick: So that’s just naturally what you grew up with. Lots of fruits and all those things around and they were in your kitchen in New York and you were just doing what you would do if you were in Colombia?

Stephanie: That’s really important that you mention that because even growing up in the Caribbean, my family was from the mountains of Colombia, and my father’s best friends were from Lebanon. So, I was exposed to this kind of melting pot even in my own city Barranquilla, so I was having food from the mountains of Colombia like arepas, chorizos, morcilla. Ahogado with the food and the coffee and then going to a classmate’s house and having like the mashed plantains. My mom family’s from Cieneha where it’s a lot of guineo, so it’s kind of like the same perception that you will get in New York like a melting pot of different cultures. So, I was kind of used to being exposed to different cultural identities in like a same place.

On the Colombian community in New York:

Stephanie: I have so many colleagues that are doing a great job back in Colombia. One of the things that I realized with my job is that I’m serving a community, the biggest Colombian community outside of the United States outside of Colombia is here in the United States. In New York specifically. The beauty of New York is that you find cuisines from all over the world and you can go to these places and learn a little bit about this culture. I feel in the United States you know, the real Colombian food as I know as I want to communicate it, we don’t have that here.

Nick: What do we have?

Stephanie: We have the same place you know, like they but they have pie salad, rice and beans. You have the sancocho, ajiaco, tostones.

Nick: Which are all very Colombian things.

Stephanie: Very Colombian things, but it can be Ecuadorian, it can be from other places, but the beauty of Colombian food is that it’s food that is made by the territory. So territory defines our food. For example, food from the Colombian Caribbean is similar to any Caribbean country, but the food from the mountains of Colombia are similar to the mountains of Ecuador. So for me, besides that is the fact that this food that I’m making is made by scratch, I’m not serving you an idea. I’m serving you a whole experience, the way that our grandma does. Portadora de Tradiciones, Tradition Carriers, will make this food, I’m making the food, not getting any shortcuts, which is difficult but exciting and rewarding. So that’s the whole difference.

On Working at Cosme:

Stephanie: One of the projects that I really loved in New York was the work that Daniela Soto Innes, as a female young chef, in running Cosme in New York, and also Enrique Olvera. In the United States, tacos are cheap food, you know, and then having a restaurant where they are making traditional Mexican food, I mean, you try the food, and it’s Mexican food, but they are elevating this food at some level that people were paying real money for them. I admired that. So, I wanted to go to that kitchen. So, when I when I went to Columbia, I knew that as soon as I finish culinary school, I will do everything that I can to go to that kitchen.

Nick: How long were you there?

Stephanie: I was there a year and kind of like three months, I stayed a little bit longer, especially because I loved the kitchen. I love the people that I was interacting with, but most of all I loved more these Mexican carriers of tradition, these these cookies as I called them. I have a special term, the cookie. The cookie is this like tough woman, you know? They are making 3000 to tortillas, fresh tortillas that need nixtamalization, all this different stuff with corn. So, I was kind of like, I won’t leave this kitchen until I can properly alkalize, or nixtamalize corn and everything that you have to teach me.

Nick: But it wasn’t about learning to cook Mexican food. It was about the idea of bringing tradition and applying it somewhere else.

Stephanie: Exactly. Right. Yeah. I mean, I have a plan. I mean, obviously, Mexican food is one of my favorite gastronomies. It’s so beautiful. It’s one of these gastronomies that they keep the past, their tradition is so important. Even a fancy Mexican person will eat, but it’s different in Colombia.

Nick: Because of why? Because of war? Because of migration?

Stephanie: In Colombia, specifically, I mean, I think that we appreciate something more that is from outside. I mean, things are changing. Don’t get me wrong. But I mean, if I if I will serve somebody from Colombia, pastel de cerdo or something, or like a bollo de pescado, like a patarashca in Peru. You will feel fancy if you’re eating like a French dish or something like that, but things are changing. Besides, in Mexico it’s different. You know, you feel as fancy if you’re eating Mexican food or eating something else. So yeah, I spent some time there. I learned. I made friends. It was a beautiful. It was beautiful to see a female chef also being really creative. Being a boss. Being a kitchen of women, you know, where most of them were woman and it was beautiful, you know?

On making tamales:

Stephanie: I finished culinary school in 2018. So, everything that had happened in my career happened so fast. I cannot stay quiet. I need to be doing things and then it was kind of on December, I can’t remember, and I was like, I want to make tamales because I’m tired of people thinking, especially here in the states, that tamales are the Mexican tamales. Tamale are in all Latin America, we have 1000s. And 1000s. I call them the native Tupperware because it’s what it is.

Nick: They were made for traveling.

Stephanie: They make for traveling. You have to take long distances, even if it’s a fiambre, a tamale, a humita, whatever it is. That’s something really important that I’ve been reflecting lately too is the food as we know it right now has changed. Before it was just food. Especially when I do these documentaries in Colombia, there’s people saying oh there’s food, food, food. But now food is whole experience that you see. They are taking care of you. That is something kind of new. It’s not from many centuries, unless you were super wealthy. But then I really want to make tamales because now talking about sustainability and all the different stuff I learned from back in Colombia, many of them have sent kids to school to college just selling tamales or bollos, you know. Selling envueltos, you know. I just really want to do the tamale because there’s not anything that is more Latin America and or Colombian itself than a tamale.

Nick: What are some of your favorite Colombian tamales?

Stephanie: I love the pastel de cerdo. Where I’m from really close there is a town called Pital de Megua and their economy is based on this dish, which is beautiful, can you imagine that? It’s so hard to make. I mean coming back to the theme of French cuisine. We have something called arepa de huevo. You know how hard it is to cook some corn dough and then put inside an egg and close it and the egg is still runny inside?

Nick: Frying it.

Stephanie: It’s so hard. So in Colombian food we have techniques that, you know, you bring whatever French soufflé and I’ll do my arepa de huevo and we’ll see.

Nick: It’s just as hard. It takes just as much technique.

Stephanie: Exactly. And the same thing with the pastel, basically you are seasoning rice with all the cooking liquid from the pork and then putting the rice inside a leaf raw and cooking your pastel and, you know, using your intuition. One of the things that I realized working with these ladies is their sense that many cooks don’t have.

Nick: There’s no exact temperatures. There’s no exact cooking times. They know because they’ve done it over and over.

Stephanie: And over and over and then when you try to write the recipe it’s like, “how is the recipe?” No. You put 500 pesos of zanahorias, carrots. How much? Wait? Yeah, so you have to use another language. It’s about how much they pay for ingredients. So, I was fascinated about that dish and especially because I tried to make it many times. I visited this community like a couple times and then when I felt that it can I can do it right I just started making them. And he’s amazing because it’s a whole meal. Just imagine you have potatoes, vegetables, the cooking liquids…

Nick: And to have it all come out like cooked, not one part more overdone. Everything has to be perfect and it’s super hard. Plus, the travel time of when you eat it since there’s still heat in there.

Stephanie: Absolutely. How can you open and close it again? So, it’s really, really hard. So yeah, I start making tamales. I made hallacas and people start knowing me. “Oh, she’s making tamales.”