Chef Juanma is a trailblazer in the culinary world, known for his fresh approach to traditional dishes and unique experiences that make food fun and exciting to eat again. With a Michelin Star achieved at a young age and several successful restaurants under his belt, Chef Juanma has set new standards in the gastronomic industry, elevating and enlightening all the senses with his innovative approach.
Hailing from Colombia, a country known for its fantastic food options and culinary heritage, Chef Juanma’s journey to becoming a renowned chef was not always a straightforward one. In fact, life had other intentions for him at the beginning.
His pivotal moment came as a realization while studying engineering at 18 and working at his father’s company in commercial trading. It seemed as tho the vision of becoming a chef was fading away until he came across an article in a magazine that discussed “angry cuisine”. This was about breaking free from the barriers of traditional cuisine to innovate and expand upon culinary styles.
From there, the rest is history, as they say. How he grew up only helped grow his culinary spirit as well. Whether it’s hiking local mountains to gather delicious fruits, or teaching himself at a young age how to harvest, process, and roast coffee, Chef Juanma doesn’t have any fear when it comes to getting his hands dirty, literally. This connection has stayed with him since and laid out the foundation for his future culinary successes.
With his culinary mission clear in his mind, Chef Juanma pursued formal education at the Gato Dumas Culinary School in Bogotá, Colombia.
After his training he embarked on a journey to Europe to gain valuable experience and constant training at Michelin-starred restaurants. There, he honed his skills and could develop his own style and technique. Then, armed with the right skills and confidence he returns to Bogota to open El Cielo, meaning Sky or Paradise in Spanish.
Expansion beyond Columbia
At El Cielo, Chef Juanma aimed to bring the traditional Colombian cooking styles and roots to a state of excellence while seeing what the limits of innovation were and surpassing them.
In addition, he wanted to create experiences that were fond memories beyond just the taste of the food but leaving something for the rest of the senses. Since then, Chef Juanma has expanded his restaurants in Colombia and throughout the United States, making his mark on the culinary scene with his modernized Colombian cuisine that incorporates elements of molecular gastronomy into his dishes.
In 2015, Chef Juanma made his first foray into the United States in Miami, recreating his successful El Cielo concept with resounding success. Here we saw his logical mindset come into play on top of the focus on the food itself. He brought the United States Colombian Modernistic Cuisine in a different format that helped build his recognition. A few years later, he then opened up another location in Washington, D.C., right before the pandemic.
The journey wasn’t always easy.
Chef Juanma didn’t have the clearest path when it came to his culinary journey. In fact, he proudly shares with us stories of his hardships that still put a smile on his face today. Even with his first restaurant in Bogotá, Chef Juanma was on the verge of bankruptcy and couldn’t afford a proper grill. But what he could afford was a hot dog cart and the griddle it came with. Nevertheless, he still was able to win an award and was barely able to afford the ticket to accept the award in person in Lima, Peru.
Before that, due to his creative and hyperactive nature, he was kicked out of Medellin’s gastronomy school. Of course, years later, after his success, they were able to give him honors afterward. He was even affected by the pandemic when he opened up in Washington, D.C., amidst the pandemic and was only open for a few short months. It seemed enough to get him a Michelin Star, and the Chef himself says that these aren’t sad stories and that everyone has their own journey.
Storytelling at the heart of Michelin-level food
For Chef Juanma, food is not just about sustenance; it’s a medium for storytelling. He believes that food can evoke emotions and memories and strives to create culinary masterpieces that tell a story on the plate.
Each dish Chef Juanma makes is carefully crafted with attention to detail, from the presentation to the flavors and textures, to evoke a specific emotion or memory in the diner. By infusing his dishes with meaning and emotion, Chef Juanma creates a truly immersive dining experience that leaves a lasting impression on his diners.
He believes that food is not just about nourishment but also about culture, heritage, and memories. Each dish tells a story, and Chef Juanma uses his food as a medium to convey his own story, as well as the stories of the ingredients and the people who produce them. He strives to create a multi-sensory connection between his guests and the food they are experiencing, leaving a lasting impression that goes beyond taste.
This can be seen in one of his most famous experiences that he created with his nephew’s help. You might have already seen it go viral on social media, and it’s known as Choco therapy. A spa that’s made at the table and meant for you to enjoy the food with all five senses as the chocolate is poured over your hands to eat off of.
One of Chef Juanma’s signature techniques is molecular gastronomy. This culinary approach involves the scientific understanding of the physical and chemical properties of the food to create unique textures, flavors, and presentations of unexpected culinary delights. He will always continue pushing past the boundaries in the culinary world, whether it’s through molecular gastronomy or the latest in cooking and preparation techniques.
What advice does he offer others?
Hard work is critical as anyone who works alongside the chef sticks to a disciplined regime and works easily 16 hours per day. He also feels that it’s important to look inside oneself and take care of yourself. He only drinks around one to two times a week and always finds the time to get a workout in and meditate. Another key thing for Chef Juanma is getting enough sleep, and he pushes for those eight hours.
While he doesn’t specifically offer it as a key piece of advice, Chef Juanma is a big proponent of the power of social media and loves that part of his experiences can be shared via video and audio. His mission is to always work with all five senses when creating culinary experiences.
What’s next for the Michelin Star Chef?
There are discussions about possibly opening up El Cielo throughout more parts of Colombia, as well as expansions throughout the United States, the Caribbean, and Europe. Essentially, he wants to bring his brand and flavors on a global scale so that you can even take a trip with his brand. You’ll also be able to catch him as one of the upcoming Judges in the Top Chef series.