PARIS – Lemon, cilantro and schnapps are the three ingredients that simply cannot be missing from chef Juan Arbelaez’s kitchen.
The Colombian chef has opened seven restaurants in and around Paris in a mere seven years.
“Paris is a nucleus of creativity,” 31-year-old Arbelaez, who has gained recognition for his talents in the kitchen and appearances of television, told Efe.
“France was where I had to be.”
Born in Bogota on Jan. 18, 1988, Arbelaez got into the vocation via his mother’s kitchen. He decided to leave Colombia and set himself up in Paris before he turned 18.
In just two weeks, he managed to get into one of the world’s best culinary schools, Le Cordon Bleu.
“I didn’t have the money to pay for such an expensive school, so I had the opportunity to start cooking for the administrative staff,” he said.
After two years at Le Cordon Bleu, an unexpected opportunity arose when a place came up on the final exam of the course after another student’s absence.
“It sort of fell from the sky,” he said, recalling how the experience led to him to work with three Michelin star chef Pierre Gagnaire.
He gained greater fame in 2012 thanks to his participation on the TV show “Top Chef,” which was followed by the opening of his first restaurant “Plantxa” in Boulogne Billancourt on the western outskirts of Paris.
His approach came as a surprise to Paris’ culinary scene, which soon recognized the Colombian’s creativity, flavors and colorful dishes, which were reminiscent of his home country’s cuisine and featured ingredients like lime, cilantro and schnapps.
Three years after launching “Plantxa,” the chef opened “Maya” and “Levain” on the outskirts and in 2017 he opened “Yaya,” north of the capital.
“It’s a holiday destination. When you arrive there you feel like you’re on vacation, the kitchen is a mix of simplicity and powerful flavors,” he said.
“Froufrou,” which opened last year, was Arbelaez’s first foray into the city of Paris itself, followed by “Vida” and “Yaya 2,” his latest venue to have opened in February.
His choice of ingredients reflects the environmental concerns of his generation. He avoids squid, for example, so as not to interfere with the marine ecosystem.
“I always try to respect the reproduction cycles of my ingredients. Squid, like any other animal, fruit or vegetable, has its own,” he said.
Arbelaez has not turned his back on his native Colombia. He regularly visits his parents, who are proud to see their son’s success is firmly rooted in his family.