The Spirit of Gastronomy
This is the story of three men who were never destined to work in an office. The three gentlemen behind Anima Restaurant, General Manager and Co-owner Xavier Martinez, Chef/Owner Sebastian Martinez, and Sous Chef Pedro Vivar, all grew up in Cuenca, Ecuador. Since they all attended the same schools, they frequently all hung out. They all liked playing chess in their free time while the women in their lives--mothers, aunts, grandmothers--grilled BBQs, "las parrillas". Their childhoods passed in aromatic waves of Sunday pork, steaming rice and locro de papa with avocado and cheese, but as happens with so many young adults, Xavier and Pedro, three years older tan Sebastian, left their flavorful world for the world of responsibilities. Law school. It was a destiny never meant to be fulfilled. Neither of them made it very long before they decided to find career paths in different realms. One could possibly trace the idea of Anima back to this moment, this initial decision to taste freedom while pursuing passion. For Pedro, the passionate path was obvious. He decided to enroll in gastronomy school. Though it is atypical for young Ecuadorian boys to spend time in the kitchen, Pedro was inducted into the culinary world by his six aunts who all helped raise him. The kitchen became his play area. While his aunts prepared delicious BBQ, he would craft his own candies and "petit fours" and conduct culinary experiments. His innovative tendencies as a boy influenced the direction of his own studies years later.
At the same time when Pedro left the law office, Sebastian finally caught up with him in academic studies. They decided to enroll together in a culinary school in Ecuador. They completed their programs in two years, but then the allure of the world captured them both. They decided to learn from other cultures. Of that decision, Pedro explains,
"Here, you are limited in teachers but when you go to other countries, you learn more techniques, more products. We had the passion but we wanted to learn more. That’s why we hadn’t started our restaurant yet. We still needed more experience."
Pedro went to Buenos Aires, Argentina for his Master’s Degree in Gastronomy. While there, he encountered what he proclaims to be “the best dish in the world.” World-renowned chef Ferran Adria visited a local "parrilla", El Pobre Luis, in Buenos Aires and recommended one dish above all others: gizzards. Pedro had to try the dish for himself, and upon tasting the delicacy he declared it to be the best thing he had ever eaten. He was so enraptured with the food at El Pobre Luis that he worked there in his spare time, learning from the best.
Sebastian decided to pursue his master's degree in one of the most renowned culinary schools in the world, the Basque Culinary Center in San Sebastián, Spain. It was there that he learned to experiment under the direction of famous chefs like Enrique Fleischmann. Separated by an ocean, both of these men,
in their early twenties, were training with the best in the world and working towards a dream that hadn’t yet been fully realized.
Meanwhile, Xavier was in Mexico finishing up his Master's Degree in Business, earning awards as a top-performing student. All three men came to the end of their degrees at the same time, presenting the perfect opportunity for their paths to finally reunite. From Argentina, Mexico and Spain, they all returned to Cuenca to introduce a concept that the community had yet to experience: an innovative restaurant with local products that would inspire its customers to set down their forks and say, quite simply, “Wow.”
Anima opened on February 12, and Xavier and Sebastian serve up fifteen plates, ranging from appetizers to desserts for lunch and dinner. The word Anima comes from the Latin root meaning soul or spirit. The name of the restaurant is an integral part of its existence. Both chefs subscribe to the cocina del autor cooking philosophy, a style that prioritizes innovation above all else. Soul seeps into the flavor of every dish, into the stone crafted plates made from local rocks, and into the partnerships with organic farms. Ever experimenting, the two chefs will change their menu every five months in response to what is seasonally available. Each cycle of dishes has a different theme. The current theme is El Silvestre, The Wild. When you dine at Anima, expect plates from the land and the sea, combinations you have never before seen, and presentations that will evoke all of your senses.
One example of such a dish is La Fertilidad, The Fertility. It is a seafood platter covered by a salt-cookie face. The symbolic fertility face comes from the Valdivia, a pre-Columbian indigenous group native to Ecuador. As the servers explain the concept behind the dish, something they do for every plate served, the customer must break the face with a little hammer before tasting the delicacies beneath. Senses of sound, touch, and sight are all invoked before you even get to taste the food, to feel its consistencies.
For months, these three men had worked tirelessly to prepare for the launch of Anima and now, with a steady stream of customers already, they are living the beautiful and crazy dream. Xavier says that you must have perseverance to do this job. “It is a marathon, a long career. There are difficult moments but you have to continue with the same force and passion.” Pedro adds: “This business takes time and life commitment. We can’t remember our last party." The twentyeight-year-old laughs and shakes his head while saying this. Moving forward, they have big goals of culinary expansion. They want to attract more locals and expats to Anima as they continue to experiment and prepare incredible dishes. "Come prepared for an experience," Xavier says. Sensorial cuisine evokes emotion, and Sebastian and Pedro want their food to excite the customer, to make us happy, and to encourage us to rethink what we assume. Their inspiration for their plates? Everywhere and everything, they state simultaneously. By distilling this inspiration into a restaurant experience, all three men hope that the creations of Anima will surprise you deep down in your soul, and that your senses will ignite in a way that you cannot find in other restaurants in Cuenca.
Culinary Rock Stars
There are many sensational restaurants here in Cuenca. It seems a new breed of chefs is entering the market place with the singular goal of outdoing all others. Lately, just when I thought I had found the “best food” in Cuenca, another restaurant opens and I find myself not only eating better food but also my words. While I have been impressed with many of the local eateries, I have yet, until recently that is, been completely blown away. The new restaurant Anima is destined for greatness. I have yet to find a restaurant where I can’t easily get a table, but I am confident that Anima is going to become one of the first in the city where you have to “know someone” in order to eat there. The three gentlemen behind this very unique concept are rock stars and, like I was, you will be mystified by the experience, from the Manhattan-esque minimalistic décor to the creative presentation of each dish to the extraordinary service.
The meal began with a test tube of fruit juice with a cork stopper. This is designed to prepare your palette for the taste bud extravaganza you are about to experience. The second thing brought to the table was a box with a hinged lid. I can safely say I have never been presented with a box at any of the hundreds of restaurants I have eaten in before. Inside the box was freshly baked bread and a sauce to dip it in. If you know anything about mythology, you know that Pandora’s box, while riddled with evil, had one final gift…hope. Such was the case with this box. In my mind I was thinking, if they went to this much effort to present the bread, which was delicious, the rest of the meal is going to be sui generis.
Next to arrive was a piece of pork loin cooked to perfection, topped with slices of roasted red pepper and a small carmelized onion. It was served on a dish made from a hollowed out stone with a fitted glass top. The pork melted in my mouth and the garnishes perfectly complimented the taste. With this came mashed potatoes – a hybrid of extraordinary potato salad and traditionally mashed potatoes…they were amazing.
The main dish, served on a piece of slate, was almost too beautiful to eat – it was more a work of art than a meal, but that was the case with everything we were served. A medium rare filet topped with a cooked egg yolk, and a silver basket of fries. The sauces looked like the digital readouts from a stereo equalizer the way they were placed on the dish. I don’t know how the fries were cooked or what type of potato they started with (there are over 200 species of potatoes and tubers in Ecuador) but they were delicious. If they pay this much attention to the French fries, certainly everything they prepare will be sensational.
The meal concluded with a dessert I am unable to adequately describe. It was served in hollowed out stone bowls. There was a nut, made from delicious chocolate with a chocolate mousse filling served on a bed of ice cream and finely chopped fruit. My description doesn’t do the dessert justice, suffice it to say it was a wonderful amalgamation of tastes - I was tempted to lick the bowl, or stone in this case.
Every dish was meticulously prepared and presented and the taste of the food was extraordinary. If you are looking for a dining experience that is unique and refreshingly different where the food is an absolute culinary and gastronomical masterpiece, Anima is the perfect destination.