Changing the Culinary Landscape of Cuenca
If you are like most people, you have probably walked right past the San Isidro Instituto Superior next to Banco Pichincha on Avenida Solano without noticing it. Yet you have undoubtedly tasted the fruits of their efforts if you have experienced the rapidly developing culinary scene in Cuenca.
The brainchild of Francisco Encalada, San Isidro has quickly gained a reputation for turning out some of the best and most innovative chefs found anywhere, not just in Cuenca. While traveling throughout the United States and Europe, Francisco noticed that in many places top chefs were acknowledged as stars in their own right. Such was not the case in Ecuador and many other Latin countries where chefs received little recognition, prestige or formal training. He studied how and where many well known chefs were trained and decided Cuenca offered a perfect setting to create the Ecuadorian equivalent of such famous schools as Le Cordon Bleu in Paris or the Culinary Institute of America in New York.
Francisco is not a chef. His background is in economics and business administration. He was, however, astute enough to recognize a need and develop a solution to meet that need. It took four years of paperwork before San Isidro Instituto Superior received full governmental approval to open its doors in 2009 as a culinary institute, the equivalent of a college for cooking.
Gastronomy is defined as the study of the relationship between food and culture, the art of preparing and serving rich or delicate and appetizing food, a style of cooking of a particular region, and the science of good eating. San Isidro teaches all of this and more as part of its culinary curriculum.
The wealth of fruits, vegetables, seafood and other ingredients available in Ecuador provides a perfect palette for exploring and enhancing local cuisine. In addition to learning about gastronomy, students also study subjects such as economics, entrepreneurship and English. The diverse subject matter helps prepare them for a variety of careers in the culinary world.
When you walk past the entrance doors to the facility another world emerges. While the students still sit in chairs, the institute’s classrooms differ from traditional college classrooms in that the teacher has a mini-kitchen to teach from instead of a desk. In the labs, each student has their own cooking station, complete with stove, refrigerator and prep area, to prepare the day’s assignment. Instead of solving equations or writing essays, students learn the art of selecting the best and freshest ingredients in the market, using knives and how to create perfect sauces or pastries. During exams, instead of circling answers with a red pencil, the instructors judge the taste, appearance and presentation of each student’s work.
The course of studies is a demanding one. Students attend classes four or five hours a day, five days a week, for two and a half years. In addition to their classroom education, students are required to gain work experience in the field.
A separate corporation, San Isidro Bakery and Coffee, has outlets in the Millennium Plaza and Mall del Rio where students can serve an internship to gain experience working in a retail store. Pastries are prepared and baked in an offsite location separate from the school and stores. A third outlet is scheduled to open this month on the grounds of the San Isidro Instituto Superior campus on Avenida Solano.
Since San Isidro opened its doors, 104 students have graduated from the two and a half year program with a certificate as a technologist in gastronomical and culinary arts. Another 320 students are currently undertaking studies at the institute. San Isidro employs 22 teachers and brings in guest lecturers from the USA, France and Mexico to enhance the learning experience for students.
Since its inception the institute has been recognized nationally and internationally for its excellent training and has received prestigious awards including the Culinary Cup in Guayaquil, Culinary Cup of the Americas, Culture Alive (Peru), Roots of Ecuador Culinary Cup, and Culinary Cup La Fiesta in Cuenca. San Isidro offers assistance with placement as part of their program, and prospective employers from hotels and restaurants now approach the institute seeking its well-trained and highly qualified graduates.
For most of the graduates, the next step in their culinary career will be a position as a sous (apprentice) chef to hone their skills in anticipation of becoming a head chef. Some will find positions locally, but many will continue learning at restaurants sprinkled throughout South America, North America and Europe. Some will find themselves preparing gourmet meals onboard cruise ships plying the waters around the world. Still others will take advantage of the combination of skills they have learned to open their own restaurants.
One thing is certain – thanks to the education they received at San Isidro, all of them will ultimately influence the continuing evolution of Ecuadorian cuisine both here and throughout the world. They are, in fact, actualizing the institute’s slogan – I dream, I invent, I create, I am San Isidro!
So next time you’re out and around Cuenca you can enjoy an incredible meal at places like San Isidro Bakery & Coffee, Anima, Dos Sucres, Fraiche Pastry, Karana Chocolateria Artesanal Ecuatoriana or La Caleta Cocina Ecuatoriana, all of which are run by San Isidro Instituto Superior graduates, please remember to thanks the school for the role they played in your gastronomic delight.
Introducing Cuenca Expats Magazine’s Cooking School
Have you always wanted to cook like a chef?
Would you like to know how to incorporate all the new fruits, vegetables, grains and spices found in Ecuador into your diet and cooking?
Do you wonder what changes you need to make in your cooking and baking because of the high altitude of Cuenca?
If your answer to any of these questions is yes, then make plans to join us at the monthly cooking classes just for expats starting in July as a joint effort between Cuenca Expats Magazine and the San Isidro Instituto Superior. Just like the full-time students who study at the institute, you will have the opportunity to learn from some of the best chefs and cooking instructors around.
Taught in English, each affordable, three-quarter day session will be full of new information and experiences. Starting in the morning in the classroom, you will discover things like where and how to purchase the freshest and best ingredients. You will learn about the best tools and techniques to use. You will watch a culinary professional demonstrate how to prepare various dishes. Then you will break and institute students and faculty will prepare lunch especially for you. The afternoon will be devoted to hands-on instruction at your own workstation in the kitchen.
When you complete the entire sequence of classes you will receive a certificate proclaiming your accomplishment. To ensure you receive personalized attention, class sizes will be limited and they are sure to fill up quickly. Watch for more information about dates and costs in the next issue of Cuenca Expats Magazine and make sure to reserve your spot.
Feeding Earthquake Victims and Relief Workers
Like so many other organizations throughout Ecuador, San Isidro Instituto Superior has responded to the need for assistance for victims of the recent earthquake. During the first two weeks after the April 16th quake, the school served as a collection point for donations of food and other needed items. Two of the institute’s students who are paramedics were given a leave of absence from their studies to participate in relief efforts. Together with other culinary schools throughout the country, San Isidro is sending a team of 15 individuals to the coast to coordinate their efforts with government and military personnel. Bringing the donated food with them as well as additional supplies the school has purchased, the team will cook meals in the camps that have been set up for refugees and workers alike.
About the Author
Mike Herron has been living in Cuenca since January 2015. After retiring from the telecommunications industry, he pursued his lifelong dream of becoming an author. Writing under the pen name J. Michael Herron in the contemporary romance genre, with a dose of fantasy and suspense thrown in, he currently has four self-published books completed and is working on a series of four more. His books are available on Amazon.