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Chefs in Development

In order to be part of development efforts, it is not always necessary to work for NGOs or multilateral agencies. If you have a specific passion or a particular skill, there is always the possibility of combining your interests into your career. The work of Benjamin Villegas and his team illustrates this nicely, through the restaurant chain they have set up in Colombia, called Wok.

Benjamin Villegas was a young Colombian, who travelled to London to study modern cookery while working in a Mediterranean restaurant. He went to Europe before Colombia’s gastronomic revolution and London cookery was an eye opener for him. However, when the city got a little too much for him, Benjamin travelled around Thailand, where he lived for three years with a fisherman’s family. There he learned not only to cook local dishes, but also to fish and choose the best produce at local markets.

When he returned to Colombia, Benjamin first opened a Mediterranean café, but soon moved on to realise his dream of opening a restaurant that would reflect all the flavours that he had picked up abroad and this is how Wok was conceived. Wok opened over fourteen years ago, with the intention of bringing South East Asian cuisine to Colombia. Today it has five branches in the country’s capital, Bogota. The intriguing part of Benjamin’s culinary ambition, is that he has always been determined to bring good practices of cuisine, agriculture, fishery and sustainable development to the table.

One of Wok’s recent achievements has been in supporting local agricultural and fishery business. So, for dishes on Wok’s menu requiring ingredients that are traditionally grown in Asia, such as Japanese piman peppers, edamame beans and Chinese pak choi, Benjamin brought over the seeds and made an agreement with local cultivators to grow the crops on their land. In this way, he was able to remain faithful to the original taste of the dishes and at the same time contribute to the sustainability of local agriculture.

Wok’s most exciting success story is that of tuna fishing in Bahia Solano, in the region of Choco. A consultant of Mundo Wok, which functions as the restaurant’s research centre told me that buying tuna, fished in Japan and imported to Colombia, via California, is cheaper than buying tuna found along the Colombian Pacific coast. However, because Wok is determined to do their part in sustaining Colombia’s local businesses, they have organised to collaborate with local Choco-based fishermen, the home of Colombia’s poorest.

Their fish are transported to Bogota in the early mornings. The fishermen were not used to working as providers for restaurants outside their region and mostly worked individually, rather than collaboratively. More interestingly, because the fish business is seasonal and times can get hard, some of them were involved in the drug trade as their coast is part of the route drug traffickers use to transport drugs to Costa Rica. As a result, fishing tuna for Wok, for the same price the restaurant would have paid for imported fish, functions as a social incentive to stay away from drug trafficking.

Today, Wok is a trendy restaurant, popular among families and the youth of Bogota. Reflecting on the future, Benjamin Villegas is committed, first and foremost, to sticking to the core values of the business and to maintaining the quality, not only of their products but also their relations with providers, staff and the environment. This exotic restaurant chain is an exemplary model of a truly sustainable business, where dedicating time and energy to one’s responsibility to take care of society and your environs, is the key to the quality of service and products you are able to offer your customers.

Ayako Iba

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