Stephanie bonnin: a colombian, a woman and a chef on her own terms.
24 October 2022 | food
New York-Based Colombian Chef Stephanie Bonnin became a chef almost out of necessity: to be able to find her place as a Colombian immigrant woman in the United States after she had left Colombia to escape patriarchal norms and expectations. She has now defined her womanhood on her own terms, and it is partly thanks to food.
She left Colombia. Yes. But She’s also become a fierce defender of its culture, in fact of the many cultures that Colombia contains. Through La Tropikitchen, her creative gastronomic project, she is trying to preserve the diversity of Colombian cuisine, which colonization almost erased. In fact, she’s not only a chef. She’s a food ethnographer who travels to the regions where this gastronomic heritage lives to learn directly from those who carry it. Her mission is to save this heritage for future generations.
In her cuisine like in anything she does, she’s able to combine tradition and modernity while questioning any norms that limit our ability to be free. Her sharp and incisive analysis of colonization, capitalism, cultural assimilation & fetishization but also the role of the food industry in maintaining oppressive systems (like patriarchy) makes her a food activist in her own right. Like many diasporic people, she holds this capacity to question norms and create alternative worlds and imaginaries.
For this interview, she invited us over at her house where, in a very Tropikitchen-like style, she cooked for us a beautiful dinner while we talked about her vision and ambition for her project.
Let's start at the beginning. Tell me when and why did you leave Colombia?
I was 21 years old when I left. Back then, I felt the need to explore the world, but now, at 35 I understand better why I really left. Any Colombian woman knows that patriarchy is still a big thing in our country. I knew I was going to suffer a lot. My value as a woman was going to be assessed on the possibility of having children, a husband, and looking pretty.
So how did you get to New York?
I came to Chicago first. I met Pablo and we got married. Pablo got sent to New York by his office. We came here, and it was like starting from scratch. I started working in a creative agency. It’s that New York world where you have access to many things, the VIP list, the brands. I was addicted to Adderall. I was super skinny. Until one day, I ordered a birthday cake for one of the directors. The next day, his girlfriend called me to tell me who I thought I was. I immediately quit, and that same year, my dad died. I went through depression. And that’s when cooking came into my life. I started cooking because my therapist told me “find an activity in which you can simply be in the now.” All my life, I also had this weird relationship with my body and food. People always me told I was fat. I’ve put myself on the most ridiculous diets, but when I cook, I can connect with myself. I can’t talk, I’m in the moment. It is my meditation.
Is that how La Tropikitchen project began?
In my house, there’s always been food on the table. I always feed people. I find a lot of love and satisfaction in serving people and seeing everyone eating, drinking and happy. My friends started saying “oh, let’s eat at La Tropikitchen.” That’s where the name comes from. But, when I started the project, it was not a cooking project as such. It was a project to understand myself as a Colombian woman, and to understand what Colombia is.
When I cook, I can connect with myself. I can’t talk, I’m in the moment. It is my meditation.
What do you mean by that?
Well, what is Colombia? What is my culture? When you go to eat Colombian food in New York, it’s always paisa food (food from the region of Antioquia in Colombia), but Colombia is a country with many regions. I wanted to show what my Colombia is – the Colombia I know. Through my family, I was exposed to a multicultural Colombia: I was born in the Caribbean. My family is from the mountains of Colombia, so growing up, I ate paisa food. I have a wayuu indigenous aunt from La Guajira who brought indigenous preparations, and I also had a nanny from Soledad (a city from the Caribbean region) whose food is also different.
I wanted to show what my Colombia is – the Colombia I know.
Colombia is a very diverse country, and there’s a lot of simplification of its culture. You talk a lot about Colombian people romanticizing their own culture, which is basically another form of cultural appropriation. Can you say more about this?
A lot of Colombian privileged people perceive Colombia through icons (symbols). It is what you do when you take a picture with la negrita (term used in Colombia for Black women, which is increasingly criticized) in Cartagena. Because we are Colombians, we feel that we have the right to do that, and it is wrong. This happens when you fetichize your own culture. At the same time, in Colombia, people despise anything that is traditional or come from low-income communities. You can hear things like “oh you are a peasant” or “you are an Indian.” As a white Colombian woman – because I am white in Colombia – if I am making an arepa huevo (arepa with an egg inside), it is considered cool, but, if someone from the community does it, it’s not.
These are very fine lines, and I have to be very careful. I always have to ask myself: what am I giving back to this culture beyond using its symbols and generating money through it? That’s why field work is very important for me. When I started the project, I decided to go to the territory before studying cooking professionally. I don’t make a recipe without first learning it from the people who hold the tradition, and without first having paid them what their work is worth and giving them direct remuneration. I also travel with knives, microplanes, etc. and I bring them tools. And it’s not just about bringing. It is about sharing and exchanging knowledge.
When you go to the territory, you learn recipes, you share knowledge, and you also document these trips through photos and film documentaries. Can you talk a bit more about that?
When I started going to the communities, I saw the matronas (women who carry the tradition) no longer wanting to teach their children the traditional recipes. It is the same thing that happens when people emigrate and do not want to teach their children their language because the dominant culture marginalizes other cultures. This really motivated me to run La Tropikitchen to preserve this gastronomic heritage for the next generation. It is also about preserving this knowledge in a world where food has been industrialized. These are places where a subsistence economy still exists, which is basically an economic model that says “fuck“ to capitalism, and which capitalism wants to end, where Indigenous people come down from the mountains and exchange yucca for fish.
In 2020, I wanted to learn how to cook fish over charcoal, so I rented a house on the beach, and I went to look for fish. I found fish and at some point, the man who sold me the fish came to drink beer in the hut with me, and we started chatting, and there I began to understand the problems of what it is to be an artisanal fisherman in a country like Colombia and the problems that exist in these territories. I produced a documentary about it. But this cannot be made by just coming, visiting and bye. When I go to a community, I don’t just stay for a day, I live with them. In this case, I lived with the fishing communities for three months. I built relationships that can hurt. It hurts when you hear their house got flooded. The matronas call me sometimes, and they just want to talk. These are the people that I share the most with (look, they just texted me to tell me they found a crocodile). You feel happy that they can have their land, that they have their crops, or that they can make a living.
I always have to ask myself: what am I giving back to this culture beyond using its symbols and generating money through it?
You’re also a professionally trained chef. How do you combine this with the traditions you learned in the territories?
My concept is authenticity with creativity. For example, I run a catering service called “Caldero Catering”, which is inspired by the Bazurto market in Cartagena where you have those big pots of food. I make the same food. I am just using French techniques, but it looks and tastes like what it is originally. In my cuisine, I also use state-of-the-art tools like the Thermomix to heat coconut milk, for instance. Why? Because I learned that if I bring it to a specific temperature, the essential oils of the coconut will come out and I will have a creamier coconut milk. I try to share this knowledge with the matronas who hold the culinary traditions.
You’re going to the territories in Colombia, spending time with these communities, but you live in New York. La Tropikitchen is in New York. Why make it in New York?
I do not think I would be making this cuisine if I was living in Colombia. What I do is immigrant cuisine. I always say this. As an immigrant, you reach a point in your immigration journey where you don’t belong either to the place you left or to the place where you live. You no longer belong anywhere. So, when you don’t belong, what do you have to do? Create spaces. Create imaginary spaces. That’s why when a person is living outside their country, they celebrate a goal of their national team because there is always that search of connection, a space of belonging… in my case, that connection I’ve gotten it through my cooking.
As an immigrant, you reach a point in your immigration journey where you don’t belong either to the place you left or to the place where you live. You no longer belong anywhere. So, when you don’t belong, what do you have to do? Create spaces. Create imaginary spaces.
In fact, you run La Tropikitchen with a similar approach in Colombia and New York. You’re sourcing local products in New York, and you build relationships with New York local farmers.
Showing Colombia is important, but my project is also about talking about food systems and promoting good agricultural practices, food made in an artisanal way whether it is in Colombia, India, or Cambodia. And yes, I like to build relationships here too. For example, I know the woman who sells me eggs here in NY. I know her practice, I know who she is. And these relationships do not exist in industrialized food systems. I like to disrupt these food systems. When I travel, I pick up seeds, I make an inventory and I package and deliver them to the local farmers. I also grow my own crop; I dry it and preserve it. So right now, in New York you can eat an aji (chili pepper) charapita from the Colombian Amazon because I brought the seeds. It makes me very happy to see here in New York an aji pipi de mono or an aji dulce, for instance. There are so important for the seasoning in Colombian Caribbean cuisine.
Being able to resist the homogenization of a culture, like Colombian culture, through seeds and food is very powerful. This shows that decolonization is not an abstract idea.
Yes, and this is also part of the food security of the Colombian people living in a situation of immigration in a place like the United States; and the biggest problem we have as migrants in this country is marginalization. It starts with our food because our food has been homogenized and reduced to flavors like adobo and sazón. So, the fact that a person belonging to the Amazon – not only the Colombian part, but the great Amazon which connects different South American countries – can find these products in New York for me is a dream come true. Besides that, Colombia is the third most biodiverse country in the world with an extremely rich culture because it has been a place of immigration for Arabs, Chinese, Europeans, etc. People need to understand this and change their perception on our country. We’re not just beans and arepas.
You left Colombia to be able to define yourself as a woman, to escape the expectations of Colombian society on women. You are now an entrepreneur in New York. Can you say you have now managed to define your own womanhood?
Here in the United States, I am a victim of discrimination and abuse because I am a person of color, an immigrant, and a woman. The matronas I met in Colombia are my great teachers of resilience. The resilient Colombian women, the Colombian women who care for their kins and find ways to survive and live, you know what I mean? They do all this with a lot of dignity, with a lot of modesty. For me, that is what represents the true Colombian woman.
What about others’ perceptions or expectations? Did you free yourself from them?
I know I make a lot of people uncomfortable. I talk openly about sexuality, I talk openly about pleasure, and those are topics that can upset. I am seen at this lady who’s on social media, who seems to be just about showbusiness, but people don’t see me sweat in the kitchen. My own peers say that I don’t have enough experience because I haven’t worked in many restaurants. I’m not interested. I am at a certain point in my life where I don’t care about other people’s perception. I have also learned to accept people’s criticism with compassion. Daring to be different and doing things differently means you will upset and make people uncomfortable. It means you will be hurt sometimes by what people say. There is nothing that generates more insecurity in a man than a confident woman.
Changing social and cultural norms involves creating discomfort. It's really about confronting systems and accepting their rejection. It can be a painful process.
What are the next stages you see for the project?
I have done take-outs, pop-ups, residencies, workshops, but La Tropikitchen is first and foremost a space, an imaginary space. An imaginary space that needs to take a material form very soon. I mean, think about it, New York holds the second largest population of Colombians outside Colombia. We are a big part of the identity of this city, but there is not a Colombian restaurant that we can fully identify with. So, I have to do it. I want a physical space, a multi-purpose space where in the mornings people can sit with a good Colombian coffee, taste our malteadas (cocoa-based drinks), our fruit smoothies, that sapote juice in thick malted milk. We are going to have a small market with exotic Colombian products like ants. I also want to sell chili peppers, hot peppers, different types of Colombian seasonings because it is important to change these narratives that homogenize our flavors. I’m sick of people thinking that we are rice, beans, and rice and beans. Try this ant and this tucupi (yellow sauce extracted from wild manioc root), they make us unique.
I also want to change the restaurant culture. The kitchen world is very machista and patriarchal. A lot of women in my industry have to be mindful of how they carry themselves because they need to make sure they are respected. As a woman, you have to give up your femininity so that you don’t get sexually harassed. I like to walk around in my leggings, I like to dance when I cook, so it’s my fault, because you can see my ass? That shit has to stop.
And more than anything, I want to create an ecosystem of opportunities. One should not create a company only to make money. One should create companies to generate growth opportunities for a whole lot of people. Otherwise, it does not make sense for this company to exist. And mark my words, because if someday I forget this, I want people to remind me of it.
It is important to change these narratives that homogenize our flavors. I’m sick of people thinking that we are rice, beans, rice, and beans.