At the pastry station: nervous giggling
The air is thick and hot, even though the sun has been gone for 15 minutes. It’s typical of the Galapagos’ weather, but within the confines of the kitchen, the sweltering heat is overwhelming for someone not used to being on the equator.
[10 minutes before show time] There’s the sound of clattering pots and pans in the sink punctuated by the sound of nervous giggling at the pastry station. “Now it is about waiting.” Luis Angel Yanez, the man in charge, mentions to me. It is 18:30 now. It can’t be more than five minutes before the main event and the atmosphere is electrified with excitement. The very first guests arrive, a woman with a floral and light shawl on the arm of a tall man in a baseball cap. Only a few minutes later, a couple dozen people have joined them. They look to be in good spirits. And they all look hungry.
This is the second night that the Escuela de Gastronomia is open for this school year and they are already performing for a crowd. Located in the town of Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island, it is filled with young Galapagos men and women looking to work in restaurants. At the helm of this ship is Yanez. He was born in the Galapagos but studied at a culinary school in Buenos Ares.
[Sound of skillet sizzle] Four hours earlier, at 14:30, all of the students were at the academy to prepare food for this event. The cold kitchen was slicing papaya for the green papaya salad. In the hot kitchen, they were preparing the sauce for tuna wrapped in banana leaves. On the stove, a pot full of hot caramel bubbled and sputtered, overwhelming the entire kitchen with a strong, sweet scent and savory vegetables sizzle on a skillet.
Yanez moved about the whole kitchen, looking over the dishes, tasting some and giving instant feedback to the students. Many times it’s about technique. Yanez often gives tips to the students about the skills he learned while working in his own kitchen, designed to help them learn the speed necessary for working in a professional kitchen. But he likes to let them experiment, and encourages them to try their own techniques. Often students gather around a pan, learning from another student. “This is a coconut sorbet.” Yanez introduces the food to me as he hands over a spoon. “I only gave them the recipe, they figured the rest of it out. Try some.” The icy cold dessert was refreshing in the heat of the kitchen. It was smooth, creamy almost, and the coconut was sharp and sweet. It’s very good.
The papaya, yucca and tuna were all directly from the Galapagos. Most food in the Galapagos does not come from the islands but is imported from mainland Ecuador. 600 miles across the Pacific. Getting to and from the islands is not an easy trip. Unfortunately, there is no particular Galapagos cuisine or style that is based directly off of the food produced in the Galapagos. The people of the Galapagos have originated from all corners of the world and have brought over their own styles of food with them. [ambient restaurant sounds] The restaurants along Avenida Charles Darwin in Puerto Ayora host a number of different flavors, often with a Spanish twist, like the chorizo pizza at Pizza.Eat or the burgers at Isla Grill.
Restaurants a little more off the beaten path are small and feature seafood or chicken with rice. But the food has its roots in mainland Ecuadoran cuisine, rather than obtaining its own identity. This is one of the issues the Escuela de Gastronomia looks to remedy. Tonight’s menu is undeniably Thai inspired. But many of the ingredients come directly from the Galapagos, such as the papaya and the tuna. Yanez makes an effort to teach the students about the many different kinds and flavors of fish that can be incorporated into a dish. Fresh fruits can be seen growing on the island, oranges, bananas, papayas, melons and naranjilla. Lemongrass and plantains grow wild in this tropic climate.
Of course, the issue is not as simple as recognizing what flavors are native to the Galapagos. Part of the issue is finding a way to co-exist with the environment. A large farm in Isabela, for instance, must rotate its crops every season to prevent the soil from losing what little nutrients it has for growing fruit.
Fertilizer and pesticides are forbidden because of their potential to harm the environment and that typically means a lower yield of crops per year. Food imported to Puerto Ayora from the mainland is cheaper than from the local supplier who must charge more to offset the lower yield. Ninety seven percent of the land in the Galapagos is protected as a national park. Only a small portion of that three percent can be used for agriculture. This is ultimately what leads to a lack of local products and local flavor.
Even with this issue, some people are not deterred. Down by the docks in Puerto Ayora, fishermen return from the sea with their fresh catch displayed in the bottom of their boats. Giant silver fish are handed off to be gutted and prepared on a cement block while two sea lions eagerly await scraps. As soon as the fish are cleaned, they are handed over a small wall to be deep fried immediately and served, as fresh as can be. A whole fish with rice and plantains can easily be shared by three people and costs $10.
At the Escuela de Gastronomia, the ice cream machine by the freezer isn’t making the sorbet firm enough. The student cooks gather around and discuss what to do as student servers bring in empty dishes from the main course. After the last empty banana leaf is in, the servers all bunch up waiting for their final dish, the desert. The sorbet isn’t firm, but the students make the decision that it’ll do. The dessert dishes are put together and are taken out as soon as they are finished. When the last dish has been served, the students relax. The kitchen shouts turn to giggles again and everyone glances at the main doors at least once to try and see the reactions of the customers. Yanez tells them all to line up, and they file out to the sound of applause.
The evening is a complete success, both for the students and for Yanez. “What I get is watching the students grow.” Yanez says, looking over the final dishes before they are rushed through the door. The students will eventually write to their teacher what they want to do after their years at this school. And he will try to make it possible. Yanez wants them to know that they can do more than simply make pizza, a dish that seems popular on Avenida Charles Darwin, the main boulevard in Puerto Ayora. After tasting everything these students have made for that special evening, I think that I can say that they have much to offer the world and I hope that wherever they may go, they take the wonderful taste of the Galapagos with them. #