In August 2016 Medellín’s Centrópolis newspaper published the article entitled El canadiense que enseña cocina a los paisas (The Canadian who teaches Paisas to cook), written by Andrés Puerta. Below is an English translation.
Brian Johnston, after travelling the world learning recipes, arrived in Medellín’s city centre to teach locals how to cook international cuisine and become entrepreneurs with their own small businesses.
By Andrés Puerta
The first thing he remembers cooking is a chicken leg: it was still frozen when he threw it in some hot oil, and when he saw that it was golden on the outside he tried to eat it, biting it, and out poured a juicy, bloody liquid that made him nauseous. Today he’s an expert chef who has accumulated in his notes and memory the recipes of hundreds of families that he met during his travels to more than seventy countries. These very recipes are what he shares with his apprentices.
Vía Cocina – Food Train is currently training 12 people, but they are always looking for more people who are motivated and committed with similar values.
The first time he heard about Medellín he was in Bangladesh, close to India, where they said that here they were trying to recuperate public space. He read that the city was considered the most innovative in the world, but that it was also one of the societies with the greatest disparity between rich and poor in all of Latin America. He saw an opportunity there, and so he came on vacation, and liked the city so much that he came back to stay. While thousands of Colombians go to Canada to secure their futures, a Canadian saw Medellín as a favourable environment to realize his dream.
He grew up in low-income housing in Toronto with his mother, his father abandoned them when he was a baby. As a child he rarely ate home cooked meals. Sometimes the neighbours gifted them canned foods and when there was money, they bought fast food. In his early working years Brian lived around Kensington market, in the city centre, where he could share with Greeks, Chinese, Koreans, Latinos and Italians, and he was captivated sampling the unique flavours in their foods.
Chefs combine mathematic precision to mix ingredients with artistic creation. Both skill sets are linked to Brian’s education. He’s an expert in computer science who worked in a bank until he was 25, and he studied fine arts as a passion, then cuisine and languages with entrepreneurship and finance training along the way. He mixes all of this knowledge to train low-income community members how to create a profitable project, where they can prepare recipes from different countries while mentoring them until they’re ready to start their own small business.
When he arrived in Medellín, Brian analysed a number of the opportunities available here for entrepreneurs, and he found that many of them required a lot of paperwork and time. So he designed his project so that participants can learn without having to invest much, the training costs next to nothing, and he even tries to help finance the materials and machines necessary to start the new businesses. He studies the financial situation of each participant, offering personalised guidance in budgeting and running a business. The mentoring continues as a network even after formal training is complete, and Brian sells the low-cost base sauces and ingredients to the new startups so they can prepare a variety of healthy dishes.
The base sauces don’t contain salt or sugar, as healthy eating is another important focus of the project.
With the support of Grand Challenges Canada, an organization that looks to support Bold Ideas with Big Impact® in global health, Brian built a kitchen in the centre of Medellín, across the street from the Miraflores Tranvía station. In addition to training participants there, he built a small food court/patio space where his students can sell international food at affordable prices while they are learning. The idea is that these businesses can be replicated in other neighbourhoods so that anybody and everybody can eat food from other countries without having to afford and fit into a five star restaurant culture.
With Grand Challenges they are looking to reduce the rates of non-transmissible diseases linked to unhealthy eating, such as diabetes, cholesterol and obesity.
In the city centre you’ll find a good part of his target population and motivation. A lot of low-income neighbourhoods are close by, and with the tranvía and metrocable at the project’s doorstep, it’s easier for participants to arrive. The training centre is also strategically located in an attractive neighbourhood for tourism: with the city’s UVA community centres, the greenbelt park and garden, the nightlife hub on Ayacucho, Brian’s idea is to offer an additional option for sustainable tourism events.
People arrive at Vía Cocina – Food Train, Brian’s project’s name, by reference or simply by asking what the house is when they see the unique façade. They usually start out thinking it’s a restaurant; but they later realize that it’s a community project that involves food. He has a webpage and Facebook page that are constantly updated with information. He teaches project participants to standardize costs and portions, they calculate how many products need to be sold in order to be profitable, and instead of commercializing the same old unhealthy fried foods, he teaches them to produce unique healthy products.
Chefs leave an imprint of their particular vision in their dishes. Ferrán Adrià, known for years as the best cook in the world, proposed permanent innovation, with a scientific cuisine; Alex Atala, one of the best Latin American cooks, tries to prepare traditional dishes better than our grandmothers. Brian Johnston doesn’t want to compete with regional Colombian dishes, because the flavours are already registered in our taste buds’ memory; he wants the people of Medellín to enjoy unexplored refreshing dishes that create an explosion of new flavours for their palate.