ElCielo Classic—Colombia’s dish of Reconciliation

November 21, 2019

Romero: A herb plant for culinary and medicinal uses. Romero: former member of the Colombian armed forces.

Romero was born in Antioquia and joined the military when he turned eighteen. As he navigated the harsh conditions of warfare, he lost his brother and his right leg. He only sees shadows from one eye, though his words are clear and clean, and convey the weight of past experiences as well as engulf his current circumstance.

His story is a story of reconciliation.

He left the military to become a cook in one of Latin America’s top 50 restaurants, named ElCielo. This restaurant is an experimental gastronomy project led by chef Juan Manuel Barrientos. It is also a place that is used, through the act of cooking, to coach former armed combatants from all fronts of the conflict, from the army to guerrilla and paramilitary groups.

In the practice of cooking, their former differences shatter, dissolve. Reconciliation is the act of looking at each other straight into the eyes, dismantling the biases caused by war, and finding a common objective to work towards. In this case, the objective is to co-produce fine dishes of food.

At ElCielo Romero and former combatants of the FARC, AUC, and the ELN meet, cut vegetables, and explore aromas and flavors; and what unites them is a shared passion for gastronomy. ElCielo is also a foundation that was born 10 years ago, and its objective is to gather former “enemies” around a cooking table. In fact, it is from this table that peace is being cooked in Colombia.


Dulce Maria: a homemade lime and cream dessert. Dulce Maria: former member of the FARC and mother of three children. On Abril 4 the the Social Lab Medellin held its second “Unexpected Encounter”. ElCieldo hosted the reunion. We all sat on the same table: member of the Lab, as well as those who at some point of their lives carried with them a rifle, they thought, for the sake of the nation.

On that day, Dulce Maria offered her first dish to us and then confessed, “at that moment I completely forgot everything I once was”. She is also from Antioquia, and was responsible for buying and storing ammunitions and explosives. With tears in her eyes and a shaking voice she tells us how her house was converted into a time bomb.

Her decision to demobilize was influence by her three children. John Jairo and Luis Carlos, former members of the AUC (Autodenfensas Unidas de Colombia, an umbrella paramilitary organization), and part of ElCielo’s team, share a similar story. Their transition towards a civilian life, without uniforms or armbands, has not been easy. “The hardest part has
been to find a job”, they commented, “as well as to be trusted by others”.

Juan Manuel decided to hire them, and opened the doors to his restaurant to this group of Colombians that want to be part of the country’s transition from a state of conflict to a state of peace. People like Dulce Marica, Romero, Luis Carlos, and John Jairo, have the will to be part of this change, but need the support of our society to make this transition. They too need a job, and they too are human beings.

What is the role of the private sector and of entrepreneurs in Colombia’s transition towards a state of stable and lasting peace?

This Social Lab initiative is led by conflict resolution expert, Aldo Civico, and social entrepreneur, Catalina Cock, and looks to set the stage where questions, hypotheses, and answers can be elicited and explored about Medellin’s current issues of youth violence.

This experiment uses the Theory U method, which consists on observing and sensing the setting that will be transformed. Through a co-creative, i.e. collective approach that gathers members of Medellin’s society from the private sector, to the government, to community leaders, this lab seeks to find innovative and systemic solutions to a common problem: homicides among youth in Medellin.

After listening to the stories shared by Dulce Maria, John Jairo, and Luis Carlos, the members of the Lab pondered around the question, What is the role of the private sector in Colombia’s post conflict setting?

Also, What is the role of the civil society, i.e., is all of us, from the person writing this text to the corner store owner, the company manager, the accountant, the taxi driver, the person that’s reading this text? Are you ready to extend a helping hand to a person that belonged to an armed group? On that table where exquisite dishes were served, where chefs and waiters consolidated into one group, one conversation, the closing remark took the form of a collective and warm hug.

At that point the leaders of social and cultural organizations, lawyers, researchers, governmental representatives, apologized for not being in sync with this historical moment.

Our apologies and our gratitude to all.