Colombian Culinary Experience by Chef Alejandro Cuellar

Chef Alejandro Cuellar joined us a guest of the Colombian Embassy to extend our knowledge in New Zealand of Colombian gastronomy and learn more about the culture of this important South American country. 

Chef Alejandro talks of Gastro-diplomacy:

‘Food is everything. And you have everybody’s attention, because food IS everything. It is a tool to talk about anything you want; about culture, about politics, about health even about democracy.’

Chef Alejandro presented a cooking demonstration, followed by a Colombian Coffee tasting and Cocktail Class to our Cookery and Hospitality students and in the evening a group of the Auckland Diplomatic fraternity joined us for a cooking demonstration and tasting along with Colombian drinks. 

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Chef Alejandro tells us that Colombia’s capital city, Bogata is nearly 2700 meters above sea level and the climate is 'always the same' and there is not much seasonal change. The lack of oxygen is challenging for the 8 million people who live there.

In Colombia, the Andes splits into three separate ranges, the Western Andes running alongside the Pacific, the Central Andes and the Eastern Andes which head toward the Caribbean and where Colombia borders Venezuela. Colombia has a rich heritage of local vegetables and fruits for example there are over 300 types of potatoes, 12 different avocados, strawberries, bananas that we never knew existed. It is famous for its 1400 different orchids, 670 frog species and over 330 different species of river fish - all edible!

Our class

Chef Alejandro prepared three dishes. First, he explained the Hogao, the Colombian mother sauce which is the base condiment of so many foods. 

Hogao Colombiano

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 cup chopped spring onions

2 cups fresh chopped tomatoes

1 clove garlic, minced

1 teaspoon ground cumin

¼ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon ground pepper


  • Heat oil in a large pan on medium heat. Add onions and garlic and cook for about 3 minutes.
  • Add the chopped tomato and on a lower heat. Cook for about 8 minutes.
  • Add cumin, season with salt and pepper. 
  • Cook for another 10 minutes or until sauce thickens.

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Photo: Our Diploma students prepare canapes for the Colombian Embassy guests (above).

As the tamale in Mexico, the Colombian's like to cook with leaves and to wrap up food and make a package and then cook it. Popular herbs used for cooking include mint, basil, coriander, oregano and spring onions which are everywhere.

Aje is a hot sauce that is always on the table. It includes chillies and garlic.

The Colombian indigenous people also use an earth oven, similar to our Hāngi with whole riverstones, heated by a fire in the ground, food wrapped in leaves and the covered with more leaves and soil. 

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Photos: Encocado Prawns on the left and Papa (Potatoes) Chorriadas on the right. 

Encocado Prawns

Annatto is a seed (spice) that grows in a shell on the Actiote tree. It is imparts a yellow/orange colour to food. It tastes of lemon with floral, nutmeg notes and lightly bitter finish. The seeds are crushed and the oil is strained through them to make a deep burnt orange coloured oil.

Annatto oil

1 – 2 cups Hogao Colombiano

1 can coconut milk or cream

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 – 2 prawns per person 


bunch of coriander


  • Pour the annatto oil into a pot. Add the Hogao and sauté for about 3 more minutes. 
  • Add the coconut milk, cumin and prawns.
  • Simmer gently until prawns are cooked. Season.
  • Garnish with coriander. 

Papas (potatoes) Chorriadas 

12 small potatoes with skin (2 per person) 

1 cup Hogao Colombiano 

150 g mozzarella cheese 

100 ml milk or cream

1 lemon 

½ cup coriander or spring onions


  • Boil the potatoes in salted water until tender. Drain.
  • Pour over the warmed Hogao – enough to coat the potatoes
  • Add the mozzarella and cream and squeeze of lemon.
  • Garnish with spring onions or coriander 

Chef Alejandro's Advice for chefs 

What is it to be a chef?

The only thing that a chef needs to do is one thing, it is our only purpose. Food must be delicious. If the food not delicious you are in the wrong business.

1. First, we need to choose the best ingredients that you can get with the amount of money you can spend.

2. You need to apply the right technique for that ingredient to gain the best advantage.

3. If you cannot sell your food, then it is a hobby and not a profession. You need to know about marketing and how to explain what you are doing.

4. You need to be outstanding in something – to do it better than others. However it's hard to be unique... It will take you at least five years to learn how to make beautiful food.


Colombian Coffee Tasting

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Photo: Colombian Coffee Cupping Class and bags of Colombian Coffee

Colombian coffee is about altitude and balance. Always Arabica beans, until 10 years ago coffee in Colombia was not ideal but there has been a renaissance in the growing, production and roasting of coffee.

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Summary of the styles tasted:

Tolima: Nutty, high acid, floral

Antioquia: Mellow, high acid

Cauca: Nutty, berries, tannin, earthy, medium acidity 

Santander: Mellow, chocolate, high acid, more tannin

Huila: Chocolate, earthy

Valle Del Cauca: Earthy, berries, acid 

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Find out more about Chef Alejandro Cuellar and his world.



Our People

CHEF FINN GYBEL  Originally from Denmark, Finn trained as a chef in leading Danish restaurants before heading to New Zealand with his family two years ago.

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Celia Hay

Celia Hay's great love of delicious food, fine wine and the art of hospitality led her to establish Hay's Restaurant in 1994 and the New Zealand School of Food and Wine in 1995 in Christchurch, New Zealand.

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