Bertil Levin Tøttenborg, Restaurant Manager and Head Sommelier at Gustu in Bolivia started his sommelier career under the wings of Bo Bech at Geist before he felt ready to explore his potential in the hospitality industry and the world of wine.
We have met with Bertil to know more about how his friendship with Kamilla Seidler and Jonas Andersen inspired him to become part of Gustu and to discuss what it takes to be both Restaurant Manager and Head Sommelier at the best restaurant in Bolivia.
The Melting Pot foundation is a non-for-profit organization established by Danish entrepreneur Claus Meyer with the aim of improving future opportunities and quality life of communities from vulnerable sectors, through initiatives that have food, deliciousness and entrepreneurialism as recurring elements.
The first activity of the foundation outside Denmark took place in La Paz, Bolivia. With the support of Danish NGO IBIS, in 2012 Melting Pot-Bolivia was established with the aim of exploring the biological diversity, cultural richness and Bolivian food heritage, in order to steer a national socio-economic sustainable development.
The first project in Bolivia was the Gustu School, which sought to train young Bolivians with fewer opportunities in the areas of kitchen and bakery; because of its wide acceptance and rapid development, Gustu School decanted into three units, Restaurant Gustu, Cafeterias and Schools Manq’a and Gustu Training Center.
Gustu restaurant was established in early 2013, aiming to become a showcase of the great potential of Bolivia’s production, culture and biodiversity. Gustu work uniquely and exclusively with Bolivian products seeking appreciation and recognition of the local production and the hands that make it possible.
Gustu seek to understand Bolivia from its dry and cold Andean landscapes, to its bleary and rich Amazonian rivers, going through the fresh and warm valleys vegetation, but never forgetting its people. The purpose is to propose the guests to a culinary offer that aims to support the development of a more accurate perception of the local products and flavours. Beside the restaurant Gustu also features GustuBar and their cellar with more than 3000 bottles of wine from over 100 Bolivian Labels seeking to recognize the path throughout history, which the Bolivian wine regions have lived since the arrival of the Jesuits.
Today, Bolivia enjoys one of the most impressive wine regions in the continent, offering high quality altitude wines, produced from local strain.
Gustu was awarded as the best restaurant in Bolivia in 2017 and is currently listed as no. 28 on Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants.
When did you realize that you wanted to become a sommelier?
“I grew up in a house full of food. My parents loved cooking and were in general very good at sharing their love for food with me and my siblings. At a stage in my life I was rather confused about what I wanted to do with my life and while I was figuring that out, I was working as a waiter in a couple of different small restaurants. At one point I realized I had flair for service and really enjoyed being in the hospitality industry and therefore wanted to explore my potential further. I wrote an application for a couple of restaurants I thought could be fun to work at and one of them was Bo Bech’s Restaurant Geist.
Beginning at a Restaurant like Geist was a really big difference from what I had ever done before. The expectations were higher and a much higher level of performance had to be shown in every single service. I got immediately drawn to the level required and constantly pushed for more knowledge and more responsibility in the dinning room. At this point I got insanely drawn to the world of wines. Not only did I start enjoying wine I also started understanding the vast difference there was between regions, grapes and countries.
After 5 months in the hands of Geist and Bo Bech, Bo offered to pay for my sommelier studies. I not only accepted the offer, but it was truly at this point I accepted that I had found my career path.
After finishing my sommelier, I was working as the Head Sommelier of Geist, but I felt I wanted to continue exploring my potential in the hospitality industry and the world of wine. I therefore took a very difficult decision to leave Geist in mid 2015 after little more than three years under the wings of Bo Bech.”
What brought you to Gustu in Bolivia?
“When I began working at Geist, I met Kamilla Seidler and Jonas Andersen who at that point was on their way to open Gustu with Claus Meyer. I was instantly drawn to the both of them. Drawn to their passion and professionalism. I quickly grew a friendship with them and they always told me stories of Bolivia and how Gustu was progressing. Throughout the 3 years in Geist I kept on running in to people who either were part of Gustu or had been. Through these various people my interest in being part of Gustu grew. The idea of working at a restaurant where I could be part of something bigger was very attractive. To be able to form young talents into proper waiters with quality and future was difficult to not take into consideration.
I began discussing the possibility of moving to Bolivia and become part of Gustu with Kamilla. In October 2015 I moved to La Paz and began a new chapter in life. A chapter filled with new culture, new wine, new food and new people.”
Shortly describe the set-up at Gustu?
“At Gustu we are showcasing Bolivias production, culture and biodiversity. We work with 100% Bolivian produce and by that seeking appreciation and recognition of the local produce as well as the people who produces. We do not intend to work with traditional Bolivian recipes, but are showing how we can create new styles and ideas in the Bolivian cuisine.
We are a tasting menu initiative, where our flagship menu (Menu Bolivia) will take our guest through an experience of 20 small courses. All of the steps will feature produce from the Andes, Amazon and the warm valleys of Bolivia. Through our beverage program, we will also only serve you Bolivian wines and spirits. Our beverage pairing gives you a rich mix of cocktails, beer and wines. We believe in low amounts of chemicals in our wines and that the wines, spirits and beers have been made by people with a soul as well as a conscious of the environment.
Our staff is often very young and unexperienced. We believe in the great talent of waiters and cooks in Bolivia who normally wouldn’t be given a chance of showing themselves of, on a stage like ours, with their lack of experience. Most of my service staff have never worked in a restaurant before, which gives us a perfect possibility of forming them into who we believe they can become.”
What does it mean to be part of Melting Pot Bolivia?
“To be part of something more important than yourself is truly giving. I believe far to many people are forgetting how important it is to do what you love. Through this I truly am doing what I love.”
What does it take to be both a Restaurant Manager and Head Sommelier at the best restaurant in Bolivia?
“To become a Restaurant Manager was quite a big challenge. I wanted to set my own team differently from the previous managers. I wanted to change the guest experience a bit and by that become a better leader and teacher in the art of service.
Being the Sommelier have been an incredible journey.I knew absolutely nothing about Bolivian wine when I entered the country nor do anyone else. This gave me a freedom of creating a beverage program without anyone telling me what was right or wrong. I could define it myself entirely and in the first period of time I was studying and tasting everything I could get my hands on. Bolivia has a very limited production however the amount of quality here is stunning. Small producers who do not work with any form of chemicals in their vineyards nor is there a lot of sulfites added to the wines. This made me start working very close with these producers to start making cloudy and completely unmanipulated wines. The producers are careful at first, but through the time and the friendship we’ve grown they start letting me have my say. I believe Bolivia can become a true front runner in these types of wines in Latin America.
Being in both jobs takes many hours and little sleep, but nothing different from anywhere else. However I am lucky to have a very professional and extremely loyal team in my back as well as a great and very talented assistant manager in Pablo Antelo.”
Describe the upcoming Bolivian food scene?
“The Bolivian food scene is unexplored. Bolivia have a lot of very strong traditions when it comes to their food and slowly we see an increase in restaurants with a higher ambition level than ever before. Some are former Gustu’s who are breaking out and creating their own ideas of what Bolivian food could be. They continue to follow the philosophy we practise. You also see a couple of the restaurants already located here who start thinking more in the direction of revolutionizing the Bolivian food scene with us. There’s no doubt that something is happening in Bolivia. Food is becoming more appreciated as well as the restaurants have higher ambitions.”
Describe the guest experience at Gustu. How do you ensure a memorable guest experience?
“We see ourselves as storytellers. We will take the guest through a world of unknown produce. And not just for the foreigners. We tend to work with products that even are unknown for a lot of the locals. In Bolivia the biodiversity is so vast and a lot of the native products are about to be forgotten. We tell the story about these products and their producers.
At the same time we believe in casual formality. We want our guests to feel at home. Put there guards down and let us guide them through their night. We do so by extreme eye for detail. At the point where every detail is under control we let ourselves calm and that will affect the dinning experience. First then, our guest will truly calm and let themselves being taken away by us.”
What does it mean to work with systems that helps you improve the guest experience?
“Working with a system that is so far ahead of other systems, gives us complete control over a dinner service. We do not like surprises and prefer to be in complete control. This way we can give everything we have to every single guest, and they will automatically feel more than at home, even from before they entered our doors.”
What’s your future ambitions?
“To make Bolivia an important destination for food and gastronomy. We believe that we can change Bolivia through food. I hope to see more talents leaving Gustu and creating new and great dinning experiences within the country. Bolivia have a huge potential and can become front runners in latin american gastronomy at one point.”