Tourists and long-time Medellin residents alike can be forgiven for overlooking this tiny Colombian restaurant. Tucked away on a quiet street in Zona Fucsia, with no visible signage, El Chef looks like any other small business on the street, with nothing but the blue paint to distinguish it from its neighbors; a bookstore, an independent theater group and the El Tunel cafe on the other side. The door of the restaurant is papered with notices of upcoming plays, concerts and local events. A small chalkboard hangs outside during open hours to advertise the daily specials.
El Chef is contained within this tiny two-story blue and white storefront. Most of the first floor is taken up by the open kitchen. Just three small tables comprise the remainder of the restaurant, two of these tables nestled in a small alcove upstairs. For people looking for authentic Antioquia cuisine, El Chef is the premier destination. For these privileged visitors, the tiny restaurant is just part of the quaint charms of a restaurant that bucks the trend for big name chains and price-gouging entrees in the more upscale neighborhoods of Enviagado and El Poblado.
Al fresca dining, weather permitting
This charm and genuineness were in full force on my most recent visit. Juan, who is “El Chef” runs the restaurant with the help of his wife. On a tranquil and beautiful Sunday, El Chef was placing several tables outside on the narrow sidewalks lining Carrera 42, while roasting several meats on an outside grill. The tantalizing aroma was stomach-growl inducing as we approached the small side street.
Rows of fresh made sausages hung from a line strung across the restaurant. Fully cooked, these sausages are popular with the locals as a snack or take-away item. Spicy, yet sweet, the secret ingredients are part of what keeps my companions returning again and again to El Chef.
Loyal, long-time, returning customers
These long time customers are hesitant to provide information about their experiences at El Chef. They worry that any publicity might change the restaurant and it's proprietor. They worry about a loss of dining intimacy should outsiders claim El Chef as their own. They love the restaurant for the made-to-order cuisine, the personalized menus and the conversational banter with Juan and his wife.
Mr. “El Chef”
Juan the owner, and chef of the restaurant, is open, kind and genuine in a way we don't always associate with food service. Having a meal with El Chef is like being invited inside the kitchen of close friends, especially if it's a repeat visit. He knows his patrons, and spends time talking to them on a personal level before making his recommendations. Since his restaurant is frequently patronized by a close group of foreign journalists from several countries, he often makes the effort to find out more about their home cuisine and incorporate small touches into some of the meals. One such journalist, a prominent Dutchman who has been in Medellin for close to a decade, invites me to eat one of these fusion meals: a spicy sausage infused burger which manages to capture my American comfort food needs while expanding my palate to embrace something uniquely Medellin.
You won't find "bandeja paisa" here; the enormous plates of beans, pork and meat that are considered the 'typical' cuisine of the Antioquia region. But you will find plenty of hearty, savory and flavorful combinations of both Colombian cuisine and fusion dishes.
During several visits, we eat more traditional Colombian food; tender meat with a delicate basil sauce, accompanied by golden baby potatoes, traditional style corn rolls, the savory fresh sausage and salad. Or a delicate pasta dish flavored with native spices and vegetables, and served with an appetizer of homemade spreads and jams. Spicy sweet pork ribs, a tangy salad and pepper fries. Traditional soups pared with updated classics.
After eating there on several occasions, I can say the food is nothing less than excellent. Prices are reasonable and the service is personal in comfortable, if cozy surroundings. Due to the small size of this establishment, it would not be suitable for large groups or parties.
El Chef is located on Carrera 42, #54 – 60, Medellin. Look for a blue and white storefront. Hours vary; but El Chef is usually open from noon until 11 pm.