AQ Top 5 Young Chefs: Silvana Villegas
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You won’t find much on the menu at Masa (“dough” in Spanish) that isn’t completely, passionately, traditional. That’s how Silvana Villegas intends it. The 31-year-old chef and co-owner of one of Bogotá’s most popular bakeries and lunch spots has made it her mission to bring miche levain, Finnish ruis, and other staples of European baking to a country where bread holds a less-than-sacred place at the family table.
“In Colombia, we are used to sweet, soft bread. It’s fine; I love it because it’s from my childhood, but I wanted to offer something different,” Villegas told AQ. “Bread is so basic, so essential. But behind that there is immense complexity. That’s what I wanted to show people.”
Villegas’ penchant for the classics is not hard to trace. After leaving Colombia at 18 to study at the Culinary Institute of America in New York, she set to work making pastries for a succession of Manhattan restaurant royals, including Gray Kunz and Gordon Ramsay. But it was a turn at Amy’s Bread, a New York City institution, that eventually ignited her passion for baguettes, sourdough and pain de mie.
“That’s when I first really got my hands in the dough,” said Villegas. She hasn’t taken them out since.
Villegas credits working with English, French and German chefs in New York for giving Masa its international feel. But there are more than a few hints of Colombia in Villegas’ baking. The financier, a classic French coffee cake that at Masa comes flecked with Colombia’s omnipresent blackberries, is an acid-sweet reminder to patrons that they are in Bogotá, and not Paris’ sixth arrondissement.
Whether it’s the international appeal or the measured use of Colombian flavors, Bogotanos have responded ravenously to what Masa has to offer. The restaurant has been full since its doors opened in November 2011. Villegas and her sister Mariana, Masa’s co-owner, opened a second Bogotá location in 2013, and have had offers to expand throughout Colombia and elsewhere in Latin America. But in business as in baking, timing is everything.
“We want to grow, because the market is asking for it,” Villegas said. “But we want it to be controlled.”
Come what may, Villegas will stay focused on the essentials. “As I always say, if there’s bread, we’ll be fine.” As long as this Colombian panadera is minding the oven, that will surely be the case.
Russell is an editor for AQ.