Seven kilometers from the heart of Cuenca, then a kilometer east on San Miguel de Putushi and finally a couple hundred meters up a dirt lane, past a tethered llama, at the end of the road, lives and works a happy man.
Edwin Giovani Combizaca Salinas is the man, and Le Petit Jardin is his restaurant at the end Calle de las Brevas, as unlikely a success as the ghostly ballpark in Field of Dreams.
This is Giovani’s story and how we came to eat frog legs in the Andes.
Giovani Combizaca was born in an Amazonian village of 3,000 where his parents had to walk two days to get to their paying jobs. When he reached school age, his family moved to a larger town so he could get an education, but the family went back to the jungle on weekends to farm, and the children were expected to work in the fields.
Giovani found the work hard. When he fell and broke his leg at 10, he was not sorry that his father said he would have to stay home with his grandmother and contribute to the family support by cooking the meals and cleaning the house.
“I knew little things,” he says, “like how to cook and clean a chicken and cook it in some onions and garlic, fresh thyme and tomatoes.” Giovani found he liked cooking and cleaning, foreshadowing if ever there was any.
At about the same time, Giovani first saw Cuenca on a family trip. He was so taken with the city that he chose the University of Cuenca when it came time for college. After he decided law studies were not for him, he dropped out, got married and fathered a son. Working around town in hotels and restaurants, he worried he would never make anything of his life. When his younger brother announced he was going to the United States to find his future, Giovani asked his wife for five years to do the same. She agreed. At 25, Giovani headed north.
The passage was harrowing: two nights on an island off the coast of Nicaragua living off coconuts and sand crabs, 25 hours riding on a wooden platform between the wheels of semi to Guatemala, jail and a shakedown for a $5,000 ransom in Mexico, a foot race from INS agents in New Mexico.
“Always you say, ‘I shouldn’t do this,’ but you keep going,” Giovani told us between meal services on our Sunday afternoon at Le Petit Jardin. His brother Luis was caught and sent back; Giovani pushed on to New York City, where a sister lived, and then to Baltimore when New York proved too intense after tranquil Cuenca.
Thinking of himself as a cook because of his work in Cuenca, he applied for a job in a restaurant where perennial James Beard finalist Cindy Wolf was chef. Despite a less than stellar trial night at the grill, he was hired. In time and with nurturing in the culinary house of Wolf, he learned and rose to became sous chef of Petit Louis Bistro, eventually cooking, too, at Wolf’s highly acclaimed Charleston on the waterfront.
Five years passed. One night in Cuenca, Giovani’s wife and son went to a mass where the priest asked worshippers to come forward to share their prayers with the congregation. His young son went forward and said, “I want my father to come home.”
Wolf had just offered Giovani a position of executive chef earning a princely sum by Ecuadorian (and a lot of American) standards. When his wife relayed their son’s prayer, he says, “It was a choice between money and my family.”
Giovani chose family.
Back in Cuenca, the couple bought a piece of bare land on the outskirts of the city and Giovani supported his family selling tacos and burritos from a claptrap vehicle he drove between villages. When the contraption broke down one hot afternoon, he retreated to his empty land, studied the landscape and thought, “Maybe I could have a restaurant here.”
Today, Giovani’s Le Petit Jardin at the end of the road is often Trip Advisor’s #1 of 617 restaurants in Cuenca. With another brother, he built everything in the restaurant with his own hands – the building, the kitchen, the light fixtures, the tables and chairs, the intricate working machines he crafts from trash rescued from the dump and never sells because “they are part of my heart.”
Le Petit Jardin is open only Saturdays and Sundays, from noon to 9 pm, where business is brisk enough that Giovani can afford to spend the rest of the week meeting with the locals who grow his farm-to-table heirloom tomatoes and lettuces and crafting the light fixtures and furniture and décor that come from his heart.
The menu changes every weekend to feature the most seasonal ingredients. One item that never leaves the menu is an appetizer called Eggplant Petit Louis, the little tower of eggplant, tapenade, goat cheese and tomato floating in the lightest of pesto sauces that appears in the collage above. Giovani considered Cindy Wolf’s eggplant dish in Baltimore “beautiful.” His interpretation, named for the restaurant where he was sous chef, is his culinary tribute to her excellence and the chance her restaurant gave him.
“She was my school. She is part of everything here.”
Giovanni recruits his own staff from among Cuenca’s poorest residents – all his female cooks are single mothers – and trains them to cook. When they are ready, they leave and open their own restaurants.
“I came from nothing,” he says. “I have more than I ever expected, and I want to inspire people. I want them to know that if they do the right thing, amazing things are going to happen.”
At Le Petit Jardin, amazing dishes, too.
From the Partout toolbox: We use Uber whenever we can in South America because it is vastly safer (and cheaper) and because it solves one of the trickiest ground transportation challenges we routinely encounter: giving a driver the address of an AirBnB apartment in a language we don’t speak as they do. Leaving the address to Uber saves everyone a lot of head-scratching, but the app is not always available or practical. To simplify things for all involved, we now save our temporary address in a cell phone note before we move to any new destination. Getting into taxis, we can answer the globally understood question of “Where to?” by handing a phone to the driver so he can see it in his language. Works every time.
COMING SOON! Reaching the End of the Line
Related link: Le Petit Jardin website