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Chef Mariana Lopera discusses La Graciela Cafe, founding Circular Foods, and how to succeed in a male-dominated industry

By Guardian Nigeria
18 November 2022   |   3:17 am
There is no doubt that modern women can be whoever they want to be. With more education and job opportunities than ever before, women can follow their dreams in the corporate world, academia, or even the male-dominated restaurant industry. Mariana Lopera is an example of a woman who knows what she wants and relentlessly pursues…

There is no doubt that modern women can be whoever they want to be. With more education and job opportunities than ever before, women can follow their dreams in the corporate world, academia, or even the male-dominated restaurant industry.

Mariana Lopera is an example of a woman who knows what she wants and relentlessly pursues it. “I’ve spent my whole life trying to be a culinary professional,” she shares. Mariana is not just a chef, she is also the owner of her own restaurant and the founder of a food manufacturing company emphasizing environmental responsibility and sustainability.

Mariana sat down to talk about La Graciela Cafe, founding Circular Foods, and how to succeed in a male-dominated industry.

How would you describe what you do to someone who has never heard of you?

I am a chef by profession. I opened La Graciela Café in Venecia, Colombia, in 2020. I also founded Circular Food, an eco-sustainable food manufacturing company that turns spent grains from breweries into superfoods.

How did you get started in the business?

I started a small candy stand at my school when I was 11. I noticed that kids were getting in trouble for having lollipop sticks in their mouths in the middle of class. I started cutting the sticks off and selling the new, modified “eat-in-class” lollipops for $2 instead of the usual $1. This short story is just one example of how I’ve always had a mind for business.

I’ve also always had a strong desire to cook. The kitchen has always been a safe place to be creative and make something delicious for the people I care about. When the time came to decide what I wanted to do with my life after high school, I knew exactly what I wanted to do. While I attended a traditional university, I also attended culinary school.

Can you give us the background of your career before La Graciela?

After finishing culinary school, I worked to improve my skills and learn new things. I worked at Michelin-starred restaurants such as Dos Palillos and El Bulli, where I learned about Colombian, Spanish, Japanese, French, Italian, American, and contemporary cuisines.

Every culture has its own set of traditions, taste preferences, and execution methods. For example, Japanese cuisine emphasizes core tastes, fresh ingredients, and complex cooking techniques more than French cuisine does sauces. American cuisine focuses on huge proteins with powerful, overpowering flavors. I built my own style by studying how to generate these various flavors and cooking profiles and mastering these techniques.

While the creativity and passion required to be a successful chef continue to motivate me, I realized I would need exceptional business skills to succeed. In addition to learning about food, working in a variety of restaurants has taught me about business practices and operating styles. I learned all aspects of the business at each restaurant I worked in, from inventory to ordering, supplier relationship management, menu development, hiring, managing the work environment, and leadership.

What made you decide to start your own restaurant?

It goes without saying that opening a restaurant is hard. In fact, it has been called one of the most complicated businesses to start because so many things can go wrong, the profit margins are low, and it takes a lot of time, dedication, strategy, and management every day.

Despite all that, I’ve always wanted to open my own restaurant. It would be a restaurant that makes food from my home country in a creative way. It would use as many local ingredients and suppliers as possible to help the local economy and be committed to protecting the environment and making consistent profits. I asked a friend and business associate, Sara Maria Rojas Acevedo, to join me in this venture, and she agreed.

After months of planning the menu, finding a location, buying equipment, figuring out costs, and making a plan, the restaurant opened. We wanted to ensure the restaurant is good for the environment and makes a steady profit. I am proud to say that La Graciela has billed well above the break-even point every month since we opened in 2020.

Can you tell us about Circular Foods?

In Colombia, there are about 250 craft beer breweries, and the number keeps increasing yearly. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations says that 113,654 million tons of beer are made every year, and that spent grain makes up 85% of the waste from this industry. This means that a massive amount of organic waste is sent to farms to be used as animal feed, while the remainder is simply discarded.

Following additional research and contact with other major breweries in Colombia, I discovered this was the general practice across the board. My creative mind began to wonder if there was a way to use this for human consumption. Needless to say, there was a significant opportunity to educate people and fill this industry void.

A few years later, I sent a sample of the spent grain to be tested at a laboratory. The results showed that it was safe for human consumption, high in protein, and contained a variety of nutrients, making it a superfood. This was when I realized this was a unique concept.

I contacted a nearby brewery, and they agreed to supply me with all of the spent grain I required. I began experimenting with various applications of this. My first experiment involved dehydrating the grain and grinding it into a powder-like consistency. I was able to make pasta, breadcrumbs, arepas, tortillas, bread, cookies, pralines, and, of course, granola using both flour and whole grain. That’s how Circular Foods started.

In 2020, we entered a national competition in Colombia called Concurso Capital Semilla. The government presents awards and financial grants to Colombia’s most influential businesses in this competition. Circular Foods won this competition because of its outstanding impact on social and environmental sustainability.

The purpose of the grant was to give me the money I needed to keep doing my research. This was a huge confirmation for me. I knew what I was doing was important, but winning this award and receiving recognition from my homeland’s government boosted my confidence to new heights.

What are some of your most notable achievements so far?

Working in Michelin-star restaurants is a big deal for any cook, but working under a chef with as much experience as Albert Raurich is an even bigger deal. I found a place that was the best in terms of demand, quality, precision, and discipline.

Colombia has no Michelin-star restaurants. In my country, haute cuisine is still in its early stages. Almost all food is centered on tradition in flavors and techniques, which provides an incredible foundation for a chef like myself to express my culture through food. My experience working at Michelin-starred restaurants provided me with the knowledge and skills to transform food into something even more beautiful.

What is your advice for young girls with the same background as you who want to be successful?

People who devote significant time to training and practice can develop exceptional technical skills. Passion, dedication, hard work, and a never-say-die attitude are qualities that cannot be taught.

Mariana continues the journey

Currently, Mariana works as a Sous Chef at the prestigious Altro Paradiso in New York. Despite her success, she wants to prove to herself and the world that she can and will achieve more.

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