From the monthly archives: "April 2013"

PADILLA, COLOMBIA—- Catalina Velez is a rising star of the emerging culinary scene in Colombia. The 35-year-chef is featured on the Gourmet Channel in Latin America and Miami. She owns three restaurants in Cali, the colorful salsa capital of South America. She obtains many of her products from rural farmers along the fertile Pacific coast of Colombia.

Velez visits the producers several times a year. She drives out of Cali through sugar cane fields and poor towns illuminated only by strips of lottery tickets on crumbling sidewalks. She will listen to progressive electronica-cumbia or classic James Brown.

She says it loud, she says it proud.

Velez stands at a dense farm in Padilla, about an hour south of Cali.

Afro-Colombian workers chop at trees with silver machetes that glisten in the sun. A rooster dances on a wooden cart.

Velez brushes a mosquito away from her light brown face. She is only 5’6” but her soft chestnut eyes see the big picture.

She glances at a kaleidoscope of orange, green Joni trees and the bright red of lush papelillo trees.

“I tell students if they don’t look to nature, they are not going to be able to create,” says Velez, wearing a gray tank top and blue jeans. “Everything is in nature: the balance of colors, the balance of forms. Your inspiration has to be in the waterfalls. Don’t go to the Internet. Fall in love with the flowers and the greens. Many people don’t realize how mathematically perfect nature is. Every pedal of the flower is perfect.

“I try to get people to look back—at what they have.”

Velez is emblematic of a new generation of Colombians who are attempting to reinvent Colombian identity in a dramatic transition from stereotypical cocaine wars and jungle guerillas. For example, the Grammy-winning hip-hop group Choc Quib Town sings of the vibrant colors, rich flavors and saints of their culture from Choco’, the Afro-Colombian capital near Bogota’.

What is Colombian identity?

“³Wow,!?”  she answers with a radiant smile “Vibrant. Natural. Very deep in culture, very deep in sensitivity for people. Gentle.”

As the level of Colombian identity goes up, the level of fear to travel to

Colombia will diminish.

“People will start looking at us a different way,” she continues. “Fear can

happen everywhere in the world. I¹m going to tell you, my little brother was

kidnapped, but I have never been robbed or attacked here. And I go

everywhere. I love salsa. I go to dance in dangerous places because if you

show you have fear, you’re vulnerable. It can happen. Our country has people who don¹t have work but they need to eat. They go that way. I don¹t agree but I understand. But I try to be friends with all. At the market this morning I had coffee with the lady who brings food for me. I enjoyed what she had to say  because I¹m going to learn. That is how I have learned what is here (at her Kiva restaurant in Cali)  for you. I don¹t create in the kitchen.

“I create on the outside, looking at people walking, cleaning, many many things.”

When Velez opened Luna Lounge in 2002 her mission was to get Colombians to celebrate their own culinary identity instead of looking towards the United States (pizza, hamburgers, etc) for culinary ideals.

Now, Velez works with VallenPaz, a 13—year-old organization

that helps thousands of indigenous families learn to how to cultivate and

sell products she uses in her restaurants.

Some of these people are farmers outside of Cali where they have made money by growing the coca bean used in cocaine. They are mainly of Afro and indigenous descent.

“We try to convince people in the cocoa trade to grow other things,” she

says. “But in a way in which they decide to do it. We don¹t make them do it. We try to show them it’s not all about money. They destroy everything in

their life to have money. We try to give them a better life by growing other

crops: guava, pineapple. Coca isn¹t bad. The bad thing is the use of coca.”

VallenPaz is an emerging economic gear in Colombia. It has brought to market nearly $20 million in products grown and produced by family farmers. The organization also promotes “clean production” techniques, encouraging rural farmers to go organic or minimize chemicals through sustainable farming techniques.

VallenPaz produce in regional supermakets are tagged with stickers showing VallenPaz farmers as the source. Their work is mainly done in Valle del Cauca, the state of which Cali is the capital.

Velez’s latest dream is to have VallenPaz originated marmalade stocked in all the major hotels in Cali. With a population of 2.5 million people, Cali is Colombia’s third largest city.

Sometimes Velez will bring copies of her education cookbook “Cocinando Ando Ando Cocinando” (I’m Cooking, I’m Cooking”) to give to the farmers. The educational cookbook is produced in conjunction with VallenPaz. In more remote areas without cable, Velez will bring along cooking CDs.

The Kiva menu declares,”We support alternative development products that are part of the Illicit Crop Substitution led by the United Nations Office

on Drugs and Crime-UNDOC-in Colombiaeta.”

“I want people to wish to come here,” she says. “They want more, so they

will come.”

The coca plant goes back to 500 B.C. when Incan tribes in the current

Bolivia and Ecuador burned the leaves in religious ceremonies. In the

mid-1970s FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia) soldiers began setting up camp in the dense forests near the Caguan River (near the Colombian Amazon) where the coca shrub flourished.

In the 2010 book “Hostage Nation (Colombia¹s Guerilla Army and the Failed War on Drugs)² [Alfred A. Knopf, $26.95] , Victoria Bruce and Karin Hayes write that in the late 70s and early ‘80s coca buyers arrived in the jungle with seeds from the coca shrub and distributed them among Amazon farmers.

“Coca increased the farmer¹s incomes thirty-to fortyfold,” they write. “A kilo of coca base paid $250, far more than what the farmers could get for 25 kilos of yuca or platano. Men from all over the country came to the area, attracted by  stories of “white gold.”  FARC guerillas took control of the region and began taxing coca growers and buyers. They used this money to buy weapons and recruit more soldiers. By the early 2000s FARC controlled all the coca-growing regions in Southern Colombia with drug cartles in Medellin and Cali as points of departure.

Velez says her little brother was kidnapped about 15 minutes from Cali.

‘’They have taken many people,’ she reflects. “Many people said, ‘If we want peace in the cities we need to get peace in the countryside.’¹We try to show them how to build a better life in the countryside—growing crops.

“We¹ve tried to teach people what is important—-and that is to have the market before you grow anything. We show them important and different techniques like irrigation so they have a base of productivity.”

When in the field, Velez does not gloss over diet and and health education. “Community work, how to make your heart feel better inside and outside,” she says. “How to improve communication between families. We talk about complete programs. We didn’t want  to teach them to grow things, but after that task there would be no families, no families, no friends, no social work.”

Velez’s father Julio Caeser is a doctor. Her mother Catalina is an artist-sculptor-retired homemaker who has also raised four children. As a child Velez and her friends would hike through the rivers and valleys of the Picoeloro mountains outside of Cali. They slowed down and watched the butterflies and soaring birds.

Velez¹s grandmother Emma Cordero was from Pereira, Colombia. Velez has used her grandmother¹s advice in recent marketing efforts: “Don¹t buy anything your grandmother would not recognize as an ingredient and ensure your shopping cart is full with 80 percent natural products.”

She elaborates, “My grandmom was a happy, wise woman. She taught me about nature, growing plants, loving animals—even the ones you are planning as part of your diet. She told me that food was the way of mental and physical health. She didn¹t like to cook but she liked to grow food. My grandfather was an awesome cook.”

In 2001 Velez studied at Art Institute of Atlanta and later in the Cordon Bleu in Paris.

“The art institute is the only culinary school that has many art careers

going on besides you,” she explains. “Photographers, fashion designers,

computer animators that give you an ambiance of art, one of my strongest

inspirations. And I loved Atlanta, the jazz and the hip-hop. I remember

Whole Foods. And we had organic foods in school. That¹s why I try to do the same thing in my restaurant. I don¹t cook with any chemicals. I don¹t use white flour.”

Vélez produces and hosts Origins, a Gourmet Channel show which

features native Colombian products, the best features of which are brought

out through the use of top culinary skills. The end results are artistically

revealed in dishes that serve as representatives of Colombian identity.

That show can be seen in Latin America and Miami, Fla.

She also hosts the “Cocinando Ando Ando Cocinando,” (“I¹m Cooking, I¹m Cooking”) television show which recommends a new and more nutritious way of eating and encourages the Colombian population to adopt good lifestyle habits.

Velez has participated in culinary events worldwide, the most notable of

which have been in Japan, Peru, Panama, and in the United States.

She has seen the Colombian palate expand “ We have people opening Japanese and Italian restaurants here,” she says. “There’s also a big movement of people working with Colombian ingredients and Colombian technique. I am proud of them. Now we have things to show in Cali. Sure,

there¹s beautiful places to see like (the beach destination) Cartagena. But we didn¹t have the cultural things going on here, the things you need to have. Now we have theater, people working with our Colombian music and rhythms.

“Many groups of young people are trying to show Colombianism.”


April 17. 2013-

INDIANAPOLIS—A standing ovation is due for a group of young urban planners who rescued seats from historic Bush Stadium on the industrial west side of Indianapolis. Bush was one of the jewels of American baseball between 1931-1995 until it was torn down.

Bush was often compared to Wrigley Field.
I visited Bush and it’s brick ivy covered outfield walls with manual scoreboard during it’s final season

I was told that Bill Veeck imported the Bush ivy to Wrigley Field. That’s not certain. (F.D. Clavey Ravinia Nurseries was regarded as the main source for the Wrigley ivy.) But this much is for sure: Bush was first. Veeck planted the Wrigley bittersweet in 1938.

Hank Aaron began his professional career for three months in 1952 at Bush as a shortstop for the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro American Leagues. Roger Maris, Razor Shines and the late Cubs outfielder Champ Summers played for the Class AAA Indianapolis Indians at Bush. Slugger Rocky Colavito used to amaze  pre-game fans by standing at home plate and throwing baseballs out of the park.

In 1987 John Sayes filmed “Eight Men Out” at Bush. I was on the set along with John Cusack (Buck Weaver), Charlie Sheen (Happy Felsch) and the late great Studs Terkel who played Hugh Fullerton of the Chicago Herald and Examiner.

Over the winter the Indianapolis based People for Urban Progress (PUP) salvaged 9,000 of 11,000 ballpark seats left for ruin. The twenty/thirty something designers and makers re-purposed the seats for city bus stops.
And just in time for baseball season, more Bush seats are now being made available to the public.


A single seat is $45. A double is $80 a “triple” is $120 and a series of four seats can be had for $160. PUP does not ship the seats unless a fan is willing to pay for shipping. The seats can be picked up at the PUP offices in the artsy Fountain Square neighborhood. PUP is on the second floor of the former G.C. Murphy’s Department Store (1929-1998), 1043 Virginia Ave. just a few blocks off of I-65 and I-70.

The aluminum and plastic seats were sandblasted, lead paint was removed and the seats were reassembled.

Michael Bricker, 30,  co-founded PUP in November, 2008. His twin sister Jessica is product manager-designer for PUP.
“When people come in to buy a seat they share their memories of going to games at Bush,” Michael Bricker said. “They met a girl friend there, a couple got married there, one guy remembered staying at a game that went nine extra innings and no one was left in the crowd at two in the morning. A lot of people remember that place. It was the city’s first sports arena.”

The peeps at PUP were stunned at the interest in the seats once they began to sell them.
“We had no idea what the demand would be because it is such a unique product,” Bricker said. “We estimated we’d sell around 50 chairs. We’re over 800. (That was in a period between Feb. 21 and March 13). It’s incredible because it’s allowing us to invest that money back into the community and do more bus stops. It’s covering the cost associated with the project.”

There are 42 bus stop stations in greater Indianapolis. PUP came out of the gate last fall installing stadium seats at 11 stations. “We have plans for 15 to 20 more by the end of the year,” Bricker said.


I bought my own chair so I don’t have to drive to Indianapolis to sit in baseball history. (Photo by Jessica Bricker)

For NFL fans, the group also makes wallets ($40) from the roof of the RCA Dome (demolished in 2008). The dome wallets are one of PUP’s most popular items. The group also salvaged vinyl, mesh and polyblend from banners used at Super Bowl XLIV at the new Lucas Oil Stadium in downtown Indy.

Seats will even be installed near the old stadium site.
Last year ground was broken for the site to become the Stadium Lofts apartment complex, with the shell and historic facade of the stadium retained. Even though I’m a Cubs fan, I so wish the White Sox had saved some of Old Comiskey, even just to frame a parking lot.

Bush was the first minor league stadium to have underground tunnels to the dugouts. A center field fence was installed in the 1960s and for part of one season, the Indians had a Native American mascot that operated from a teepee behind the fence. The teepee remained until Bush’s final day.

In 1995 then-Indians GM Cal Burelson told me, “We had an outfielder (in 1972) named Gene Locklear (who went on to play for the Reds, Padres and Mets). Today he’s an accomplished artist on the West Coast. One time he was given a fine for missing a bus. Instead of paying, he asked to paint the teepee.” The teepee now sits in the center field concourse of the present day Victory Field in the shadow of Lucas Oil Stadium.

Bush opened in 1931 as Perry Stadium and was renamed Victory Field in 1942 to honor the American war effort. In May, 1932 the first night game was played in at the stadium, with the Indians losing 6-4 to Paul Dean (Dizzy’s brother ) and the Columbus Red Birds.
The 1954 Indianapolis Clowns were managed by Oscar Charleston, one of the first Negro Leage players elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. The ‘54 Clowns featured female second baseman Connie Morgan, who replaced Toni Stone who moved on to the Kansas City Monarchs. Stone was the first professional female baseball player.

The ballpark was renamed Bush Stadium in 1967 to commemorate Indianapolis native, ex-Tigers shortstop (1908-1921)  and former White Sox manager Owen J. “Donie”  Bush. Victory Field is the present day home of the Indianapolis Indians, a Pittsburgh Pirates affiliate.

The first Bush rock concert took place on Aug. 10, 1972.
The festival included Chuck Berry, Foghat, the trippy San Francisco band It’s a Beautiful Day and others. [REO Speedwagon played Bush in 1975.]

It was promoted by Tom Battista, an Indianapolis native who now co-owns the popular Italian restaurant Bluebeard, 653 Virginia Ave., a block away from the PUP offices. Battista is also stage manager for baseball fan Jimmy Buffett. The restaurant is named after the 1987 Kurt Vonnegut novel about a famous painter. Vonnnegut is an Indianapolis native.


“I majored in Latin American history at Indiana University,” Battista says. “I was one hour short of getting my degree in ‘72. A friend of mine was hanging out with the promoter of the show in Clermont, Indiana. There was a court injunction against the show. They got an agreement to move it to Bush stadium at noon on Friday. And the show was noon on Saturday. And they had to be out of there at noon on Sunday.” Bill Hanley sound was from Indianapolis and Tom Fields did the lighting companies. Hanley designed, built and operated the Woodstock festival sound system. Hanley’s payment for  the Woodstock sound  system totaled less than five cents per audience member.

“We worked all through the night,” Battista said. “We set up towers with spotlights. Staging.  Bill devised these wagons that were 25 feet long and maybe 12 feet deep. You would pre-set one act on it, roll it up center stage, then at the other wing stage left behind the speaker stacks they set up the next band. Then the third wagon on the other side was empty. So when the first act was done you would move them off stage right and roll the wagon in from stage left. I had never done anything in the music business before that but I was told  if I came to Bush I could see how rock n’ roll worked.”

Battista immediately connected with the show’s promoter Bruce DeForest, a former sound man with the Rolling Stones.
And DeForest asked Battista to build the iconic Bottom Line nightclub in Greenwich Village neighborhood of Manhattan, New York City. The 400-seat Bottom Line opened in 1974 and closed in 2004, just short of it’s 30th anniversary. Bruce Springsteen played early showcase concerts at the club and Lou Reed recorded the live album “Take No Prisoners” at the Bottom Line. Van Morrison, Neil Young, Billy Joel and Linda Ronstadt were others who played the Bottom Line.
“In it’s day it was THE place,” he said. “And that’s how I got in the business.”

Battista and his wife Sharon started having children—their  daughter Victoria is an economist at the Bureau of Labor Statistics in Washington, D.C. and their  son Ed is a partner at Bluebeard. Battista nestled back in at his hometown of Indianapolis.

“The Amy Grant show came through town,” he says. “The production people that did Amy Grant did religious shows in the winter and Buffett in the summer.”

Battista knew one of the crew members and mentioned that if they ever needed a fill in during a summer run, he was available. “He called me the next day because his assistant had to go out and do Bruce Springsteen,” Battista recalls. “When I asked my wife if I could go out, the only thing she said was ‘How much?’ When I said ‘how much,’ she said, ‘See ya.’ Battista has now been with Buffett since 1992.

“He’s the greatest guy and it is a great camp,” Battista says. “They take care of their people. He’s lucky and he knows it. He’s not pretentious. He’s a big Cubs fan.  I’m not into sports at all, it’s all entertainment to me. But they all love the Cubs and that’s a good thing.”