A Culinary Journey from Medellin to Miami

"Creating experiences that touch the Heart and Soul and fostering Peace through the shared Love of Food."


Chef Juan Manuel Barrientos Valencia, widely known as “Juanma” and celebrated on social media as @juanmaelcielo, is a name that resonates deeply in the world of gastronomy. Born in Medellín on June 16, 1983, this multifaceted individual is not just a chef; he is a father, businessman, entrepreneur, lecturer, and peace leader. His culinary empire spans more than thirteen restaurants, bars, and a hotel, and his influence extends globally through his innovative approach to Colombian cuisine and his dedication to social causes.

A Gastronomic Visionary

Juanma is the mastermind behind the El Cielo restaurant chain, with locations in Medellín, Bogotá, Miami, and Washington, D.C. Each El Cielo establishment offers a unique dining experience that transcends traditional culinary boundaries. The restaurant in Washington, D.C., made history in April 2021 by becoming the first Colombian Cuisine restaurant to be awarded a Michelin Star. This accolade not only honors Juanma’s culinary skills but also highlights his commitment to showcasing Colombian flavors on the world stage.

Beyond El Cielo, Juanma’s ventures include a diverse range of dining concepts. La Sere offers Mediterranean cuisine, Cuon specializes in Asian dishes, Kaime caters to vegan tastes, and AO in Bogotá is known for its sushi. His creativity also extends to bars such as Shibari and El Navegante.

Entrepreneurial Spirit

Juanma’s entrepreneurial spirit caught the attention of global leaders. At the age of 34, he was invited by former U.S. President Barack Obama to speak at the World Entrepreneurship Summit, a prestigious event that gathers the brightest minds in entrepreneurship. His insights into creativity and innovation have also guided many companies in redesigning their operational DNA. The first Colombian chef with 2 restaurants with Michelin star: El Cielo Washington DC and  El Cielo Miami.

Recognized as ” The Youngest Chef in Latin America’s 50 Best” for three consecutive years and listed among The World’s Best Chefs in 2016, Juanma continues to push the boundaries of what is possible in the culinary world. His achievements have made him a prominent figure in international gastronomy.

Culinary Close-Up

In the Kitchen with Chef Juan Manuel Barrientos

Step behind the scenes at Elcielo Restaurants for an exclusive look into the kitchen where tradition meets innovation. Discover how Chef Juan Manuel Barrientos is redefining Colombian cuisine while setting new standards for sustainability and sophisticated taste.

El Cielo Restaurants

El Cielo restaurants offer an immersive dining experience that blends traditional Colombian flavors with innovative techniques. Each location provides a sensory journey, designed to engage all the senses through meticulously crafted tasting menus. The flagship restaurants are situated in:

  • Medellín: The birthplace of El Cielo, where guests can enjoy a blend of local ingredients and avant-garde cooking.
  • Bogotá: A continuation of the El Cielo experience, emphasizing modern Colombian cuisine.
  • Miami: A One Star Michelin- A vibrant space bringing the essence of El Cielo to the United States with a focus on sensory dining.
  • Washington, D.C.: Home to the Michelin-starred El Cielo, offering a prestigious culinary experience that highlights the sophistication of Colombian gastronomy.

Inspiration and Beginnings

What inspired you to become a chef, and how did your culinary journey begin?

–  I was inspired by a book by Ferran Adria and Arzak about creativity in gastronomy. Culinary is a source of creativity and innovation and I wanted to dedicate myself to something like that. I was also influenced by the first cooking courses I took with Iwao Komiyama in Buenos Aires Argentina, of which I was an assistant, and with  Juan Mari Arzak, where I finally did an internship in San Sebastian (Spain).

How has your upbringing in Medellín influenced your cooking style and restaurant concepts?

–  Since I was little, my mother and my grandmothers were my great influence, the typical food of Medellin and its flavors have always been present in my memory, also the incredible richness and variety of fruits that there are in Colombia. Elcielo is not only fine dining inspired by modern Colombian cuisine, but also fun culture and idiosyncrasy is present in our experience.

Success and Achievements

What does earning a Michelin Star for Elcielo Washington, D.C., mean to you and Colombian cuisine?

–  It was a very important first star for Colombian cuisine worldwide, now I am the first Colombian chef with two starred restaurants with Colombian cuisine: Elcielo Washington and Elcielo Miami. It is important because it opens the opportunity for the guide inspectors to notice other Colombian chefs and our cuisine. It is a pride but a great responsibility. The Team is also confirmed in both restaurants by 90% Colombian team.

Can you share any challenges you faced in expanding Elcielo internationally and how you overcame them?

–  The laws of each country and state in the United States are different. The licenses, procedures, bureaucracy, are not easy. You must have a good, trusted professional team. In my case, I have exported Colombian talent with my trusted support team in the kitchen, administration, and even in public relations.

The El Cielo Experience

El Cielo is known for its sensory dining experience. Can you describe what guests can expect when they dine at one of your restaurants?

–  It is a modern Colombian cuisine experience. It is haute cuisine, but I like that people break the rules of good dining, because Colombians are a fun culture. At some point they take the food with their hands (bite bites), at another point they lick their hands when they cover them with chocolate, at another they may even lick the plate. Our culinary narrative transports diners to the vibrant streets of Colombia, where every dish tells a story of tradition, innovation, and passion.

Social Responsibility and Peace Efforts

Your foundation focuses on non-violence and training individuals affected by conflict. What motivated you to start this initiative?

–  My family always taught me to help people in conditions of social or economic disadvantage. My mother Gloria is the great driving force of the foundation. We have helped educate more than 2,500 people in cooking techniques, as a new chance at life after leaving the war. Even some former combatants from the war against the guerrilla in Colombia were part of our kitchens. “Our motto is we are cooking the peace of Colombia”

How do you balance your time and energy between your restaurants and your social projects?

–  Since Elcielo Medellin opened 15 years ago, at the same time, the Elcielo foundation began. I always made time to teach cooking courses at the foundation, I traveled to areas of armed conflict to promote demobilization and peace, I attended many conferences and presented our social work in many countries around the world, including at the Nobel Peace Prize Summit. , we cooked for 7 Nobel Peace Prize winners.

Food Philosophy

How do you approach creativity in the kitchen, and what inspires your new dishes?

– I am inspired by travel, I see that it is a trend in the world today both in haute cuisine and in street cuisine, this opens my mind to apply some ideas to Colombian cuisine, its flavors and the local products of each restaurant that we have in El Cielo hospitality group.

We apply GLOBAL culture, we think global but act local. There always has to be emotion, technique, interesting and complex flavors, and an interactive and attractive visual presentation. Before including a dish on the menu, we think about all those details.

What are some of your favorite ingredients to work with, and why?

– Any Colombian fruit as Lulo, Uchuva, Sour Soup, Yuca, Maiz and Coconut. Because fruits are the treasure of Colombian cuisine, they make us unique, and it is the country with the most diversity of fruits, yucca, coconut, and corn have also been super important as mother ingredients of the indigenous cultures of the American continent. Also  they are very versatile in the kitchen to be used in all types of dishes and all techniques, both ancient and avant-garde, can be applied.

Sustainability and Local Sourcing

Sustainability is a significant concern in the culinary world today. How do you ensure that your restaurants are eco-friendly?

–  We try to use only local or kilometer zero products, in Medellin we have KAIme which is a completely plant-based restaurant. It is our commitment to a green kitchen. In restaurants we receive oil, and the largest amount of waste. We try to use all the product, to minimize waste.

Future Endeavors

What future projects or expansions do you have planned for El Cielo and your other ventures?

– We have just opened CUON in Pasto, in the south of the country near the border with Ecuador. We are thinking about open El Cielo hotel in Bogota, and in the long term why not an El Cielo in New York, Los Angeles, Mexico and the Dominican Republic.

How do you see the culinary world evolving in the next decade, and what role do you hope to play in that evolution?

–  It is the time of regional cuisines, from unknown countries, with little-tried flavors. It is time for Green cuisine, respectful of the environment, kilometer zero, for the exaltation of plant-based cuisine. People want to live experiences that enrich them, and support projects that in turn respect and support unique and diverse cultures.

My role is to continue doing what I like. El Cielo fits perfectly into the mold of new modern cuisine, exalting Colombian identity and flavors, which are still little known in the world when compared to other national cuisines. I will continue to raise the Colombian flag high, leading the way to internationalize our cuisine.

Chef Juan Manuel Barrientos advices For Aspiring Chefs

What advice would you give to aspiring chefs and entrepreneurs looking to make their mark in the culinary world?

– They have to be themselves, appeal to their origins, without ignoring what is trending, what people like, apply their particular talent but respecting what the audience wants. Study hard, practice makes perfect, travel, do internships in different restaurants around the world, open your perspective and create an attractive resume.

Can you share a funny or unexpected moment from your culinary career that taught you an important lesson?

–  This question is related to the previous one, persistence is important, no matter what happens, you must be focused on your goals. In my first experience as an assistant to the Argentine-Japanese chef Komiyama, I pursued him for a long time in all of his courses so that he would accept me as a personal assistant and apprentice, I received many refusals.

One day I woke up early because I knew he would arrive early at his restaurant, I waited for him at the entrance of his restaurant, but since he arrived late during the wait, with the cold of the morning, I fell asleep on the porch, he thought I was a homeless. I finally managed to be his assistant, a wonderful year of learning that taught me discipline, dedication and the purism of Japanese cuisine.

With Juan Mari Arzak, I wrote for years to accept me in his restaurant for an internship, without a response, finally a familiar acquaintance had a contact there and after years I achieved my desired internship just when they occupied the first place among the best restaurants in the world.

There I learned everything about running a cutting-edge cuisine restaurant and decided I wanted my own business inspired by modern Colombian cuisine.

” Learn and never give up “

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