Published September 2021
If a traveler asks in Bogotá where they can find the best traditional Colombian food, the answer will be: at Mamá Luz’s table. Luz Dary Cogollo became the great Mamá Luz thanks to her cuisine and charisma.
She is famous for her excellent dishes, which show the perfect mixture of the best Colombian flavors. She is also the owner of the Tolú and Casa Mamá Luz restaurants in Bogotá. Her story is full of difficulties, but at the same time, it is a voice of hope and optimism. Her reputation also led her to be known through Netflix, a platform that made her reach the whole world.
She arrived in Bogotá in 1980, when she was 15 years old, from Tolú, located in the Colombian Caribbean. This change was extreme for her because she was not used to the cold climate of the capital. Besides, the food habits of the two places were very different. “I remember that my breakfast used to be a piece of yam, yucca, banana, whey, cheese, and when I arrived in Bogotá, I found changua and rib broth,” she says.
She started cooking more professionally due to her husband’s death, which was a very complex situation that affected her enormously. However, she needed to overcome it because she had to support her family. She used the knowledge acquired in her Caribbean childhood living with her parents, siblings, aunts, and grandmother. They introduced Luz Dary to the region’s typical flavors since she was very young, “I was between 9 and 11 years old, and they already asked me to stir the rice, add salt, or check out the soup,” she recalls.
The construction of the TransMilenio in Bogotá was Luz Dary’s opportunity to sell lunches. She cooked the dishes and used a supermarket cart to take them to the areas where the construction workers were so she could sell the food to them. She also used to go where there were buildings, seeking clients for her food.
After constantly moving around the city in 2011, she arrived at the Plaza de la Concordia, a space for small businesses. Although, in her opinion, it was a deteriorated place, she felt that it was where she could begin her dream of having her own space. Thus, she requested a site to work, which she called Tolú, to honor her land. “I loved the place and started to fix it. That’s where I started working, and I fell in love with my clients, the students. All these boys and girls became part of the Tolú family, and slowly they became my clients,” she says.
On Tolú’s opening day, Luz Dary remembers that her mother - who was with her at the time - asked her if she did not think they had prepared too much food for that event. “And we had prepared 6 motes, 4 mojarras, coconut rice, and for her it was too much. And we sold everything”.
Mamá Luz was born among homely dishes, kindness, and hugs because Luz Dary offers food, love, and affection expressed in the concern that she has always had for each of her guests. Her students, often short of money, came to her when they were hungry. And she never denied them a plate. She even filled their thermos with food so that they could eat later. When those university students needed a meeting point, they said they would meet “at Mamá Luz.” That’s how Luz Dary was baptized, and the success came fast. In her typical style, Luz Dary expresses that she obtained success thanks to her client’s love. “At that moment, I knew that the most sincere and kind hug would be the one received from a student. And that meant success”.
A few years later, the square was remodeled, and all its occupants were evicted. In 2017, the new Tolú space was inaugurated in the Perseverancia Market Square. The beginning was difficult, and they did not have many customers until an ajiaco crossed her path.
That year was the third time Luz Dary entered the contest to choose the best representative of this Colombian dish, and she did it recalling the flavors of the first time she had tried that soup in the capital when she was a teenager. When, according to her, she managed to prepare the flavor that was in her memory, she entered the contest. But she did it as a representative of all the Plaza de la Perseverancia’s markets, not only with her as the author, and they won.
This triumph was a courage and self-esteem injection to all the market workers and an influx of public never before seen in the place. Nowadays, that square is a gastronomic center. “After that award, the whole city of Bogotá can be here on a Sunday, queuing for more than one block to get in. And it is incredible because the cooks bring out their best flavors, and here there are women from all over Colombia,” she says.
In December 2020, the Casa Mamá Luz restaurant opened, and it is considered everyone’s home in Bogotá. This building is more spacious and can receive more customers than in the previous place in the square. Its flavors have the same quality and affection as always, what she defines as “a simple and honest cuisine.”
When we asked Luz Dary about the essential ingredients in her kitchen, she told us that sweet pepper, red onion, chives, garlic, achiote, and coconut milk could not be out of it because they are the bases of Caribbean cuisine.
Listening to her talking about food makes clear her great love for it, and the reason is her deep admiration for the peasants. “I think of every grower, every peasant who cares and harvests. And whoever wants to be a cook must love the product to become one later”, she explains.
In Luz Dary’s flavors, we find the mixture between the Caribbean and the Boyacense highlands. She defines herself as a loyal and grateful consumer of local products. “Our lands are very fertile. The potatoes and everything we find here are incredible. I can make a cheese mote from the Caribbean and ajiaco from Bogotá, and everything comes out perfect, ” she says.
“I think that my kitchen is me. It is my flavor. I am a cook from my land. I can take a piece of yucca, yam, and some rice in the best way I know, and I prepare it with all the love in the world. It is as if you were getting home”, she says.
Luz Dary did not know Netflix. Her children explained to her what it was. The platform sought her out because they were looking for interesting stories behind the kitchen. And she accepted.
Although she was not looking for it, she became a Colombian cuisine representative.
Her story reached other parts of the world, where her biggest fans - her beloved students - have been the ones who were most moved when they saw her. “Those who left Colombia tell me that they cried watching it because they lived this story with me. You have to believe, dream, and then be happy”, she explains.
This recognition makes Luz Dary highlight that other chefs and the public worldwide who did not know her yet have also contacted her to learn more about her cuisine.
Some people assumed that having two restaurants was Luz Dary’s highest aspiration, but they certainly do not know her. Her overflowing energy is incredible, so now she wants her dishes to reach other parts of the world. “After the pandemic, I want a space where I can cook with other chefs. Here I could do it with a Michelin star winner, chef Koldo Miranda. I prepared the recipe for Buchanan’s book, and it was a very nice experience”, he says.
She also wants to cross borders to show her country. “I dream of going abroad so that people can know what is in Colombia and fall in love with it. Colombian people have written to me a lot because they feel proud that I have shown the nation’s good things”.
And there is no doubt that she will succeed.