CARACAS Jan 28 A sushi bar in Caracas makes
tempura with ground oats and cornstarch to replace increasingly
scarce wheat flour.
A Spanish restaurant, seeking to keep its fare affordable,
revamps its paella recipe by removing exorbitantly priced
Restaurateurs selling "arepas" - the grilled corn pancakes
that are a staple across the country - make them a bit smaller
to stretch their unsteady supplies of corn flour.
Venezuelan diners continue to eat well despite soaring
inflation and chronic food shortages, largely thanks to
Herculean efforts by chefs to obtain prized foodstuffs and
juggle menus to slow the rising prices.
In working-class canteens and high-end bistros, staff say
finding basics such as flour, milk or chicken - all scarce, in
large part, because of currency and price controls - requires
making repeated trips to markets and harassing providers.
"I haven't been able to buy wheat flour or corn flour for
more than a month. I'm working with what I had last year," said
Eduardo Castaneda, 45, owner of La Guayaba Verde, or The Green
Guava, in Caracas, which offers a modern spin on traditional
Venezuela's price controls require staple goods be sold at
fixed rates that are at times below production cost, which often
leaves them scarce because of the reduced incentive for
companies to make or import them.
Even the most ethical of restaurateurs are finding
themselves dabbling in the black market to skirt the strict
regulations created by the late socialist leader Hugo Chavez and
extended by President Nicolas Maduro.
Venezuela's food shortages are nowhere near as bad as the
situation painted by opposition critics, who revel in the idea
that government incompetence has created Soviet-style dearth in
the country with the world's largest oil reserves.
Restaurants remain packed despite a rise of about 70 percent
in the cost of eating out last year and the waiters' mantra:
"Sorry, we don't have that."
The average Venezuelan eats eat more and better than they
did before Chavez took power in 1999.
One of the most applauded achievements of his 14-year rule
was to make food affordable through price controls and
subsidized grocery stores, a triumph recognized in 2013 by the
U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.
Since 1990, Venezuela achieved a 50 percent reduction in the
number of citizens facing hunger, the U.N. said - two years
ahead of a global target date for reaching that goal.
But without broad economic reforms to ease state control
over the economy and boost importers' access to dollars, food
shortages may worsen - and eating out may get more difficult.
'WHAT DO YOU ACTUALLY HAVE?'
Venezuela's reputation for political conflict and violent
crime has upstaged that of a vibrant restaurant scene built up
over decades by immigrants from Europe and the Middle East drawn
to oil-driven economic opportunity.
Diners who learn a menu item has gone missing often offer
waiters a knowing smile or sympathetic eyeball roll as they
share their own travails of chasing down groceries.
Others are less charitable.
"People have said, 'This is a fish restaurant and you don't
even have fish? What the hell is wrong with you?'" commented one
maitre d'. His restaurant specializes in fish-focused Basque
food but has struggled to find fish such as grouper,
traditionally one of their popular menu items.
Like nearly all those interviewed, he spoke on condition of
anonymity for fear of reprisals from the government or
stepped-up inspections by state agencies.
The country's main restaurant industry association did not
respond to requests for comment.
Sushi bars have been among the hardest hit because they rely
heavily on imports including salmon, seaweed and roe that are
difficult to acquire because importers cannot obtain dollars,
owing to delays in the exchange control system that requires
businesses to obtain hard currency through the government.
Tracking down staples such as chicken or flour requires
having networks of "friends" at supermarkets or meatpacking
houses who sell scarce products above regulated prices in
transactions that are kept off the books or disguised through
One well-loved lounge-style Caracas bar and restaurant
stopped serving sushi because of the seaweed scarcity. The
kitchen switched to making ceviche, only to find shrimp was too
expensive and many of the red onions were arriving rotten.
For months the bar did not serve popular cocktails such as
Cosmopolitans for lack of cranberry juice.
"What's sad is that people stop complaining, or straightaway
ask, 'What do you actually have?' rather than waiting to hear
the list of what's missing," said the restaurant's owner.
BLACK MARKET PORK
Chavez's efforts to make food affordable have come at a
price: In times of shortage, unethical entrepreneurs buy
discount groceries and resell them on the black market.
Authorities last month detained four people at the Budare
del Este restaurant in the chic but gaudy Caracas neighborhood
of Las Mercedes on charges of illegally buying subsidized food,
including nearly a tonne of pork and half a tonne of chicken.
"Those products are meant to meet the needs of Venezuelan
families, not to line the pockets of scoundrels," wrote Maduro
in a series of incensed tweets announcing the operation.
Bakers often seek to protect themselves from wheat flour
shortages by building up stocks to meet holiday demand for
breads and cakes. If they get inspected, however, they risk
accusations of hoarding.
The owner of the lounge-bar restaurant said the combination
of product shortages and potential legal pitfalls leaves him
feeling like "a bullfighter in the ring waiting to see which
beast I'm going to face.
"You wake up every morning and within around 45 minutes you
realize some product has gone scarce, and you'll spend the rest
of the day figuring out what to do."
(Reporting by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Daniel Wallis, Kieran
Murray, Prudence Crowther and Douglas Royalty)