This week, Venezuelan Chef María Fernanda di Giacobbe won the first-ever Basque Culinary World Prize for her humanitarian contributions to the culinary world. A panel comprised of a who’s who of the global foodie scene – including Joan Roca, Enrique Olvera, and Like Water for Chocolate novelist Laura Esquivel – picked di Giacobbe out of 20 finalists because of her work turning low-income women into chocolatiers. Italian Chef Massimo Bottura believes the Basque Culinary World Prize’s award represents the future of the food industry. “Chefs in these times are more than just their recipes,” he said, according to El País. “Culture is an important ingredient for chefs of the future. Beauty without morality isn’t beauty. That’s why cooking and eating is a cultural act, and we should all be conscious of it.”
About a decade ago, di Giacobbe’s career nearly took off in a different direction. The self-trained chef – one who rather describe herself as a cook, or better yet, a bruja – opened a small restaurant in 1990. In 12 years, she expanded to 16 cafes. But with the petroleum crisis of the early aughts, she and her family lost nearly everything. She decided to head to Barcelona after that. There, she saw how the chocolate industry gained momentum, and it inspired her to to look at the cacao past of Venezuela – the place that first fermented the bean. “We decided to recover our history, to look for cacao criollo seeds and make chocolate with our fruits,” she said. “That’s how our project Cacao de Origen was born.”
It took her a while to get there, though. First, she began KaKao in 2004, which focused on Venezuelan chocolates. By 2009, her company worked to transform cocoa-growing communities through Proyecto Bombón. She collaborated with Simón Bolivar University to make her pupils certified chocolate entrepreneurs. Her first class only had 30 students, but since then, she’s seen 1,500 graduate – 94 percent of which are women. In 2013, she started Cacao de Origen, a center meant to help her community learn, research, and preserve Venezuelan cacao. She’s started two other projects and expanded her focus since then.
Amidst Venezuela’s ongoing economic crisis, food scarcity is the mainstream media’s singular focus, which drowns out stories about the positive movements occurring in the South American country, like di Giacobbe’s mission to empower other women. But di Giacobbe recognizes the importance of this award, which comes with a $110,000 prize. “This award is a reflection of entrepreneurs, producers, and chocolatiers and their leaning, enthusiasm, and hard work,” she said in a statement, according to USA Today. “It allows us to set new goals and open up new ways to connect with the world.”
Di Giacobbe already knows the prize money’s purpose: opening a new chocolate school in Caracas. She said, “We already designed everything and are ready to open a center for chocolate entrepreneurs, all we were missing was the money and now we have it.” Check out a video of the inspiring bruja below: