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A famous Colombian chef is building peace by hiring former FARC guerrillas for his restaurants


"Peace is not only about putting down the arms, or giving them back. It's about restarting."

John Jailer Quijano has spent most of his life having to face that reality.

When he was 12 years old, he was enlisted into the FARC, the left-wing guerrilla army that fought a half-century civil war with the Colombian government and right-wing paramilitaries. The war claimed 222,000 lives, and left 25,000 people missing and 5,700,000 displaced. Quijano's brother had already been enlisted five years before him.

Who Are The FARC Rebels Of Colombia?

"Well, there were trucks in various neighborhoods, but it seemed that the kids picked happened to be the older ones. Like, 'this kid can now be a participant.' So in one of those raids, I was of the age to 'hold a gun.' That was the recruiting process," Quijano said.

He would spend the next five years in the jungles of Tolima, a mountainous region southwest of Bogotá, as a child fighting in a war.

Quijano spent most of his time on the move, as his unit would only spend about two weeks in one place. He said there were many times when they engaged in combat, but that it was usually short, and they would quickly relocate afterward. He was mostly stationed in southern Tolima, near the area in which he was born.

"I was afraid, really afraid, and I cried a lot at the beginning. But eventually, I lost the fear, and became used to it," Quijano said. "They traded my soccer ball for a rifle. So I stopped playing to go and shoot. It was tough. I lost the youth that I wanted to have."

In 2006, when he was 17 years old, Quijano left the jungle, and FARC, behind him.

The Colombian Family Welfare institute relocated Quijano and a group of other child soldiers to Bogotá, where he was eventually reunited with his family.

"It was very strange because I was used to seeing the trees. I was hidden in the jungle and in the mountains," said Quijano. "So arriving in this city filled with cement was very hard, because I would get confused."

After almost a decade in Bogotá, he was hired by Tomás Rueda at one of his three restaurants, Calderón. "It was a priviledge to be able to work with Tomás," says Quijando. Quijando was in charge of the morning café and the staff lunch. He ended up working there for only about half of the year, before moving on to pursue his own business venture.

There, he found a community.

"It's like a family. Like this big family. It feels like I'm going home and my friends are there. It's like working from home," Quijano said.

Rueda concurs.

"The kitchen transforms the people. They know they are working. They know they are growing. They know they have here friends because we spend all the day here," says Rueda. "This is our home, really. In the other place, is not our home. We have a bed there and we sleep there, but our home is this one."

Rueda runs two other restaurants in Bogotá, Tábula and Donostia. The food is a modern take on Colombian standards, sources a lot of local meats and produce, and is very highly regarded. Rueda is well-known both inside and outside of Colombia; he showed Anthony Bordain around Bogotá for Bordain's CNN show, "Parts Unkown."

Anthony Bourdain in Bogota

But Rueda is almost reluctant to talk about his work with the Reincoporation and Normalization Agency, through which he has hired former members of FARC at various restaurants over the years.

"The first thing is, when you want to help the people, don't talk about it. If you want to help, shh," says Rudea. We were unable to speak with his current employees that he hired through the program, as he does not want to unfairly violate their privacy with the rest of the staff.

"Little by little, we tried to bring here the people, yeah? It's not too much people. One, two, no matter. The important thing is the first step we are making. It's about society, regular people, trying to get involved in the solution," Rueda said.

"They start to carry the cars outside, yeah? Then they wash the dishes. Then I teach them to cook, yeah? One of them, he worked with me for 12 years and he started like this. Now he is the Head Chef of Tábula. It's not about giving the hand to the people from the war. No, the thing is to strive to give the hand to all the people."

Giving a hand to all of the people is not such a simple task. In December 2016, the Colombian Congress approved a peace process to demobilize and disarm FARC, and to move forward as a society. But this was after a popular referendum to enact a peace treaty between the FARC and the government was lost earlier that year.

"Colombian people can't dwell on the past. It can't be about 'what you did to me or didn't do,'" Quijano said. "You have to be in the present and find a solution to what's culminating. There were 50-something years of war. Let's find a solution."

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