efe-epaBy Santiago Carbone Montevideo

After working in France for many years, Uruguayan chef and award-winning cookbook author Hugo Soca decided one day to return to his homeland with a goal of expanding the national cuisine's identity beyond its signature product: beef.

That mission led him to open a new restaurant in Montevideo - named "Tona" in honor of his grandmother.

He spoke to EFE there about his latest cookbook "Hugo Soca Cocina," which took the top prize for Latin America and was in the third tier worldwide a few weeks ago at the 2019 Gourmand Cookbook Awards in Macau, China.

Although he had been conferred that same award in 2012 for "Nuestras recetas de siempre," the 44-year-old Uruguayan said his latest work is different because it showcases his use of seasonal products and ingredients from the countryside, as well as the work of rural producers.

"It shows some easy recipes, some simple recipes and above all that you can cook with just a few ingredients, that you can cook delicious food with 100 percent Uruguayan ingredients. All the recipes are made with products from Uruguay, which is sort of the philosophy I have at my Tona restaurant," Soca said.

He added that the cookbook's goal is to "start lending an identity to (Uruguayan cuisine) that goes beyond beef."

"Uruguay is known in large part for its beef, for barbecues, for grills, but we have much more than that. We have excellent products such as olive oils, goat and sheep cheeses, honey ... and wines. A wonderful land that gives us incredible products," the chef said.

Asked about his favorite recipes from "Hugo Soca Cocina," he mentioned the "incredible" carrot cake and "tasty" gnocchi with tomato sauce.

The chef also recalled the breakfasts that his grandmother would prepare before he left for school, featuring sliced churrasco beef, fried eggs and home-baked bread, as well as his mother's homemade noodles.

"The recipes of grandmothers, aunts, mothers are dishes and flavors that stir emotions in you, that transport you back in time," Soca said.

The Uruguayan said his advocacy for all these types of recipes stems from being "raised in the countryside," where he went to school by horseback and had no electricity until the age of 16.

Although at that time he did not think of gastronomy as a future profession, Soca always was in close contact with cooking and ended up choosing it as a livelihood when he relocated to Montevideo.

Soca achieved dreams that he had been told were utopian after arriving in the capital, including appearing on television (and now serving as host of the program "De la tierra al plato") and writing cookbooks.

The chef said the message he received when he was young was that people from rural areas do not make it to the city nor work in television.

He also had to show persistence in becoming a cookbook author, noting that several publishing companies turned him down before Editorial Aguaclara trusted in his work.

"I always say that you have to dream," said Soca, who has studied cooking, baking and pastry and wine stewardship and earned undergraduate and post-graduate degrees from Le Cordon Bleu culinary school and Institut Paul Bocuse (France).

The Uruguayan said the next step in his career is a first-ever film about his nation's gastronomy, a project based on his personal story that will premiere on Oct. 16 and showcase the country's culinary delights.

Soca also plans to continue with his television program and restaurant, which he affectionately refers to as "Hugo's house."

"When you come to my home, I'm going to welcome you, and a smell of homemade bread fresh out of the oven will envelop you," he said after highlighting two house specialties that also were recipes he learned from his grandmother: spinach fritters and braised meatballs. EFE-EPA

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