Chef Rodolfo Guzman: Spotlight on the Culinary Riches of Chile

Rodolfo Guzman’s Borago restaurant in Santiago, Chile has been hugely instrumental in Chilean cuisine being the focus of international attention. Borago tied with Albert Adria’s Tickets Bar in Barcelona for the #42 spot in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards announced in June. Few months later I saw him step up to receive the #2 restaurant recognition at Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurant awards in Mexico City. The very reticent young chef was overwhelmed and very emotional at all the attention that night.

I recently had the opportunity to talk to him at length about Borago, the Gelinaz Shuffle, Chilean gastronomy and his hopes for the future of gastronomy in his homeland. An extended version of our conversation that was published in the Daily Meal is posted on this forum.

Chef Rodolfo Guzman
Chef Rodolfo Guzman

Chilean Chef Rodolfo Guzman: Cooking on the Edge of the World

by Geeta Bansal

There are many theories about how the country of Chile got its name, one being that it is derived from a Native American word for “ends of the earth.” Looking at a world map Chile appears as a narrow ribbon bordering Peru, Bolivia and Argentina whittling down to a point at Cape Horn. Next stop, Antarctica! Widely known for its biological diversity, it also has varied terrain and a medley of climates. Added to that is an interesting mix of cultures due to a largely migrant population resulting in a unique food culture. No one could have predicted ten years ago that it would become a gastronomic destination and instead of adventurous tourists and cruisers en route to the Antarctic island there would be gastro tourists trying to snag reservations at restaurants such as Chef Rodolfo Guzman’s Borago in Santiago.

BoragoThis past September at Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurant Awards in Mexico City Chef Rodolfo Guzman of Borago Chile stepped onto the stage accompanied by thunderous applause from his peers, media and well-wishers as his restaurant was recognized as the second best in the region. Guzman was also voted the chefs chef by his compadres and ended up walking away with two awards during the ceremonies. The nine year old Borago was at the fifth spot last year and has been steadily climbing up, earning international recognition and acclaim for the team led by Guzman. The young personable chef who trained at Mugaritz in Spain with Andoni Aduriz, no less, has placed Chile squarely on the international gastronomic map and it is now the top restaurant in the country.

Guzman worked at Mugaritz during its early years when chef Aduriz and team would be gazing expectantly down the long winding road in the Basque countryside in hopes of customers to cook for. Not surprisingly more than just culinary skills Guzman took the lessons of perseverance, patience and hard work with him home to Chile and opened Borago in the Vitacura district of Santiago. According to Guzman besides Mugaritz he has worked and trained in many other prestigious kitchens before venturing out on his own. It has not been an easy journey but a worthwhile one allowing Guzman to develop his very distinct culinary persona. At Borago minimalist decor plays off the seasonal menus featuring produce sourced from the Andes, Patagonia and the coast. Recently the Atacama Desert has attracted the attention of Guzman and his team who have now extended their foraging and research expeditions into this thus far gastronomically unexplored territory.

As a father of three young children, Guzman admits he has a vested interest in researching and preserving the bio diversity of Chile for future generations. The relationship between health and food is another area of his interest and he is working with researchers at the Catholic University of Chile on Bioprocesses and micro structures. This ongoing teamwork with neurologists, psychologists and nutritionists leads to constant changes of concepts and treatment of products in the Borago test kitchen, eventually working its way onto plates served to guests. Until two years ago there were products like mushrooms that they were used in the raw state but in light of his research they are now always cooked before being served. It is apparent that Guzman, not bound by any dogmas, is very receptive to new ideas and consequently very flexible, constantly striving to learn and evolve, a common trait of creative minds.

In a recent conversation he spoke about his experience in Paris at Septime during the Gelinaz Shuffle and his work in Borago, his interest in the indigenous Chilean food culture and his vision of the future of Chilean gastronomy.

How was your experience at Septime during the Gelinaz shuffle this July?

It was fantastic as I really admire Bertrand for his work, beautiful team and restaurant. I was super excited to be a part of this whole experience of sharing and learning. I spent five days in Paris and I had a chance to eat at Clamato which I loved. In fact I told Bertrand I am so jealous of both your beautiful restaurants and food. I love Paris and dining in the city but this time I was concentrating on work.

How did you begin your work on your menu in the Septime kitchen?

I tried to understand how Bertrand runs his operation and why and how he cooks that way. He and his team choose beautiful products to work with and I tried to put aside my own way of cooking and really wanted to cook just like him. I did different dishes of course while using some Chilean preparations and techniques.

What was the “Bad Bertrand” about?

I asked Bertrand for some things he would never ever do as a French cook or at Septime. Unfortunately for him he told me and so of course I had to do those. There was no question about it!

Bad Bertrand is a mix of butter and olive oil and of citrus fruits and vinegar.

Didn’t you have a similar situation in your kitchen during the shuffle with Ana Ros from Hisa Franko in Slovenia making pasta, which you would never do in your kitchen?

Exactly, that made it fun. I wasn’t here myself but from what I heard from my sous chefs and team about it I felt that they all shared a lot and learned a lot.

Ana Ros is a self-taught chef while you have trained formally. Do you think such training is necessary for a cook or can they just cook from their heart?

I feel that cooking is more about emotions, feelings, thoughts and memories and some part of it is related to the arts. Cooking is not officially an art but I feel all cooks are artisans and at some levels it is an intellectual process. It has to come from deep within you and representative of humanity and something we all experience in our lives. We pass it on through generations like a story. My grandfather taught me something about cooking which I must pass forward to my children.

Experience makes you better just like a Japanese master who perfects his craft for years but the learning process in this field is very deep, ambiguous and wide and that makes it difficult to say whether you should or should not train. Knowledge gained makes you better because you can help transform traditions which tend to become stagnant otherwise. Whether with training or not it is still possible to cook well and I don’t think of myself as a super trained cook anyway.

Lately young cooks are flitting from one stage to another to create a resume that might list 10 restaurants in a year what is your take on this phenomenon?

I don’t give a damn for resumes like that. People come to me with such resumes which mean nothing to me since we are cooks and artisans and in such a brief time you cannot really get a notion of what a restaurant is about. I think a year is a good length of time. Our interns here are very important to us and we have a vested interest in training them well.

You are transforming Chilean traditions in your work. Why is it important to you?

Traditions are beautiful but if to those you can add knowledge you can move traditions to the next step. Then we can create something even more interesting for the future.

What is unique about Borago? Should diners be ready for the unexpected?

I have thought our guests experience new flavors which are new to them and they have no prior food memories of. Our ingredients are unique, super seasonal and expose them to novel concepts and make dining here a unique experience.

Your cooking style has been described as one of reviving ancient techniques and using traditional and forgotten ingredients. How are you linking these old stories to new stories on your plates?

I want to specify that it is what we are trying to do whether we are successful in this or not we don’t know. The restaurant opened nine years ago in a country that has influences from every culture that came here like the Spanish. At that time not the best things but most things perceived as good were coming from outside the country. So we were adapting to these influences and products and ignoring our own culture. The indigenous Mapuchas are one of the oldest native cultures in South America having been around 12400 years or so long before the Spaniards or the Incas.

In 2006 we started our work at Borago by concentrating on products growing in specific areas of Chile, a part of our Mapuche heritage. Most of our recipes are based on native ingredients so we are looking back in time while moving forward. We want to say we are Chileans and we have a diversity of ingredients with a lot of possibility behind them. We started doing a tasting menu based only on these ingredients and ancient cooking methods of Mapuches, real Chilean preparations.

Are these ingredients seasonal?

Yes some of them grow only for a few months or weeks or maybe even one week during the year. We wait for these to appear for very traditional preparations. We work with over 200 small producers and foragers to supply us through a huge chain. I traveled a lot all over the country and built relationships with these people, some of whom are Mapuches. When you come to the restaurant you don’t see these people but the truth is without them we cannot prepare or serve the food that we do. These relationships didn’t develop overnight but are the result of nine years of work.

While exploring this biodiversity of the Chilean landscape is there risk of over using or exploiting some of these products or species?

There are so many things involved in this process and you have to be very responsible, work with the right people and be very conscious of the impact on the environment and ecosystem. Fortunately here in Chile the seafood is well protected and regulated by law. We have a huge sustainable movement. In order to have these resources in the future we are very protective.

How are you incorporating these ancient cooking practices in your cuisine?

We are not pretending to cook like they did 2000 years ago. We have a very contemporary approach to food and all we are doing is moving these techniques from the past to the present.

Are you and your team collecting ingredients while hiking and exploring on a regular basis?

I know that today it’s a very trendy thing to go and forage but we do it for a purpose in order to bring the flavors of the landscape to the plate. We are trying to show what Chile and Chilean food is about. One day we could be at 3000 meters and the next day down at the beach or in the forest. There is a lot of culture behind the use of these ingredients. I want to specify that it’s not about where our house is but about the content of our restaurant no matter where it is located. We are constantly learning and exploring for these ingredients which is the future of our planet as we run out of resources.

Is this foraging “trend” going to pass sometime soon, because in some situations you wonder where this foraging is taking place?

I think it will pass with time for sure and something else will take its place. I want to say that in our case it was part of our culture of gathering food by the indigenous inhabitants and existed in our history.

You think tapping these unused resources or ingredients will be important in the near future?

Yes because we have to find alternate ways to feed us and our children. We cannot keep using the same fish from the ocean as they are disappearing and strangely Mapuches were eating seaweed which is an amazing food source all along. The future of our planet is raw plants and we have to adapt. The waters of the Pacific off our coast are very pristine and the quality of our seafood is amazing. I feel that people around the world are not aware of what Chile is about.

Why the interest in the Atacama Desert?

According to me and our team it is the next frontier and the beginning of a new Chilean food revolution. There are ingredients growing at 3000-5000 meters that we had no idea about. These ingredients are perfect for regular recipes and can be thrown into whatever you are cooking. By using these we can help a lot of indigenous communities to survive economically who are foraging these and bringing them to Santiago. The bonus is that these products are delicious and have health benefits.

As a parent what concerns you about the scarcity of resources in the future?

I ask the question, “What is food about? Do we really know enough about food?” I feel we still don’t know much about food and need to learn more. There are challenging times coming up for the world and for Chile where I live and we really need to comprehend this. At the restaurant we try to cook delicious food with these original ingredients while learning more about them. We are not pretending to be a special restaurant but just trying to be honest with ourselves. I would say the learning process for us is super important.

Are you investigating the health aspects of ingredients in your test kitchen?

We have been learning a lot from our associations with biologists, doctors, archaeologists etc. it is the only way to evolve and become knowledgeable about what we are aiming for in our taste. As a cook you evolve from knowing nothing to learning basics of cooking like baking bread, cooking fish, meat or vegetables. That is the first evolution and the second is when you become a parent and start questioning if something is healthy to ingest. These are the questions that we try to learn and investigate for the future. I think about things like mushrooms should I cook it or can I safely serve it raw .We work with an amazing ecologist who has taught us a lot and as a result of what we learned from her we no longer serve raw mushrooms since 2013 so I can say we are constantly evolving.

In the quest for novelty or publicity, by introducing outrageous or extreme proteins are chefs ignoring these health consequences or not doing adequate investigation before introducing these on their menus?

It is a real concern that we need to look at while finding alternative foods in order to feed growing populations. The biggest challenge I feel is going to be to learn in real about food. We ourselves are reintroducing foods that were used in the past and have a history of being healthy and safe to use. The indigenous people lived long healthy lives based on these foods. We don’t just go out and pick things that will look good on a plate; we question everything and are aware of the risks. You can die from eating a wrong mushroom picked up in a forest. At least in the sea you don’t find dangerous or poisonous seaweed or fish. I feel it is almost as if the sea is telling us to find our food in the water.

Are the younger chefs more receptive to using these unknown or new ingredients?

The older generation is certainly more cautious about new ingredients. I feel that as cooks we should be able to cook delicious food using any available ingredients. In the future I feel we are going to pay more attention to the sea and look for more of our food there. The plant based diet is also going to become more important in our future.

As an example, seaweed has been a major part of the diet in Asian cultures but not so much in the west. Are cultural influences an impediment in this food revolution or evolution process and do you see this resistance in your restaurant?

Of course we do. It’s a mental thing for example a Japanese guest in our restaurant has a different experience from an Argentinian. Their cultural preferences and context are different and they have different food memories. There is no such food that we don’t really like it’s just that we have preconceived idea about it and have decided not to like or eat it. We need to be open to experiment and if you get used to seaweed you will find a new world of taste. Seaweed is all about umami! In Chile we have more kinds of seaweed than anywhere else and there is a wide range of flavors, textures and taste. We have to learn how to treat them to get the best out of them. We are fortunate that our guests come prepared to taste and enjoy what we serve them and are ready for a new experience.

You have cooked and trained in many places, but who has influenced your work the most?

For me to have the opportunity to work with Andoni Aduriz at Mugaritz was a big influence and good training. I started to explore and do many different things and people now talk about foraging etc. but we were foraging in the Basque countryside in 2004 when I was there. I have to say the biggest influence not only in my kitchen but on my whole life has been the Mapuche culture.

What proportion of your guests is local and how many are international since now you have a lot of Gastro tourists coming to Chile?

It is hard to say and it really depends on the season. We were experiencing ups and downs till 2012 but now it is a new experience for us to be busy all the time. Borago was a new kind of restaurant even for Chileans and not really given a lot of attention by gastronomic journalists. Chileans are now very proud of our venture and it is a really cool phenomenon locally. All the international media attention is of course drawing a lot of people to Borago now. In the months of June and July 80% of our guests were Chilean and this was the first year that this happened. Now in this season maybe 60% are international while 40% are local.

Do guests sometimes request alternative courses and are you open to modifying dishes to ensure a positive dining experience?

It’s very simple for us since though we want to challenge them we don’t want to push them to far. Essentially we are cooking not for ourselves but for our guests and to please them. We ask for information about allergies and if you don’t like something. An example is sea urchins; though we have the most amazing quality of sea urchins do you know that Chileans traditionally do not eat them. We have to give them a taste to let them know what they are missing. Once in a while me or one of our chefs will go to the table and request them to give it a go. The next thing you know is they regret not having tasted them before.

So you are on a quest to open people’s minds and palate with your food?

Of course! It’s delightful to see the pleasure and surprise on their faces when they experience a new taste and love it.

How do you build your tasting menus? Do you follow the usual format or progression of entrees, mains, and dessert?

Not at all. We were questioning many aspects of eating and dining and we are not serving tasting menus because we wanted to but it’s something that happened very naturally. We had an a la carte menu that our guests decided to do away with since people were coming here to eat food made exclusively with our Chilean ingredients. We are trying to question why dessert has to have sugar or why it has to be the last part of a meal. Instead of this structure we prefer to have umami and use it to replace sugar in ice cream and it is still as exciting. So why not dessert and pre-dessert at the beginning of a meal? The Mapuches ate sweet at the beginning of a meal so we are relating to that. Our menu progression is based around flavors, composition and story.

You have a test kitchen. How big is your research team that works there?

We are normally five people there, and including stagiares maybe seven. I spend most of my day in the test kitchen. The rhythm of the kitchen downstairs in the restaurant is based on what happens in the test kitchen. We host a project here were we work with scientists etc. to compile a natural resource reference book for Chile. We are going to put this knowledge in very humble books that all restaurants can have to use.

It’s easy to see that you are a family man and proud father. How old are your children, and would you like them to follow you into this profession?

I have three children, two daughters one five and the other three years old and a son who is one and a half. I don’t come from a family in the food business and was the first to venture into it. Food was always very important in my family and I grew up between the country side and the sea. Truthfully I would not like my children to follow me in this profession though I wouldn’t say no if they love it and are passionate about it. I will be happy to support them in whatever they choose to do.

What is changing in the Chilean food scene?

Chilean cooks are taking pride in our culture, our ingredients. This is a revolution of sorts and something that never happened before as we are delving deep into our own culture. We are getting more involved with the situation of food in the future and looking at things differently than thirty years ago. I have to say even I never dreamt that one day people will be traveling to Chile only to eat!

The bistronomie movement is gaining momentum with casual dining spots replacing fine dining in many parts of the world. Is this happening in Chile too?

Yes, we do see that super fine dining is not as prominent and in fact many members of our own team who are going on to open their own restaurants are choosing that style. I am very proud of these people who after years with us are now moving on and doing so well. In fact society is changing and evolving and all this is part of it.

Is your placement at #2 in Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants this year or participating in events like Gelinaz Shuffle helping to raise the profile of Chilean gastronomy internationally?

Of course it is responsible in a big way. Chile is the last country in Latin America and super far away from every other place and I can only speak for myself and the reality of this might be different for other people but it is a good thing to happen for Chile and for us. The Michelin guide has not come to Chile so these events bring us attention. It is very positive since people now want to come from everywhere to experience our food.

Is the Chilean government supportive in promoting gastronomy like PromPeru or the tourism boards in other countries?

They do but not as much as Peru. Chile is strong economically for being a small country with 16 billion people so it is a different situation. Gastronomy is a new aspect of the economy so it is taking time to develop but the government is putting in the effort. Food is becoming huge and we are big exporters of food and there are many opportunities in this area.

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