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A Chat with Rodolfo Guzmán

Rodolfo Guzmán, chef patron of Boragó in Santiago, Chile on how it all started, his foraging adventures, and what it means to take “respecting the ingredient” to a whole new level.

Words Iris Wong

 

Dining at Rodolfo Guzmán’s Boragó may conjure up memories of a scene from the movie Spy where Melissa McCarthy’s character “cleanses her palate” with the marshmallow-like napkin at a fine-dining restaurant. Indeed, we’re talking twigs, brittle leaves and flowers too colourful to be edible – can you eat that? The answer is yes, and you should be eating with your hands.

Trained under Andoni Luis Aduriz at Mugaritz in Spain, chef Rodolfo Guzmán opened his own restaurant Boragó in Santiago, Chile in 2006. There he serves hyperlocal Chilean cuisine – stunningly plated dishes made using wild ingredients foraged from all over the dramatic and diverse landscapes of Chile, from countryside to the world’s highest desert, the Atacama, where he has a network of foraging communities – the Mapuche people, who are indigenous inhabitants in south-central Chile, southwestern Argentina, and parts of present-day Patagonia – to help seek out native and unknown wild delicacies from both the land and sea.

In 2017, Boragó was ranked no.5 on Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants List and no.42 on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants List. In the same year, chef Guzmán authored his first book, Boragó: Coming from the South, published by Phaidon, documenting his findings and creative processes. While the Chilean chef was in town for a four-hands dinner with Richard Ekkebus at Amber, The Landmark Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong, we caught up with him for a chat.

Version 1: Punta de Tralca Wild Food, Organised by Layers. Picture credit: Cristóbal Palma

Version 1: Punta de Tralca Wild Food, Organised by Layers. Picture credit: Cristóbal Palma

 

How did you decide to do a four-hands collaboration with Richard at Amber? Can you tell us about some of dishes that are going to be on the menu?

It’s the first time we worked together, and it was very, very spontaneous. When we were suggested to do the four-hands dinner with Richard, we started thinking what ingredients from Chile can we bring to Hong Kong? These are going to be things that you don’t get the chance to taste here in Hong Kong – very unique ingredients and flavours. We’re bringing ingredients from the Atcama Desert, the driest desert in the world.

One of the dishes we’ll be serving is actually two desserts in one – the Ice Brûlée of Plants and Rose-of-the-Year. It’s like a crème brûlée, but very cold. The plants [used in this dish] are from very high altitudes. They are tola, tolilla, rica rica, with roasted muña muña on top. [This dish is inspired by] a phenomenon in the Atacama Dessert. It doesn’t happen every year, but when it rains, a plant called rose-of-the-year would grow, and it’s incredible.

 

How do you find out about these rare, wild ingredients that you use at your restaurant?

Every time we forage we discover something new. Like don Pascual from the northern part of Patagonia. He’s like my grandfather. He’s been [foraging] for us for 11 years. He’s a Mapuche and told me about the sea strawberries. This grows on top of the rock, without any soil. It smells like a strawberry, it tastes like a strawberry, the plant acts like a strawberry, but it’s salty. Mapuches have been eating this for thousands of years. This is how you learn – we pass down the knowledge through generations.

Sea strawberries. Picture credit: Cristóbal Palma

Sea strawberries. Picture credit: Cristóbal Palma

 

What gets your creative juices flowing?

When you’re a cook, everything is an inspiration. In my case, nature, the ingredient, a moment, a memory, a cooking method, a situation, a dish, circumstances – everything, really.

 

Why did you open Boragó in 2006?

Well, you know when you’re young, you’re more attached to your ideals than anything else. I thought, of course I’m ready – I’ve been through every step in the kitchen. But what I did not know was the gap between being a chef de cuisine, and running your own restaurant. I was in trouble. Chile wasn’t ready for it. We spent the next six years as an empty restaurant. Totally empty. It was really bad, and we made a lot of mistakes. I had no experience in any commercial stuff. I just wanted to serve my food, you know, but I was very attached to my ideals.

 

What was the turning point?

The international press started coming to the restaurant. I spent some time at Mugaritz [in Spain] when I was younger, and I remember in 2012, Andoni [Luis Aduriz] came with his team for a dinner with us to celebrate the restaurant turning five. At that time, he never went to other restaurants to do dinners, and so that brought in a lot of press. Also Andrea Petrini showed up one day. He started talking [about Boragó] and more journalists came after. Now people from all over the world travel here to see what we do. That’s a gift, and I’m very grateful.

Black Flower. Picture credit: Cristóbal Palma

Black Flower. Picture credit: Cristóbal Palma

 

What are you doing when you’re not cooking?

Spending time with my kids and my wife. I have two families. A family at home, and a family at the restaurant. I have forty cooks in the kitchen, and four children at home.

 

Forty cooks!?

We have a very big operation. There are more than 200 people behind the restaurant, between the foraging communities and the small producers. For example, there’s one guy that is coordinating to get us an ingredient from Patagonia. It has to leave at night and be delivered in the morning to the restaurant. We’ve been waiting for it for a whole year. It only flashes for two to three weeks. Plus, we have a farm about five minutes from the restaurant. We grow our own vegetables, and our own ducks. [For the restaurant] we have a production team that arrives very early every morning and we go grab the ingredients from the mountains, and the service team focuses on providing restaurant service. And there’s also the test kitchen and lab kitchen. To get those ingredients and do it properly, the cooking methods are very long.

Wilted Spring Leaves with Murra Seasoning, Nalca, and Charcoal-Grilled Jibia. Picture credit: Cristóbal Palma

Wilted Spring Leaves with Murra Seasoning, Nalca, and Charcoal-grilled Jibia. Picture credit: Cristóbal Palma

 

What is the creative process behind conceptualising your dishes?

The creative process is quite complex. We have a test kitchen. It’s a place just to think about food. It’s like a musician composing a song, to be really connected with who you are and what you do. The process can be emotional and spontaneous, but also has to be very methodical. [Takes out his notebook] I need to be able to draw and make notes. You need a lot of discipline for creativity.

Sketch of Wilted Spring Leaves with Murra Seasoning, Nalca, and Charcoal- Grilled Jibia by Rodolfo Guzmán. Picture credit: courtesy Rodolfo Guzmán

Sketch of Wilted Spring Leaves with Murra Seasoning, Nalca, and Charcoal- grilled Jibia by Rodolfo Guzmán. Picture credit: courtesy Rodolfo Guzmán

 

How does it feel to be on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list?

We are so grateful. It’s like a dream come true. No one used to travel to Chile to eat. Then we got on the first Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants list in 2013. I remember the day before we had five guests. The next day, the restaurant was full booked. It changed the whole restaurant. It took me a long time to figure it out because I kept thinking that [the reservations] will disappear. But the list changed everything. Now there are people travelling from all over the world to try our food. Not only that, but a lot of people wanted to work as stagiaires, to learn.

 

What’s next for you?

We’re very focused this year with Boragó, and with Conectáz [research platform for endemic ingredients in Chile]. You can download the app. It’s an encyclopedia of ingredients. It’s free for everyone, and our gift to Chile. You can use it to find out about a particular ingredient. It’ll teach you how to cut it, where it grows, how to cook it and the best way to eat them. And within the next few years we want to connect the foraging communities with the final consumer.

 

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