Chef Rodolfo Guzmán: Chile’s Native Son

by Emily Bell
Antoinette Bruno
May 2011

Biography

Chef Rodolfo Guzmán
Boragó – Santiago, Chile

Interview

Interview with Chef Rodolfo Guzmán of Boragó - Santiago, Chile

Recipes

Asparagus, Bell Pepper, and Potatoes Served in a Bucket with Smoking Tepu Wood Embers and Rosemary
Chef Rodolfo Guzmán of Boragó – Santiago, Chile

Frio Glacial: Menthol Granité, Mint Ice Cream, Creamy Lemon Foam in Liquid Nitrogen, and Eucalyptus Cookie
Chef Rodolfo Guzmán of Boragó – Santiago, Chile

Vaca: Short Ribs in a Brown Sugar Loaf with Nettle Moss
Chef Rodolfo Guzmán of Boragó – Santiago, Chile

Violet Flower Ice Cream and Maqui Berry Nougat
Chef Rodolfo Guzmán of Boragó – Santiago, Chile

Seared Kra Kra (Fish from Easter Island), Wild Herb Emulsion, Dehydrated Shamrock Soil, Salicornias, and Edible Sea Rocks
Chef Rodolfo Guzmán of Boragó – Santiago, Chile

Photos

Chef Rodolfo Guzmán
Boragó – Santiago, Chile

Rodolfo Guzmán has something you don’t. Here’s a hint: it’s long, it's slender, and it's teeming with indigenous product and centuries of tradition. It’s Chile; 2,700 miles of climatic and geographic diversity, from Narnia-esque Patagonia in the south to the “Mother Nature hates you” inhospitality of Atacama Desert in the north, with lush valleys, a Pacific coastline, and the Western face of the Andes thrown in for good measure. It’s a treasure trove of undiscovered and underutilized product, an extraordinary pantry largely unknown to the rest of the civilized culinary world. And Chef Guzmán is out to cook all of it at Boragó, to bring each and every distinctly Chilean flavor to international attention, one dish at a time.

 

Quiet Ambition

Grouper Cooked in Mud Oven with Bruja Potato and Allium Flowers at Borago

Grouper Cooked in Mud Oven with Bruja Potato and Allium Flowers at Borago

For a guy with such vaulting ambitions, Guzmán is surprisingly humble. Even shouting over the din of a drive when we called to interview him (we like to think he was cruising along a Chilean coastal highway instead of commuting into downtown Santiago), Guzmán comes across as passionate and intense, but exceedingly gracious. Like any chef half-crazy for his national pantry, it’s the product that matters to Guzmán, not fame. “We try to reflect what’s really happening at a given moment in Chile,” he says, “to be a unique place at this part of the planet, at the end of the world.”

Of course, fame is probably in the cards for Guzmán, and not just on account of his beachy good looks or wildly diverse culinary creations (those don’t hurt). Guzmán has a prophet’s passion for his country’s cuisine, the kind of inspired and inspiring faith in the importance of “time and place,” as Guzmán repeats, that brought chefs like Dan Barber, Ferran Adrià, and Rene Redzepi to the forefront of seasonal progressive cuisine, creating the kind of food that changes the way we think.

For his chapter in the modernist’s culinary bible, Guzmán cultivates a Chilean culinary identity that reaches as far back as ancient traditions and as far forward as his own imagination can take him. “We’re trying to take the same kind of cooking methods—very rustic and raw—and mix that up with avant-garde cuisine.” And Guzmán’s vision is finally taking shape—admittedly after an awkward first four years in Santiago. (The city’s most notable restaurant, up to that point, was Peruvian.) “It was very, very hard at the beginning. But the whole scene in Santiago has been changing a lot,” he told us, still shouting politely over wind and traffic and a bad connection. “When we opened four years ago, it was a ‘gastronomic restaurant’—Boragó was something out of [diners’] minds. Today it’s a totally different scene. Everyone is coming to the restaurant to see what we’re going to do.”

 

National Naturalism

Short Ribs in Brown Sugar Loaf with Nettle Moss at Borago

Short Ribs in Brown Sugar Loaf with Nettle Moss at Borago

What they’re going to do at Boragó is quietly blow your mind. For our tasting, Guzmán—whose culinary pedigree includes a "break through" stint under Andoni Luis Aduriz at Mugaritz—presented a succession of conceptual re-imaginations, rustic refinements, and whimsical sublimations of Chilean ingredients. His Vaca: Short Ribs in Brown Sugar Loaf with Nettle “Moss” might have been straight out of El Bulli (except it was all Chile): a small clustering of tender, sweet, meaty short ribs off-center on a clean white plate, resembling coals or chunks of soil.

Grouper Cooked in Mud Oven with Bruja Potato Purée, Basil Chlorophyll, and Allium Flowers united Guzmán’s beloved “rustic and raw” cooking techniques with one of Chile’s ubiquitous varieties of potato, all finished with the kind of delicate naturalism we’ve seen in Australia. And the seared Kra Kra (a fish particular to Easter Island, one of Chile’s myriad piscatorial treasures) looked like a fillet of sunset, its flesh fading from ruby to soft peach. Sitting on a bed of brilliant purple Edible Sea Rocks, above apool of vibrant green Wild Herb Emulsion, the dish was a rainbow of color without being visually brash.

The Frio Glacial at Borago

The Frio Glacial at Borago

And that’s Guzmán’s strong suit—cultivating natural beauty through a modern lens without clichés of ornament or severity. And it showed through strongest in his desserts, which reminded us of Albert Adrià’s Natura (although Guzmán's creations actually predate Natura, which came out in 2009, by two years; "we're just following our natural evolution," says Guzmán). A Frio Glacial (Menthol Granité, Mint Ice Cream, Lemon Foam, and Eucalyptus Cookie) was a futuristic textural terrain of moon rock, meringue, and quartz-like crystal on a frosted white shelf. A dry nougat of maqui berry (a Mapuche staple) was vibrant purple on deep gray slate, looking ancient and rough-hewn; a central quenelle of Violet Flower Ice Cream was the sole time-warp indication of elegance and modernity.

 

Dish by Discovery

Seared Kra Kra (Fish from Easter Island) with Wild Herb Emulsion and Dehydrated Shamrock Soil at Borago

Seared Kra Kra (Fish from Easter Island) with Wild Herb Emulsion and Dehydrated Shamrock Soil at Borago

It’s no surprise Guzmán’s creativity plays so whimsically in nature. He has thousands of square miles of it to explore, and it’s still surprising him. He recently tried a copao fruit for the first time—“the most sour fruit I’ve ever tried in my life.” Mouth-puckering or no, these kinds of discoveries jazz Guzmán to the core. “There are so many mushrooms—32 kinds that exist only in Chile. There are thousands of kinds of fish that you can only find here,” like the rainbow bright Kra Kra. “We have more than 4,700 kilometers of coast. The sea life is amazing.”

For chefs importing product from all over the world, the fact that Guzman’s menu is strictly Chilean might seem like a surprise. But a closed pantry is at the heart of the Boragó philosophy. Each dish begins with product, discovered over the course of many trips. “In a year it could be 12 or maybe 20 trips,” he says, exhausted but excited (the unstoppable Guzmán is also a new dad). On a given trip, Guzmán will have discovered a new kind of mushroom, “something we found at 3,000 meters up in the mountains,” for instance, and he’ll develop a dish to showcase its properties. Even on a trip into the Atacama desert, “one of the driest in the world,” Guzmán could still find something. “In spring we get flowers from the desert. It’s an amazing phenomenon. We took those flowers and did a dessert, a ‘desert dessert of the North.’ It was such an amazing treat for someone that’s never been in Chile.”

If Chile and its seemingly bottomless pantry of ingredients is like a chef’s playground (albeit a really long playground), Guzmán is the giddy kid inviting us all in to share the inspiration. “We might come up with a technique that allows us to reflect the environment of Chile,” Guzmán says of dish development. “Or there might be a fantastic product and we’ll decide to do a very new dish.” Naturally, the humble chef inevitably avoids credit for his creativity. “That’s what we do at Boragó. We don’t cook. We allow the environment to cook for itself.”

 

Chile Challenges

Asparagus, Bell Pepper, and Potatoes Served in a Miniature Bucket with Smoking Embers of Tepu Wood and Rosemary at Borago

Asparagus, Bell Pepper, and Potatoes Served in a Miniature Bucket with Smoking Embers of Tepu Wood and Rosemary at Borago

Before a product ever meets the plate, Guzmán and his team have to source it, which, in a country as long as Chile, could very quickly exhaust even the most eagerly patriotic chef. “It’s not like the United States,” says Guzmán. “In New York, you can get things from Portland in a day. You can get things from all over.” Chilean chefs don’t have it so easy. “Over the last four years, it’s been a problem getting the product in the restaurant in the proper amount of time,” says Guzmán—more of a problem because the chef isn’t cooking “locally,” but emphatically and unapologetically, regionally, highlighting product from all over the country, up to thousands of miles away.

This might not make Guzmán the darling of the sustainability movement, but it does make him a Chilean culinary hero. And after four years full of exploratory trips to regions all over the country, discovering product and meeting farmers and purveyors, Guzmán’s just about got it down. “We did a great job,” he says. “We have everything. We have a relationship with our purveyors, a very, very close relationship.” Guzmán and his team still take trips around the country; “we travel all the time, to the island, to Patagonia, to the North, to the center, up to the mountains to find things,” but this is more to inform his continually evolving, consistently Chilean menu. “The cool thing about it,” he says (so far it’s clear that many, many things about Chilean product are cool to Guzmán), “is that we don’t even know everything that’s out there. It’s amazing.”

And that, beyond Guzmán’s time-warping imagination and earnest passion, is the real message of Boragó. “[Take] Europe,” he explains. “We all know what they have. They know all the mushrooms, fishes, meats, everything. It’s been there for ages. It’s not like that here. We don’t even know what we have up in the mountains. In the forest. Down in the sea,” he says. “That’s why I believe Chile has to be one of the main countries that are part of the culinary future of the world. It’s totally unknown. It’s something unexpected.”

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