Chilean Chef Rodolfo Guzman: Cooking On The Edge Of The World, Part 3

This is the third installment in a three-part interview with chef Rodolfo Guzman. You can find the first installment here and the second installment here.

The Daily Meal: 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?
Chef Rodolfo Guzman: 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 are 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. Boragó 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 Boragó now. In the months of June and July 80 percent of our guests were Chilean and this was the first year that this happened. Now in this season maybe 60 percent are international while 40 percent 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 too 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.

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 million 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.

This is the third installment in a three-part interview with chef Rodolfo Guzman. You can find the first installment here and the second installment here