Chef Rodolfo Guzman rediscovers his roots


Special To The Japan Times

On a cloudless afternoon a little over a year ago, chef Rodolfo Guzman contemplated a plant he had discovered while wandering up to the Salar de Tara salt flats, which lie 4,860 meters above sea level, in the middle of northern Chile’s Atacama Desert.

“I wonder if you can eat this,” he said, rubbing the leaves between his fingers. The twig resembled rica-rica, a fragrant herb that thrives in the arid Atacama. It has been used for centuries by the indigenous Mapuche tribes to treat everything from indigestion to heart problems. The day before, Guzman had gathered bushels of rica-rica to make ice cream at his internationally acclaimed restaurant, Borago, located about 1,000 kilometers away in Santiago.

He clipped a sample of the unidentified plant to take back with him to the restaurant and planned to send the specimen to a university lab for analysis. If deemed edible, he would research how to cook with it, and one day it could end up on Borago’s constantly evolving menu.

In a country where the food culture has been largely defined by colonial influences, Borago is an anomaly. When Guzman opened the restaurant in 2007, he created a tasting menu based entirely on the ingredients and ancient cooking methods used by the Mapuche, transformed by modernist techniques. The move was nothing short of revolutionary.

“Now for the first time, we are looking at what we have inside Chile, at the foods the Mapuche have been eating for a thousand years,” he tells The Japan Times. “By looking back, we can move forward.”

Guzman’s cuisine showcases Chile’s staggering diversity of wild flora and fauna. The chef works with roughly 200 purveyors to provide the restaurant with foraged delicacies from all over the country: kra-kra fish from Easter Island, seeds that grow on the monkey puzzle trees in the central valley, and flowers from the Atacama Desert. Over the years, Guzman and his team have been building a network of foraging communities and helping to connect these suppliers with other restaurants. The aim is to make the products more widely available while sustaining the communities that gather them.

“We think of the restaurant as a support,” he tells me. A few years ago, the restaurant partnered with a university in Santiago to make a survey of all of the edible plants and native recipes in Chile — no easy task in a country with more than 4,700 kilometers of coastline and altitudes that exceed 6,000 meters. The data is being compiled into a multivolume encyclopedia of Chilean cuisine called “Endemica.” Each installment will focus on a set of ingredients and give detailed information on where they grow and how to cook with them. As an offshoot of the project, Guzman has been working with scientists to domesticate some of the wild plants he has discovered.

Guzman and his chefs make up to 20 trips a year, traversing Chile’s variegated terrain in search of new products. “One day we may be on the central coast foraging for seaweed, and the next day we may find ourselves on a mountain in Patagonia,” he says.

The first time I met Guzman he took me foraging on the rocky coast of Isla Negra, about an hour north of Santiago. The shore teemed with beach asparagus, a kind of sea vegetable, and pale green strawberries — which tasted like ripe strawberries laced with a salty tang — sprouted from the black rocks beneath our feet. Sprawled on a rock like a sea lion was a variety of black kelp called cochayuyo, a traditional Chilean cooking staple that Guzman uses to make an umami-rich broth. At Borago, he serves it with ash-crusted conger eel, in an all-black dish that evokes the stark landscape of Isla Negra. The flavor of the broth is complex and intense — reminiscent of soy sauce, but with an elusive animal note that still haunts me.

The seed of Guzman’s vision for a Chilean food revolution began germinating more than a decade ago, during a stint under chef Andoni Luis Aduriz at the renowned restaurant Mugaritz, in Spain.

“That was a breakthrough for me,” he recalls. “In Chile, the things that were perceived as good were coming from outside of the country. Foraging with Andoni taught me to dig deeper into my own heritage and use what we have here.”

He returned from Spain determined to open a restaurant “that could only exist in Chile,” but the first few years were a struggle. Local diners expected truffles and foie gras, and failed to appreciate the wild radishes in season for only three weeks, or the mushrooms foraged at an altitude of 3,000 meters. Borago came close to shuttering in 2011.

Guzman’s luck changed in 2012, when the international press began to take notice of his unique approach. Last year, Borago became the first Chilean restaurant to make it onto San Pellegrino’s list of the world’s best restaurants. These days, tables are booked months in advance, and young chefs from around the globe travel to apprentice in the kitchen.

“We know that we can show people something they’ve never seen before,” Guzman says.

From Feb. 28 until March 1, diners in Tokyo will have the opportunity to sample Guzman’s cuisine at Bulgari Il Ristorante Luca Fantin in the capital’s Ginza district. The collaboration will be the first in the restaurant’s new Epicurea series, which will feature four celebrated chefs from different regions. Last year, the restaurant welcomed seven Michelin-starred chefs from Italy. The focus this year, says executive chef Luca Fantin, is on pioneers of contemporary cooking who are reinterpreting the cuisine of their respective countries. The 2016 Epicurea lineup includes Mugaritz’s Andoni Luis Aduriz in April; Dan Hunter, of Australia’s Brae, in July; and Massimo Bottura, from Italy’s Osteria Francescana, in September.

In Tokyo, Guzman will be presenting recipes that reference his signatures at Borago, but with a twist.

“A few dishes will be based on Japanese produce, adapting local ingredients from a Chilean perspective,” he says. The concept is hard to imagine, but one thing is certain: The food will be unlike anything you’ve ever experienced.

Bulgari Il Ristorante Luca Fantin is located on the ninth floor of Bulgari Ginza Tower at 2-7-12 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo; 03-6362-0555; nearest stations, Ginza and Ginza Itchome; open 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 6-9:30 p.m. (no dinner on Sundays). For more information, visit Follow Rodolfo Guzman on Twitter and Instagram at @RGBorago.