Chile’s neighboring country of Peru has long been known for the seemingly infinite variety of native ingredients, many of which have been adopted and adapted by other cultures as part of the Columbian Exchange, in which products from the Americas like tomatoes, potatoes, chiles, chocolate and more were exported to other parts of the world and products from elsewhere like pigs, cattle, beans, grapes and various fruits and vegetables were brought to the Americas. For whatever reasons, Chile has largely avoided a reputation as a producer of endemic products and its economy has thrived as a producer of products primarily from the European tradition including some that originally came from the Americas. Indeed, my trip to Chile was sponsored in part by ProChile, an organization set up to promote Chilean agricultural exports and the vast majority of the food that we ate during the trip came from that tradition. My dinner at Boragó was not part of that trip. The truth is that with Chile’s extended length over a wide variety of climes, a coastline listed as fifth longest in the world and a width of only 265 miles at its widest point that incorporates the western Andes and the coastal mountain ranges, it can’t help but have incredible biodiversity, only a fraction of which is currently taken advantage of. I first got wind of this relatively dormant culinary cornucopia at the 2011 StarChefs ICC during the fascinating presentation of Rodolfo Guzman, the former professional competitive water skier turned world class chef, who elaborated on his vision of Chilean cuisine to utilize this untapped wealth. I was hooked and needed to experience Boragó and Chile for myself.
Guzman is not a johnny-come-lately to the idea of expressing himself through foraging for native plants and utilizing the heretofore previously hidden resources of his country. He first opened Boragó six years ago and has been utilizing this approach towards indigenous products since the restaurant first opened. In this way, he is a a confederate of the more well known Rene Redzepi and noma, which spearheaded a similar approach in Scandinavia. Both emphasize a sense of time and place in their cooking. While some of the products and the approaches Guzman and Redzepi use are similar, clearly many are not, as the geographical locations of the two restaurants are literally half a world apart. Another difference is that Guzman is not strictly wedded to utilizing endemic products only in his food, even if the majority of his ingredients are.
Guzman obtained his initial knowledge of native ingredients from consulting with the Mapuche indigenous peoples who still inhabit much of Chile, especially in the southern half of the country. From them he learned to identify and use many endemic species not typically encountered in modern Chilean cuisine, but were known and used by the Mapuche. At Boragó, they are well organized in knowing what will be in season when over various parts of Chile and they are not afraid to make special trips to get what they want.
I arrived with my friend, attorney, photographer and culinary writer, Bonjwing Lee, who had been in Chile a couple days before I arrived and had already eaten at Boragó. We were seated at a two-top table in a sparely decorated dining room of whites, creams and glass without extraneous decoration save for a few dark rocks as centerpieces on the tables. The focus would be on the food and beverages that would come our way.
Guzman is clearly situated in the culinary movement of “New Naturalism.” Much like Redzepi, Desramaults and others of that school, he relies on stones,natural wood and other accents from nature to present his food. This was immediately apparent with the bevy of snacks that arrived shortly after we were seated.
The snacks were delivered by the young Mexican sous, Sergio Meza, who has spent time working at noma and In de Wulf amongst other noteworthy restaurants before coming to work at Boragó. Cooking since he was just 14 years old and now still only 22, his is a name to watch. Tommy de Olarte, a young Peruvian born sous in the Boragó kitchen is another name to watch for.
The main difference between Guzman and his New Naturalist colleagues is the product itself. One main component of New Naturalism that I like very much is that the product is primarily dependent on the local and regional environments, which provide a distinct sense of place as opposed to a pure international style, which can be found almost anywhere in the world today. Though styles and some dishes may be similar, a “New Naturalist” restaurant will be different in Chile, Brazil, Providence, R.I., San Sebastian, Dranouter or Copenhagen. Though getting ever smaller, the world is still a large place that contains regional uniqueness. It is this focus on regional individuality that explains to me the current popularity and growth of this approach to food.
Peru is not the only country to make and claim Pisco as its own. Chile does too. I started my meal at boragó with a Pisco Sour that also incorporated mura, a Chilean wild blackberry from the south of the country. It was refreshing and delicious, a lovely way to be welcomed back to South America.
Carrots and other root vegetables are staples in the New Naturalist kitchen seemingly regardless of locality. This was a base of fire-roasted carrot with some of the char left on covered with grated carrot with lime zest and a coriander jus. The lime and coriander is what gave this dish a greater sense of place as well as flavor.
Another seemingly ubiquitous component of a contemporary New Naturalist meal is house made charcuterie. In this case, Meza cured some pork belly and did a fine job with it. With the nod to the movement present and accounted for, Guzman was free to add more personalized elements to the meal and to explore his own interpretation of New Naturalism a la Chile.
Crisps are common elements of New Naturalist cooking, but I had never before encountered them prepared from a Chilean abalone-like mollusk called locos. These were very well made and tasty, dusted with umami-laden bullwhip kelp powder.
It is easy to dismiss this dish of stuffed potatoes as being “global”, but one must remember that potatoes come from the Andes and remain a staple there. With fresh local cheese and other more familiar accents, this was a delightful, albeit un-exotic bite. Un-photographed by me (somehow I missed photographing it amongst all these bites) but quite delicious were white wine compressed melon cubes with toasted flour on top.
These were tasty, earthy bites that began to demonstrate what makes Boragó unique as a restaurant. Trigo mote is a special Chilean lye-processed wheatberry. In other parts of the Andes, mote is made with corn in a process similar to mixtamalization in Mexico.
This snack utilized the Mapuche technique of rescoldo or charring with live embers. Traditional in Chile, it is an unleavened bread that is cooked on live coals. Here, the bread was baked crisp in a more conventional way with burnt elements added to it for flavor.Freshly baked and based on a traditional Chilean bread service, we were served a soft roll with pebre, a Chilean pico de gallo. The bread was excellent as was the chunky pebre, which had been thickened with toasted flour and covered with spiced bread crumbs to resemble potted soil.
There is a saying in Chile when seeking the impossible, to ask for “a berlin of paté” or a cream puff of paté. For whatever reason, that is considered something just not possible and is used in a similar fashion as we use “when pigs fly.” Here, Guzman and his crew have achieved the previously impossible. They utilized an 8x proofed choux and filled it with a paté of lamb sweetbreads – very nice indeed!
It’s hard to believe that Chileans don’t eat more seafood than they do. They have access to incredible product unlike anywhere else in the world. Even products otherwise available elsewhere are different when they come from Chile’s glacially cold waters. The sea urchins are huge, sweet, briny and delicious. This dish incorporated many of the elements of the coastal foraging trip that we had just returned from including the samphire, sea parsley, oxalis and wild radishes all served on a frozen rock to emulate the cold rocks we had just foraged amongst. A brand new dish, it was a great concept based on erizos con salsa verde that needed a few tweeks. The stone should have been merely cold rather than deeply frozen as some of the dish froze to it and was difficult to scrape off. Despite that small nuisance, it was a wonderful introduction to our “endemica” tasting menu, especially since we had actually partaken in retrieving some of what was on the stone.
Continuing our nautical start, Guzman served us a broth made from the roots of ulte, a seaweed endemic to the Chilean coast as well as New Zealand. Also called Cuchayuyo, it is a bullwhip kelp. The solid elements were from the stalk of the ulte, which Guzman referred to as “mutants.” He instructed us to eat the stalks first with our hands, then to drink the broth from the bowl. Reminiscent of a Japanese miso soup, the broth was umami-rich and delicious. This was a dish that was both familiar yet exotic and all the richer for that apparent contradiction. The bowl itself was traditional Chilean craft. It was a perfect vessel for this unique, vibrant elixir. Dishes as unique, interesting and delicious as this one was are quite rare elsewhere, but not at Boragó..
This Sauvignon Blanc from Leyda was a great match for the ulte. It was crisp and herbaceous as Sauvignon Blancs are supposed to be and had great depth and complexity too. This was the first of many Sauvignon Blancs I would have during my week plus in Chile. They were routinely excellent, but this one remained amongst the most memorable with this pairing.
Similar to abalone, but technically not abalone, locos are a kind of sea snail that occurs only here and are more tender than their similarly shelled cousins. This dish was a version of a dish popular in Chile called “Locos mayo” or literally locos with mayonnaise. With citric accents this reminded me of a citric tuna salad of canned white tuna, which is the closest taste and texture I could approximate the locos to. This association actually gave this exotic (to me) ingredient the feeling of being a comfort food.
Curanto is a traditional preparation from the south of Chile and involves burying layers of food including shellfish, meat, chorizo, potatoes, vegetables and other ingredients cooked under ground on a layer of hot rocks and covered with nalca leaves to keep the smoke inside. This is usually done during a minga, a traditional party held when houses are literally moved from one location to another. At Boragó they used Patagonian rain water to create a stock incorporating all the flavors of the curanto serving a traditional potato bread or milcao on the side nestled amongst the branches.
This was another uniquely delicious dish. We would take a spoonful of the broth then a bite of the milcao. I had never experienced anything quite like this before. My only complaint was that I could have used a few more milcaos for this delightful dish.
Conger Eel is a large eel-like fish common in the waters off the coast of Chile. White fleshed, it happens to be delicious, especially in a preparation such as this, which was straightforward delicious. The texture of the eel was soft and pillowy. The flowers left a bit of an oniony after-taste, which lingered just enough without becoming too much.
This Carmenere from the Colchagua Valley was a great match for the conger eel. Despite being New World wines, these were not cookie cutter wines. Each one had personality and distinction.
Corvina is another white fleshed fish, but the flesh is firmer than Conger Eel. This was a totally different preparation marinated raw in a parsley vinaigrette then seared on the plancha and served with acidic sorrel and spicy cress taken from a mountain near a ski area in the Andes. Beet juice was mixed with some of the juices from the fish to provide a sweet counterpunch to the herbs.Chile doesn’t get much credit for their Pinot Noirs, but it should. This and others I tried during my trip were delicious. This Pinot was served slightly chilled. This was an egg with liquid yolk covered with charcoal ashes and a moss purée.
When the dish was presented the ashes were simply labeled as charcoal ashes, but it was never stated what the original source was. They certainly didn’t taste like true charcoal ashes as these had a pleasant flavor.
I had many excellent wines and wine varietals during my trip to Chile, but never found a sparkler that could compete with those from other parts of the world. This one, from Argentina, was a bit one-dimensional and lacked finesse.
Until this course, the meal had been focused almost entirely around endemic products and/or traditional Chilean preparations. Here, though, Guzman threw a bit of a curve ball, or more properly for soccer-playing Chile, bent his volley to curve past the keeper into the net. Though he did include oxalis carnosas, a native Chilean oxalis and murtilla, a wild fruit that only grows for a very short time (which time it happened to be) in Patagonia, the main component of the dish was ostrich, a non-native bird. In Spanish the dish is “Huevos”, the literal translation of which is “eggs”, however, the word can have two meanings, the other being testicles. This dish of “huevos” was actually centered around ostrich testicles served as a tartare mixed in with the fruit. The tartare itself had a texture different than a typical tartare. This was a bit moister and spongier like a bread pudding. The funny thing here, is that neither Bonjwing nor I caught the direct reference to the ingredient that was actually mentioned during the presentation. This would have saved us the consternation of wondering what the dish actually was. I’m not sure if I would have liked the dish more or less had I actually caught the reference initially. As it was, I liked the dish just fine.
Carignan is a major wine grape in Chile and this one from 60 year old or older vines was a fine example of why. It was rich with good acidity and plenty of tasty fruit. It made a fine match for the ostrich.
In some respects this next dish was like the ostrich dish before it. The main protein was not endemic to Chile or even the Americas, but the rest of the dish couldn’t have been more so. I am not sure that I have ever seen or tasted a dish that was more about trees and endemic forests than this one from Rodolfo Guzman. The beef was really in a supporting role here, literally and figuratively as it was used to carry the flavors of the woods from throughout Chile.
Guzman used wood or products from four different trees in this dish. The seeds in the photo above were edible as they were and also used for the complex, mole-like glaze on the beef. These were from the Espino tree (Acacia Caven), which according to Wikipedia is just an ornamental tree. According to Rodolfo Guzman, however, the Mapuche have been toasting and eating Espino seeds for over 2000 years. The toasting gives the seeds an aroma like coffee. The Mapuche call these tannin-laden seed pods Quirinca. The beef was cooked over both Espino wood as well as wood from the Tepu tree of southern Chile. Additional elements in this dish came from the Quillay tree and the Ulmo tree. This dish made no sense intuitively, but somehow Guzman pulled it off and made the wood enhanced beef work. Sure, wood has been a flavor enhancer via smoke for as long as humans have used fire, but I had never before actually eaten woody elements as I had here. The only thing on the plate that wasn’t actually edible was the branch itself. I’m still not sure that I understand this dish or how Chef Guzman did it, but I’m glad I had it! It was a very complex dish that really grew on me as I ate it. It will likely continue to haunt me for some time.
This Cab was made in an oaky International style. Though I didn’t particularly care for it on its own (it is like many other wines made in this style), it worked well with the woodsy elements of the course it was served with. The dish practically begged for a wine like this.
Rica rica is a bush that grows around San Pedro de Atacama in northern Chile in the Atacama Desert. It has a minty, menthol flavor with a touch of anise and worked perfectly as a palate cleanser. It was made into a meringue and then the dried and the dust of a blitzed whole tree was shaken on top along with some gelled cubes of Araucano bitter herbal liqeuer.
We were not given any utensils of any kind for this dish and were instructed to lick it off the plate in one bite. I’m not sure I can remember the last time I licked a plate in a restaurant! This was both very tasty and much, much fun.
The maqui berry is endemic to Chile and likely the next superfood as it supposedly has even more anti-oxidants than acai. It has had medicinal uses amongst the Mapuche for centuries. The best part, though, is that it is delicious! With a flavor similar to blackberries, Guzman mixed it with fresh kaffir-like yogurt and minty leaves that had been passed through a violet vinaigrette and salt for an unusual and refreshing treat.
The chupon is a claw-like fruit that has to be one of the oddest fruits that I have ever eaten. Eating it is actually very similar to eating a crab claw as one holds the “pincer” end and sucks and scrapes the “meat” off the opposite end with one’s mouth. It is called a “chupon” because it is eaten like a lollipop. These had been slightly fermented. The fruit has a bit of a tutti-fruity tropical flavor, which is quite pleasant. Here it was served with milk ice cream and Patagonian glacial” snow” along with some other strange Patagonian berries.This is a better picture of the chupones that I took at the end of my trip, also at Boragó. Another analogy to eating a chupon is eating an artichoke leaf. In the photo above, Chef Rodolfo Guzman demonstrates the technique.
Peumo is the fruit of the Cryptocarya Alba tree. This dessert was meant to evoke the coming Chilean winter setting a scene of a fallen branch laden with the drying fruit. These branches were harvested during the summer and the berries and leaves were treated in various ways. Everything was edible, but the branch itself. The leaves on the plate had been pickled. The brown crumble underneath was a mixture of pulverized peumo and white chocolate. As with so many of the dishes this night, we were left searching our collective memories for comparisons and a frame of reference. In this dish the flavor resembled dulce de leche, but like many of the associated flavors of the evening, not exactly.Espino had shown up earlier in the meal during the Endemic woods dish. Here it had been roasted to obtain its coffee-like flavor and infused into a chocolate ganache and made into a dish in honor of Michel Bras, a clear influence of Chef Guzman. The coulant was frozen on the outside and lukewarm inside. This had fun textures and great mocha-like flavors. This beer, a pale ale, from the Elqui Valley, was an unusual, but effective pairing for the coulant, bringing out some of the bitter flavors for better balance.
A stated objective for the final dessert called “Frozen Glaciers” was to emulate the glacial cold of Patagonia to give a sense of time and place, but the real main objective was just to have fun. Nice, light and cold, this consisted of a lemon/condensed milk foam with chocolate crumble, water, mint and a menthol meringue all deep frozen with liquid nitrogen. Extremely time sensitive, it was eaten quickly in one bite, leading to an elBulli moment of surprise, laughter and pleasure and no photo of the actual dish.
Our final bites of the evening were mignardises that included cacao powder coated Chilean style alfajores made with cheese instead of manjar or dulce de leche and calugas, a crunchy toffee like bite that tasted a bit like mince-meat.Additional petits fours included Negritos, which are chocolate cookies and chocolate covered strawberry marshmallows.
I came to Chile because I had become mesmerized by Rodolfo Guzman’s fascinating presentations at both the StarChefs and Mesamerica chef’s congresses he spoke at. He displayed a passion for ingredients most of which I had never even imagined let alone tasted. Prior to these talks Chile had not been a place that had caught my attention as a possible food destination. But with Rodolfo Guzman, I became aware of its huge potential. Given its geographic situation, this really should have not been a surprise. The surprise, in retrospect is that the country isn’t more well known as a gastronomic entity. To a significant extent it is because it is a relatively conservative country when it comes to food. Chile has more fully embraced its European heritages than its native ones when it comes to utilizing ingredients on a daily basis. The country, never having had a significant culture of slavery nor the massive immigrations from Asia that some of its neighbors have had, also never became a huge melting pot. That is not to say that Chile’s gastronomy is not good or not interesting. It is on both counts, but as Rodolfo Guzman is showing and others are beginning to show, it can be even better and even more interesting than it is. It has the potential to be something truly special and unique. Boragó is a clear example of this as interesting and wonderful as its is. With Chile’s wealth of endemic species in the sea and on land, the ancient culinary roots of the Mapuche is being reborn in new and exciting ways and mixing with its contemporary culinary culture and global influences to be worthy of attracting discriminating diners from all over.