People are really getting their shit together.” That’s Carolina Bazán’s efficient description of the restaurant landscape in Santiago, Chile, which has been evolving at super-charged speed over the last few years. The fine-dining restaurants in the capital have a new focus on long-neglected traditional ingredients, presented in uber-modern ways, and Bazán is one of the most visible personalities (and the only woman) behind the movement.
The 36-year-old chef certainly has her “stuff” together. In 2013, she refashioned her family’s restaurant, Ambrosía, from a downtown lunch spot with a clientele of harried business people into one of the city’s top spots for creative dining, putting her experience working in Paris at Gregory Marchand’s Frenchie in 2011 to good use. (She's also worked at restaurants in Brazil and Peru.) In the last few years she’s built it into one of the top dining destinations in Santiago, thanks to her concentration on developing a menu from the bounty of Chile’s fertile ground, diversity of climate, and thousands of miles of coastline. She’s publishing a cookbook and opening a second restaurant, both within the next four months. And to top it all off, she and her partner in business and love, the sommelier Rosario Onetto, had their first child last year.
It’s the inventiveness of Bazán’s approach that stands out during a meal at Ambrosía. She plays around with the excellent Chilean sea urchin, taking the classic salsa verde preparation and recreating it as grilled parsley and onion, then piling everything on a tart base that’s ever so slightly sweet. Succulent cangrejo dorado, a local species similar to king crab, becomes the star of a citrusy ceviche that’s made with orange, grapefruit, and a bit of fruity sorbet. “Some things are not so Chilean,” she points out, like the foie gras, which was inspired by David Chang’s famous dish of pine nut brittle and lychee topped with delicately shaved pieces of frozen liver. She and Onetto went to New York in May to check out the restaurant scene and, she says, “I went crazy with Momofuku!” At Ambrosía, she makes a gel out of a late-harvest wine and shaves the foie gras on top, adding lúcuma, a subtropical Peruvian fruit, for a bite of Andean flavor.
Ambrosía’s menu is full of the ingredients that local producers and foragers bring to her door, and it changes a little every day. Her colleagues—Rodolfo Guzmán at Boragó, Sergio Barroso at 040, Kurt Schmidt at 99—are likewise creating menus that highlight Chilean origins and locally foraged fare. “There’s a lot of camaraderie between us,” says Bazán. “Someone will say, ‘I have this guy who’s bringing mushrooms from the south, who wants some?’ A few years ago that wouldn’t have happened. With older generations there was more competition, but now everyone is sharing their suppliers.”
It's demanding the way she and her compatriots work, constantly developing and testing new ideas in accordance with whatever produce turns up that day. “Right now, there’s a tendency to go what I call anti-microwave," she says. "In the ’80s it was like, make it easy, and now it’s like, make it harder! Or maybe more simple—but with good ingredients.”
Her cookbook, due for publication at the end of October, reflects this. Part travelogue, part recipes from Ambrosía, it’ll tell the stories of travels she and Onetto have made in Chile over the last couple of years, visiting producers on the coast, talking with fishermen, finding out where the truffles are discovered, going to biodynamic wineries. The book’s designer is a skater, she warns, “so it’s not going to be the classic, homey-style cookbook. It’s going to be a little more out there, more urban.” Bazán is leaning toward the title A Cookbook Inspired by a Daft Punk Video; her publisher thinks it’s too outlandish.
The new restaurant, Ambrosía Bistro, will open in January and will be much smaller and more casual than Ambrosía, which, with a location in the upscale Vitacura neighborhood, draws mostly well-heeled families. It will be more like the intimate, experimental places she found on her New York trip, and located in trendy Providencia, where Bazán and her family now live. “We thought, let’s do something really small and well done. But soigné!” she adds, with a smile. “I think in a couple of years, you’re going to see a lot of small, interesting, independent restaurants in Chile. Not with tablecloths, a more relaxed style. ‘Bistronomy’,” she calls it, borrowing a word often used to describe Marchand’s cooking. “There’s a lot of excitement. We want to do something with our gastronomy.”