Rodolfo Guzmán | Modern mapuche man

05 Feb 2017
5 min read
Celebrating Chile’s native roots, Rodolfo Guzmán has put the Latin American country on the culinary map at his restaurant Boragó, writes Sophie Cater.

Central to Rodolfo Guzmán’s story are his native Chilean mapuche ancestors and like them he tells a tale of struggle and passion. Once an empty restaurant that was only just scraping by in the Vitacura district of Santiago, the last three years have witnessed a loudening hymn of acclaim for Rodolfo’s celebration of Chile’s mapuche culture at his restaurant, Boragó.

Rodolfo’s culinary story begins, like many, in his youth. It’s easy to imagine him as a young boy, blue-eyed and curly haired, foraging for ingredients. Growing up on a farm between the countryside and the sea, his family held home-grown and local produce close to their hearts. “I used to drink the warm milk out of the cows,” he says. His parents were very aware and knowledgeable about healthy foods and strict that no food should go to waste. “We couldn’t leave the table unless we had eaten everything so there was no food that we didn’t like. I learnt to eat everything.”

Now, not much has changed. Rodolfo forages up and down Chile’s varying and magnificent landscapes with his team, Conectáz, celebrating the ingredients his parents loved, cooking the dishes he was made to eat and discovering new native produce, all done with the utmost respect. Every day, he adds to his knowledge of products and ingredients, drawing his inspiration from the mapuche people and their culinary culture and techniques. “For many years in Chile, we thought that tradition should never be touched and that it should remain [unchanged] forever,” Rodolfo explains. “But I think knowledge is perfectly attachable to tradition in order to move it forward.” In the past nine years, Rodolfo and his Conectáz team have studied and learnt from the mapuche’s thousands of years of traditions, bringing them into the modern world with relevance and poignancy.

Walking into Boragó, guests are presented with a combination of natural light, rugged wooden tables, earthy tones and soft textures, keeping in line with the nature- and mapuche-inspired ethos and concept of the restaurant. It is a manifestation of Rodolfo’s passion for Chile and its terroir. On the far end of the dining room is the open-aired kitchen with just a glass pane offering the perfect window into the story behind the cuisine.

Behind Boragó are over 200 people that make up Conectáz, from foragers to producers from all over Chile. Working on the Endemica tasting menu, which was proposed when the restaurant first opened, Rodolfo and the team focus on displaying modern mapuche cuisine. Celebrating the endemic flavours of Chile’s landscape and following the same principles proposed by the mapuche, the team at Boragó brings culture, ingredients, cooking methods, landscape and knowledge together on a plate.

Chile’s endemic ingredients are at the heart of Rodolfo’s focus. “As the mapuche say, when you’re cooking, people are harvesting food from the ground.” Thanks to the country’s varying and extreme landscapes, weather and geography, its native ingredients are vast. Its has 4,270km of coastline that offers an abundance of fish, shellfish and seaweed (of which there are 700 kinds, Rodolfo enlightens), as well as the rich soils and mountains of Patagonia, the highest desert in the world, the Atacama Desert, the lake district, forests, glaciers; the list is endless. And while Conectáz works around the clock with an army of producers, many of Chile’s ingredients still remain undiscovered. By proposing and celebrating the country’s ingredients with a traditional mapuche spin, Rodolfo seems to have ignited an inextinguishable flame for discovery and learning; “knowledge is a tool that humans should be proud of,” he says.

The next step in Rodolfo’s proposal of a modern mapuche cuisine involves taking his knowledge to the kitchen. While his test kitchen, which is located above Boragó, has been tirelessly used for the past nine years, a new kitchen at the Universidad Católica–one of Chile’s top universities–has been opened. “We work on the dishes with biologists, botanist, oncologists, and anthropologists, using interesting tools and input,” he excitedly explains. Both kitchens work together to make for an efficient learning process and a dynamic menu in the restaurant. While the test kitchen has always been busy throughout Boragó’s nine-year life, the magnitude of recent success has demanded that those processes happen quicker and with more planning. “For six years, we were almost cooking for two people,” Rodolfo laughs. “Now it’s totally different; the restaurant is fully booked with a three month wait.” There’s a need for more staff, more covers, more dishes, more ingredients and more time. So, Rodolfo is developing the entire operation to include more planning and foresight for the menu.

The Endemica tasting menu encompasses the Rodolfo’s sweat, blood, tears and, most recently, indefatigable planning. “We don’t know what we’re doing in the future, but we have a sense,” he says. From December to the end of March, while Chile is more expressive with its produce, the team works together on research and development to develop ideas. “We prototype during these months [so] we are planning a lot and have an idea for what’s to come.” Using his biodynamic farm, which is a mere 30 minutes from the restaurant, the team grows and develops produce as they please and has pioneered two interesting ideas. Bringing wild plants that the mapuche ate for 3000 years to the farm, these ingredients can be cultivated and used in dishes throughout the year. Also, the team has been farming ingredients and using surprising techniques to make for never before seen products. For example, they have discovered a way of treating vegetables like cheese. “What does this mean?” Rodolfo asks. “We are melting the inside of the vegetable in order to get the most beautiful flavour and texture. It opens a huge window for intolerance, flavour and agriculture. We have already featured this on the tasting menu and the feedback has been incredible.” Rodolfo clearly has his eye on healthy cuisine–stemming from his parents’ interest in this–by carving a niche in Chile’s culinary scene. He explains that he has also developed a type of native yoghurt, called parajita or el kéfir that is very popular throughout Chile, which uses lentils, seeds and almonds instead of milk, opening that window for intolerances again. It’s a perfect example of how Rodolfo and his team look back to mapuche tradition to carve their niche in the future.

Having been working on the idea of bringing mapuche tradition into the modern world for nine years, the change for Rodolfo happened in 2012 thanks to recognition from the international media and his peers, notably acclaimed food journalist Andrea Petrini and chef Andoni Luis Aduriz from Mugaritz, where he did a brief but notable stage in his youth. “Since then everything has started to progress, but it’s still a very new experience to us.” Boragó was most recently voted 42nd best restaurant in the world, second best restaurant in Latin America and the best restaurant in Chile by the San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. and has a flood of guests. Rodolfo, being a modest yet passionate man, seems to be in a state of surprise and bewildered excitement. “I never ever expected this to happen. I was broken; I had no partners; I was very badly in debt with the banks. I am so grateful for the people who come to our restaurant. Chileans not only come to the restaurant for the food that they love and appreciate something that is totally new to them.” Chile’s produce and mapuche heritage has never been acknowledge and celebrated the way that Rodolfo does at Boragó. His aim and passion is simply to pass on the knowledge that Chile is a magnificent place, filled with rich and abundant culture and heritage. He really is a modern mapuche man.

Find out more about Rodolfo