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Colombian chef Alvaro Clavijo has had the opportunity to work in some of the best restaurants in the world – Per Se, L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon and Noma among them – great international experience for a young chef. He is now 32-years-old. “Going through all those restaurants and working with chefs like Matt Orlando helped me organise my way of seeing the food and my insight that an ingredient always carries a myriad of possibilities,” he says.
After 10 years living abroad and cookinging professionally in cities such as Paris, New York, and Copenhagen, he returned to Colombia and felt up to the task of opening his own restaurant. At that moment, Clavijo was hooked by the ingredients that were widely used in his country and that were new even for him – and as people do not usually serve them at their tables, his curiousity grew. He decided to work with these ingredients, which were not commercial or easy to find, and so the idea of the food that he serves in El Chato was born.
This decision was made only two weeks before opening the restaurant, he says. First of all, Clavijo wanted to serve "dishes from around the world, nothing really local," following his experience in international cuisines. But his curiosity about local ingredients encouraged him to follow a new possibility of work – and to restore his roots in his country.
One year ago El Chato was relocated to a new building that also reflected changes in his kitchen. Today, he serves well-dressed Colombian food with native ingredients such as balu (a tall and robust leguminous plan that generates a tasty bean and is grown in high altitudes), chontaduro (a species of native palm with an exotic fruit), and guineo (a kind of sun-dried banana), which he has just recently discovered and which he says have “incredible flavours.”
Mixing his international experience and his new discoveries of Colombian ingredients, he works to make El Chato "a benchmark in the city [of Bogotá]," and one of the best restaurants in Colombia, as he told FineDiningLovers in the interview that follows.
We have seen a growing movement, mainly in Latin America, of chefs looking for local, native products. How do you see this and how is your work focused on that?
What I see is that the restaurants that have been created in recent years have a local focus; use the most immediate, fresh and responsible ingredients you can use. Many chefs who have trained outside of their countries have returned and are connecting themselves with their childhoods, their land and what they have always eaten. In my case, when we created El Chato, the menu had no identity or focus yet. We had dishes from around the world, nothing really local. Two weeks before opening we decided to work only with local ingredients, which we were uncomfortable to work with by that time – we changed everything. And that has kept us motivated all this time. The 'discomfort' is important in our kitchen, even today.
Do you think that the search for these unique flavours is also a way of differentiation for chefs nowadays? Since everyone can work with truffle or caviar, for example, do you believe the very local ingredients are the current differential in gastronomy?
Yes, for sure. Colombia is a country that has been at war for 58 years, with a complicated road infrastructure and mountainous terrain. And this is a challenge that must be faced every day for cooks to be able to work mainly with local products. On the other hand, it is not easy to keep the same dishes on the menu because the products we use aren’t usually consumed in urban areas. But I believe it's my responsibility as a cook to work with products from my country and to make my people look with more attention to them.
What has changed in your vision about gastronomy after having returned to Colombia?
Going back to Colombia was difficult because my professional career and my studies were made abroad. When I returned I found many challenges, one of the biggest ones was [adapting] my learning to the taste of my Colombian guests. Today my kitchen is based on having a balance between what I learned and what I feel I want to be as a chef. The most fun experiences are only beginning...
What do you consider to be the traditional Colombian flavours and how does your research help you include these in your dishes?'?
I think that traditional recipes generate a great reflection on the handling of the product – that’s where all its story is. One must be humble enough to understand tradition so then you can innovate from it. I try to manage a balance between the two things and I also try to ensure that this balance is reflected in an exchange between the cook and the client.
How do you see the role of Latin America in gastronomy’s future?
Chefs [from Latin America] are working in the most recognised restaurants in the world and helping to reinvent kitchens in many places. With all that experience, it was logical that they wanted to return to their countries, motivated to apply what they helped build. In Latin America, from Mexico to Argentina, there are hordes of restaurants dying to be discovered, with very interesting proposals. I think in the years to come our continent is going to be food for thought.
What are your future plans? What do you still want to achieve with El Chato?
For now, it seems important for me to continue learning what we are doing here. As I said, we are in a fun stage at the restaurant, cooking what we like, learning every day. The team is motivated and so are the clients. This year we have had several recognitions from the guild and the journalists. We want El Chato to be a benchmark in the city, it is now the most important thing.