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Finding Food in One of The Driest Places on The Planet

Finding Food in One of The Driest Places on The Planet

Slurping rocks, sniffing shrooms and chewing the desert. Join Rodolfo Guzman as he embarks on a mission to one of the driest places on Earth.

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It was back in 2011 when Rodolfo Guzman culinary curiosity got him in trouble. He was hunting for ingredients in the forest, scouring the floor for fresh fungi, when he was struck with pain. “My nose had this crazy reaction, man, it went huge and filled up my entire face” - he puffs his cheeks and mimics inflated nostrils. It was an allergic reaction to the spores he'd just inhaled, and instead of the wonderful woody aroma he was expecting, he was hit with a stinging pain. “The guys were really worried about me but it was totally my fault, it was scary but I should have known. You don’t fuck with mushrooms, man.”

I’m questioning the Chilean chef about his food reactions because for the fifth time in about two hours I’ve just witnessed him ask a perplexed driver to stop the bus,  jump out of a half open door and devour something from the side of the road: a plant, cactus, herb – nothing, it seems, is off limits.

We’re cruising through the Atacama desert in Chile. It’s remote, rugged, red and deadly dry – NASA test new vehicles heading for space on this very soil and it’s officially one of the most arid places on the planet – if Area53 is ever needed they should build it here. It’s said to be one of the closest terrains on Earth to resemble that of Mars and in some parts it hasn’t rained for over 400 years, at least if you believe what the locals say, which I’m inclined to do, because they know their land and because I also checked. Four centuries of dry.

Stocky shrubs flick past the bus window as we drive, they’re everywhere, little patches of pale perseverance forcing their way through the desert’s cracked floor. Most plants don’t have the energy to grow so tall here: too dry. Pale green, yellow and sunburned red are the preferred colours of choice, they can’t muster much more: not enough water. The entire place looks a little faded, as if the dusty dryness and lack of rain has somehow sucked away some of the landscape’s colour. 

After hearing all this you wouldn’t think it’s the sort of location to go looking for new ingredients, but this in itself says a lot about the the 38-year-old chef who opened his own restaurant back in 2006 with a dedicated, some might say stubborn, mission to cook endemic Chilean ingredients in a country that wanted to eat anything but Chilean food. “People here prefer to eat more European or American style, over local,” he says.

The desert we’re in is one of four locations Guzman scouts regularly to find new flavours for the menu at his Boragó restaurant in Santiago – the coast, mountains and the city are the other three. “We’ve found some amazing things in the city,” he smiles, “huge mushrooms that grow in the trees.”

We’re on a regular visit to a part of Chile that has provided his self styled pantry with all manner of sour and bitter flavours. He comes here with Veronica Poblete, a guide both spiritually and botanically and Patricia Perez, a local woman who has introduced Guzman to the area, the culture, cuisine, customs and its people. Perez now forages exclusively for Boragó, which sits second on Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants list, a room in her small home dedicated to bagging and jaring the tastes of her childhood. She hands out to me, she wants to know I've tasted her work. 

Many of the ingredients Guzman tastes look like they don’t want to be eaten – the Emos of the plant world. The last of these is desert tomato: a dark purple, hairy little sucker with a harsh hit. But instead of savouring the flavour and commenting – “Mmm! Wow! Delicious!” – as with previous bites, Guzman immediately spits out what he's eating and hacks up the chewed remains. A small glob of purple dotted with yellow seeds slaps on the cracked floor at my foot.

After witnessing his careless tomato tasting, Poblete is not impressed, “you should be really careful with the Solanaceae family,” she says, “tomatoes can be very poisonous.” She has years of experience working with indigenous ingredients, her own extensive garden at a local hotel to help conserve and study plants, a botanical degree and, perhaps more importantly, the patience to channel Guzman’s desire for discovery.

After doing this type of foraging for more than 10 years, Guzman knows damn well those tomatoes are on the risky side of the “just-eat-and-see” scale, but it’s as if he needs to know the taste there and then. To link that first flavour and the little puff of memory it creates to the exact location. “Desert tomato,” he beams, spitting the last of the seeds as he climbs back into the van, “how cool is that?”

Playing at Home 

Back at his Boragó restaurant in Santiago – perhaps the city’s best restaurant, certainly its most creative – Guzman sits down to explain the process of what actually happens to the ingredients he finds on these missions. We’re in the lab above the restaurant, a well packed room with walls covered in blackboard. Chalked recipes, reminders and drawings are scratched on every inch, no silly doodles or messages, just work: calendars, to-do lists, and charts showing where certain ingredients sit in their process of being transformed into something the restaurant will eventually, after lots of testing, add to their growing arsenal of ingredients. "We never really paid attention to our food windows, our food is about these short micro windows," he says, "What we’ve got here is so diverse, but we have to learn to appreciate it more. “

One rudimentary sketch shows the process of a molecular disassembler – in basic terms a fungus that can break down and digest wood, it’s one of Guzman’s most crazy new avenues of research, “we’re going to serve wood, man, actual wood," and he's not joking. He's developed a process that uses wood eating mushrooms to break down lignin in trees (a polymer that makes up the cell walls of bark) - "The mushroom eats the lignin inside the wood." This drys out the wood and breaks down its usual density, the wood is then added to a stock – "we can use any stock we want: fish, meat, vegetable, we just take the wood with the mushroom and cook it slowly. This one is still in the final stages, but it's delicious." 

 

It would normally shock to hear a chef say they’re going to serve wood, but not if you sat down 12 hours earlier and devoured a bowl of rocks as part of their tasting menu. A menu of 18-courses that stretches the length, breadth, height and depth of Chile – a unique ecosystem of flavour that pushes even the most discerning diner into parts unknown. “The rock dish is all about the halophytes,” says Guzman, speaking about plants and seaweeds that grow on rocks, they are one of the most delicious things ever, the transition between the ocean and the land, they live on rocks and some of them are quite thick to bite." 

For the first time customer, ‘Rocks’ is a bowl of deepness like no other. In the middle of a very heavy, stone-carved bowl sits a black broth, in the middle of this sits an even blacker, perfectly round rock and to the side of this two, much shinier, smaller rocks. The waiter smiles, leaves a spoon and walks away, while those working in the open kitchen sneak glances at perplexed diners clinging desperately to the last remnants of their comfort zone. The new tastes start to arrive right about now, the broth itself is earthy, yet light and thin on the tongue, a whole new flavour comes from the root of cochayuyo (a popular seaweed eaten in Chile). "No one uses the root," says Guzman, "it looks like a rock and you find it attached to other rocks. We discovered that using this root reminds us of the flavour of soy sauce, but there’s no fermentation at all."

It’s not until a few slurps into the root's rich umami broth that diners become a little more adventurous, examining the smaller rocks sat inside their bowl and eating the mix of herbs around them with curious observation. The sound of metal striking rock clinks around the table. Eventually they’re ready to tackle the big one, the black round rock in the centre of their bowl. A touch of the spoon and it quickly becomes apparent that this ball of cracked blackness is not for show, it’s for eating. Diners peering in at this are right on the edge of Chile’s wet coastline, a faint static fuzz of water, the feeling of bare feet on slippy moss, the slight fear of balancing on an edge. Do they jump into the unknown, close their eyes and let the flavour hit them as hard as the blackest water? Or do they play it safe, back off and observe from the boundaries? Almost all the dishes on the menu call for these blind leaps and it's refreshing. 

The black pureee is a mix of halophytes, chilean beans and different seaweeds - this is double then cooked in the oven on top of a hot rock. 

As we continue to talk in the lab I note things on the walls – they’re covered in the crew’s ongoing research, the food equivalent of A Beautiful Mind. In one corner, plastic containers sit stacked on shelves, each meticulously labelled: sea carrots at three months – no salt. Dried rica rica – four days old. Fermented, hydrated, crushed and freeze dried – every ingredient undergoes rigorous testing -  sliced, disected, examined and understood, every one given a fair chance of showing their true potential. There are packs and packs of vacuum sealed berries, nuts, seeds and plants either undergoing research or being prepared for the kitchen – and they're everywhere. 

The outcome of all this research is evident from the first to the last plate at Boragó. Herbs tasted at the side of the road in the dryness of the desert take on a new life back in Santiago, redefined as salty, sour and bitter hits. Aromatic flowers bagged, sealed and sent direct from Perez become the brittle and beautiful exterior for a dessert. Mushrooms whose spores make your noise violently swell to twice the size? He might have even found a place for them. 

Eating at Guzman’s restaurant is actually a little scary at first, it’s just so new, almost every bite results in fresh associations being made in the brain as you frantically try to make sense of what you're eating. Even fire roasted lamb, perhaps the most familiar course on the entire menu, is served alongside three brittle leaves, each dotted with sweet, sour and salty bursts provided by a mix of wild berries: some pickled, some fermented, some umeboshi (a Japanese technique of leaving unripe fruit, usually plums, in salt. This pulls the liquid out of the fruit and leaves a salty, sour product that is a commonly served alongside rice). Guzman likes to apply umeboshi to any type of fruit, nut or berry he finds, just in case the results turn out to be delicious. Anything with an exterior too tough to bite makes it on to the umeboshi list: "We ferment things for up to six months using this technique – you get these amazing flavours, almost floral thanks to the fermentation. We have been into this for ages – if we have any problems with our food because the cold comes in too early and it’s unripe we umeboshi it."

I wonder to myself if food so new, so different, so contemporary, should perhaps come with its own cutlery? Some sort of crazy fork specifically designed for eating leaves without breaking them, however, that’s obviously a crazy idea. It would just distract from the connection made between diner and food – a link kept strong by the fact that most courses invite guests to eat with their hands.

Balance is constant throughout the menu, it’s just achieved in uncommon ways. Where many use sugar to sweeten a dessert, Guzman opts for a sticky extract of wild Chilean flowers that his grandma used to prepare – "you cook the flowers slowly for about 34 hours". While acid might be be added in most kitchens with a quick dash of vinegar, he prefers to use the juice of an endemic fruit. And where most chefs scoop for butter to fatten flavour, Guzman prefers the fresh milk of Cow – yes, that’s her name – the restaurant’s milk giver. 

The urge to be 100% Chilean in his offering leads Guzman to try, taste, trash, try and taste again. The desert tomato may have been poisonous, it certainly didn’t taste good on first bite, but it doesn’t mean it won’t be analysed, sent to the local university for toxicology testing, processed a hundred different ways, and eventually deemed safe, worthy and if he’s lucky, maybe even delicious.

10 years. That’s how long Guzman and his crew have been developing their culinary language. An ongoing jigsaw, the corner and edges filled but the middle pieces still missing. “We still have so much to learn, so much to discover and to understand,” he says. And it’s this type of mindset that will see the chef strive on in his search for more and more delicious discovery, stepping yet again off the comfort of his own wet rock in search of flavours most people will never even taste. 

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