How This Young, Fearlessly Out Chef Became the Star of Chilean Cuisine
“A peacock is most beautiful when he opens his feathers and shows himself,” Chilean chef Carolina Bazán says, referring to the feathers inked on her arm that metamorphose toward her wrist into a cascade of purple and green octagons. Indeed, Bazán, the 36-year old chef who is making waves in the Latin American culinary sphere—she’s one of only five female chefs to make San Pellegrino’s list of 50 Best Restaurants in Latin America—carries this ethos of no-holds-barred openness from her life into the kitchen.
Once a diplomat’s child helping her mother entertain guests, Bazán has been at the helm of professional kitchens since the age of 23, but her latest venture, Ambrosia Bistro, was scarcely two weeks old when I visited. The efficiency with which everything ran belied the youth of the business. Her dreadlocks piled into a high, messy bun, she paces around the open kitchen in intricate choreography with her cooks, an eclectic soundtrack pumping through the speakers. At 6:30 p.m., she’s easily been in the kitchen for eight hours. The new bistro, a spin-off from the more formal family-owned restaurant, Ambrosia, serves food from 12:30 p.m. into the wee hours of the morning. She showed no signs of exhaustion.
“It is difficult to be young and have such a compromising schedule,” she says. “You lose your social life. But, in the two weeks since we have been open here, everyone stops by. It’s a younger neighborhood with different types of customers.” In fact, Ambrosia Bistro is located on the busiest block in Santiago, which, according to Bazán, is “in the middle of the middle.” Even as the daylight is just beginning to die, hordes of customers rotate through the three-table and bar restaurant. As the kitchen grows busier, Bazán remains unflappable.
Carolina Bazán has always loved food. She also does not believe in rules. These are her two governing principles: a love of flavor and a refusal to adhere to any preconceived notions of what a restaurant should be. Oddly, Bazán had never considered cooking as career until her twenties; her family assumed she would choose the gavel over the knife.
“She is very intelligent, so we thought she would become a lawyer,” says her father, Alvaro Bazán. “We didn´t want to influence her decisions, and it was a surprise for all of us when she decided to study cooking.” But study cooking she did, traveling to Peru for her culinary education and then returning to help with her mother’s catering business.
“A client offered to help my mum start a restaurant. My mum said to me, ‘This is not my kind of business; I don’t know how to run a restaurant,’” Bazán says. “’If you want to do it, let’s do it. You run the restaurant as a chef.’ And I said, ‘Yes, let’s do it.’”
This is how Bazán began her reign as one of Chile’s most visible chefs, who today boasts over 16,000 Instagram followers. After running her family’s restaurant until the age of 30, she returned to the classroom to sharpen her skills even further.
“In the first Ambrosia downtown, Carolina worked for years leading the kitchen and gained fame and recognition for her work,” says Rosario Onetto, Bazán’s life and business partner. “But that wasn’t enough for her, and she decided to leave for Paris to start from zero and study again, then she worked for free as an intern, working 14 hours a day for five months.”
“I worked my ass off” is Bazán’s more colorful way of recalling her time in Paris. It was during this 2011 stint working in Gregory Marchand’s kitchen at his famed 2nd arrondisment bistro, Frenchie, that the seeds that germinated into Ambrosia Bistro were planted. While French cooking techniques have shaped her work, Bazán has drawn inspiration from her travels all over the world, as evidenced by her and Onetto’s cookbook, De Temporada: Un Libro de Cocina Inspirado en un Video de Daft Punk, which is part travelogue and all spunk. Her cuisine itself, while using a variety of Chilean ingredients, is not trenchantly Chilean. “Travel opens your eyes; it opens your world,” she says. “I love every type of food.”
She credits chefs like Thomas Keller, Joël Robuchon and Daniel Boulud, whose books her mother would collect, serving as her early teachers. But it is the younger, more adventurous chefs she speaks of with passion and zeal. “David Chang! I love his style,” she says, beaming.
The Chang influence shows in the first dish she presents me: sea urchin draped over a bean purée, served with shitake mushrooms and nori soaked in soy sauce and lime, then dehydrated. I sipped a maracuya (passion fruit) caipirinha, watching Bazán as she Jackson Pollocks a stream of citrus beurre blanc onto slate, never losing concentration even as a cook questions her about the bunch of asparagus he is brandishing. Her temperament is always even-keeled, except when she laughs, as she does when placing a dish of fried fish on a shell of lettuce onto the counter, describing it as “a sort of healthy taco.” She laughs with deep abandon, throwing her head back. She laughs this way, too, when she tells me about the mural on the bistro walls, an entanglement of three bodies. It represents the three business partners that birthed their baby, the bistro. “I say we are playing Twister; some people say other things,” she says.
Bazán tops the beurre blanc splatter painting with seared scallops, Jamón Ibêrico and pickled onions. “Scallops were not on the menu, but yesterday we had no sea urchin, so we went and got some scallops,” she says. It is apparent, as well-studied as she is, that a comfort with improvisation is Bazán’s hallmark. In fact, her father says that when Bazán started cooking at Ambrosia with her mother’s recipes, critics commented “that she was too young to have developed such flavors which come with years of experience.”
Bazán leads beyond the realm of the stove (and meat-curing chamber— they just ordered a new one at Ambrosia Bistro, and Bazán is giddy about it.) She has become a Chilean cultural figure who also happens to be married to a woman. “Despite the fact we Chileans are just opening our minds to gay and lesbian relations, Bazán has been very well-accepted particularly among young people,” says her father. “She is a leader. With her daily life, she is contributing seriously to change in Chilean society.” By living on her own terms in her marriage to Rosario and their loving parentage of a 2-year-old son, Bazán is a quiet yet bright light. This openness is precisely what her tattoo represents. “When I came out to my family,” she says, “I thought of a peacock showing himself completely.” And that is the reasoning behind the ink that lights up her right arm like a flag of pride.
“I don’t want to force-feed you,” she teases with a smile, placing an architectural lemon tart on the counter. The pastry was delicious: lightly sweet, measuredly sour, crust a brittle perfection. Yet, just as moving as the meal was the sense that I had just been served by a peaceful warrior—a kind soul tacitly changing the cultural topography of her conservative country simply by being herself. That stuck to my palate and to my bones.