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Recently named Latin America’s best female chef, Carolina Bazán tells Nicholas Gilman about the many influences she has used to build her restaurants in Santiago, Chile

Carolina Bazán is a chef who has confirmed Chile’s place on the gastronomic map as an estimable culinary destination. An innovator who respects both Latin American and European traditions, she owns Ambrosía and Ambrosía Bistro in Santiago, with her partner sommelier Rosario Onetto.

Recently named best female chef of 2019 by Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants, she readily acknowledges that it is not the same to be a “female chef” as to be simply a chef. She is happy to discuss the challenges she has faced balancing career and family – she is the mother of two and is able to manage home and professional life without compromising either, challenging and breaking stereotypes that are well ingrained in the machista world of the high-end kitchen.

The couple now run the fine-dining venue Ambrosía and the more casual Ambrosia Bistro, whose kitchens offer dishes based on local meats, fish and seasonal produce, and reflect Chilean cuisine – that is, a fusion of South America, France, Italy and Spain. Risotto, fresh pasta and pâtés appear on her menus as do quinoa, ceviches, tacos and even a pastrami sandwich shows up, recalling her stay in the United States. She chatted long-distance with me from her home recently.

Where did your interest in cooking come from and when did you decide to become a chef?

I was always interested in food and cooking and grew up around it. My mom ran a small catering business so I helped her out and was always around food. I was interested from an early age. However, in Chile there were few decent gastronomy schools – they didn’t appear until later. I didn’t really think about studying cooking seriously until I was already in the business.

What was the culture in which you grew up?

I was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, but we traveled around a lot because my father was a diplomat. So I was exposed to many gastronomic cultures. For example we lived in Peru for five or six years where as you know, gastronomic culture is very strong. I would say that was my biggest influence — you can see that on my menus. We also lived in the US, in New York and Washington DC, then we returned to Chile.

What was your journey to where you are today in terms of education and practise?

I  learned a lot at home. Later I did a residency and learned along the way, before working in a restaurant. In those days there weren’t many good fine dining restaurants – this was about 2000 and the scene in South America was just starting. I wasn’t there long when one of my mother’s clients offered me a job in a restaurant she was opening. It was an amazing opportunity and a challenge for someone who had never been in charge of a kitchen, but I was happy.

What then inspired you to open a restaurant?

Our first restaurant was Ambrosía, in the center of Santiago; we were there from 2003 to 2012. But in 2010 I felt I needed more classic technique. So I went to France to study and did a stage with Greg Marchand at Frenchie. It was very small in those days – only the chef and me working without a large staff; I was his ‘right hand’. It really opened me up and I learnt an enormous amount. So when I returned, I was inspired to move our restaurant from the historic center to a place with more space and in a more rustic setting in order to revamp the menu utilizing what I had learned in France.

What set your second restaurant apart?

At the first Ambrosía, we offered more of a ‘menu executivo’ to business people; it was simple, home-made style dishes, but I used a lot of frozen food, especially fish and seafood, nothing local or even national. Even though Chile has a coast, this was what we were all doing. In France I learned not to use products out of season, to instead take advantage of fresh fish or seafood straight from the boat, as well as currently available vegetables. If something isn’t in the market, it doesn’t appear on the menu. That seems obvious now, but it was new to us then. When we moved to the new location, I expanded my menu and began to take more risks.

Our clientele became more adventurous as well. The consumption of fish and seafood in Chile used to be very low as most fish was frozen. People had these memories that fish wasn’t very good – that it tasted ‘fishy’. But that has changed as chefs have started to use fresh fish and seafood. It was a lot of work to convince people but chefs are now using seasonal ingredients and respecting spawning seasons.

What do you like to cook and which products do you like to use best?

I like everything. I go through stages. Sometimes I prefer working with vegetables or simply have to concentrate on them because there isn’t much else around. All of a sudden I’ll be into sous vide, Mediterranean, everything Peruvian. In the end, I’m fascinated by eating and I’m fascinated by cooking – I just love all of it.

What are the challenges you have come across in your career and how have you dealt with them?

Well, I’ve been fortunate. In my first real job I was in control of a kitchen by myself – I learned by doing. There was much trial and error. I had to be confident because being a woman I felt that I was somehow inferior as a cook. My voyage to France gave me much more confidence to do what I wanted and to be able realize it.

You’ve been open about the issues you’ve faced as a female chef  in a male dominated field. What have been the challenges in that respect?

The difficulty I encounter being a woman and mother is that men don’t tend to sympathize with what they perceive as women’s issues. If they don’t have the responsibility of raising a family they don’t care. A man without children can work 24 hours a day – they don’t have anything that reins them in. As a passionate cook, working hours can be a conflict. When you’re at home you think about recipes, read books – it consumes you. When you have a family, your time is more divided. There are women who quit their work as a cook and dedicate themselves to family life. But I was never willing to do that. I decided early on that I just had to make it work.

Has the public been receptive to what you are doing? Are they conservative?

I think they are quite conservative here. In the beginning, there were customers who wanted to change the side dishes, when it just didn’t make sense. People didn’t realize that it made a big difference to the whole thing. Sometimes I would be angry, I’d feel like, ‘how am I going to work with this?’ But things have changed. Now they come to try new dishes and understand that I won’t change things for them. That is a big advantage of fame and publicity – they respect you more.

How do you feel about having been named the best female cook in Latin America?

It was an honor. At first I was receiving all kinds of offers to travel to festivals abroad – obviously I couldn’t accept all of them. In the end I haven’t traveled much because I think you have to stay in your own restaurant and home and keep refining everything; traveling wears you out.

What’s next for you?

To be super active and present. I really need to be because I took a break to have my second daughter and now I’m dedicating more time to our restaurants.

Has the political situation in Chile affected you?

Yes, in an obvious way. I mean, people are fearful and don’t go out to eat. Workers can’t get to their jobs because of problems with transportation. It’s been tough.

Do you have any advice for a young chef?

I always say that being a cook is a difficult career, but is very satisfying. Despite the sacrifice, the rewards are great.

Nicholas Gilman