Chilean food has taken center stage in the South American spotlight with Santiago proving to be a hub of much culinary activity. Two of the main players on that stage are Carolina Bazán and Rosario Onetto. Partners in life and restaurants Ambrosia and the more casual, newer Ambrosia Bistro, the pair are proud mothers to son Iñaki, as well as fierce restaurateurs making a strong name for hard-working women in a conservative country such as Chile.
Now in her mid-30’s, Bazán began her career in her mother’s catering business, leading restaurant kitchens, including her family’s Ambrosia, from the ripe age of 23. Taking time to travel the world — Peru, Brazil, Paris — she gained a sensibility about flavors, ethnic nuances and techniques that appealed to her, strengthening her ability to return to Santiago and push Ambrosia in a new direction. By bringing Chilean ingredients to the forefront and elevating them in a way that feels modern and fresh, she has helped change the outlook of fine dining, and with her crown of dreadlocks nestled atop her head, her peacock tattoo curling up under her sleeve, and her rock star vibe, she has become something of a culinary star.
Next to her wine-knowledgable partner Rosario Onetto, a studied sommelier and self-taught front of house powerhouse, the two are pretty unstoppable. We caught up with the pair to talk food, wine, restaurants, influences, and some of the challenges of being an openly gay couple in a conservative country like Chile.
Chilean food, both locally and on the world stage, has come a long way in the past few years and you’re one of its biggest supporters and representatives. Can you talk a little bit about that evolution?
Carolina Bazán: I feel that what I am doing is showcasing fresh Chilean products in my own style. I mix flavors of the world, since I traveled a lot throughout my youth, and try to elevate them with some technique. I think that that’s what chefs do, tell a story through food, where you’ve been, where you are, and where you’re going. I think I am part of a generation that realized that we should stop doing the French classics and start doing our own thing and appreciate what we have.
Chile’s long been known for wine – well, before food/ingredients – how has the wine business changed based on that evolution?
Rosario Onetto: I think that at some point we all — cooks, winemakers, restaurateurs, etc –understood that we weren’t France and didn’t wanted to keep trying to be France. Along with the evolution of our food, the recognition of our ingredients and richness, came the growth of the wine industry. And we saw a different face of Chilean wine. We no longer wanted to be like the others, instead taking pride into our own traditions. Wines made of País, Muscatel, Carignan and other varieties that have been pushed aside for decades are now showcasing how unique and exiting Chilean wines can be. Even some of our “classics” like Maipo or Colchagua wines are now more true to themselves and less “standardized.”
Carolina, you’re the only featured female in the group of Chilean chefs turning the culinary scene into something important. Has that been challenging or have you found that there’s camaraderie and collaboration?
CB: Even though I have always felt collaboration with my colleges, as I get older and my family begins to grow, I begin to understand the difference, and why there are so little women in charge of successful kitchens. It is not easy to balance family with this intense, consuming, stressing job. And if you add to that the fact that a kitchen environment is very tough and usually “not for women,” you get very few that survive. On the other hand, I think the industry isn’t very supportive of women in kitchens; since it is 95% men, they forget about you. As example, when there is an important Congress, it’s most probable they are going to invite a chef rather than a cheffe. But I think I have opened a path for younger generations of female cooks in Chile, and they see that if you have the passion, YOU CAN DO IT! Hopefully, there will be more women involved in important kitchens here.
Ambrosia in on the LatAm 50 Best list (#33). Knowing that these lists are subject to criticism, how has that honor helped your career as a chef and Chilean cuisine, overall?
CB: It puts you on the map. Basically, everybody that comes to Chile, and likes to eat relatively good food, checks the list, and there you are; so yes, it helps people to get to you. But if is not good, they have Trip Advisor! So little by little, as people have good experiences, your name begins to pop and progress.
It has to be mentioned that you two are an out, married couple with a family in a conservative country, in a profession mostly helmed by men. How has your marriage, your work together and your personal choices been embraced by the community?
CB: Personally, I think we kick ass! We put all our passion into our family as well as our work, and we love what we do and I think it shows. My main goal is to do the best we can in both areas, and balance family and work. Us being a gay couple, so out and proud, has opened eyes for a lot of people and I have never felt any discrimination. In a sense, some may take us as an example.
RO: Actually, my experience has been very positive. I like hard work, team work, the rush of service and I love to work with men. I never had problems with that and being gay has never been an issue for me, not personally, not professionally.
Have there been challenges? If so, what?
RO: I remember when Carolina was pregnant I was a little worried (it was THE absolutely definitive coming out) about the clients, the more conservative ones, their impressions, etc. But we’ve got nothing but good vibes, some clients even gave us presents when Iñaki was born, it was overwhelming.
CB: In the last year, our biggest challenge was to open our new restaurant, Ambrosia Bistro, and raise Iñaki. Opening a restaurant is very time consuming, so it was very difficult, because, we realized that he felt our absence. Thankfully we have a lot of support from our families, and we managed to survive. I am very glad to say we are fully booked every night.
While I’m sure it’s great to work together most of the time – on what from a culinary perspective do you disagree?
CB: We don’t disagree much, because I think, we share the same point of view on mostly everything and we each focus on our area of work. If we argue about something, usually she’s wrong! (Don’t tell her I told you that!)
RO: I don’t think we disagree much, we discuss, taste and share ideas and sometimes we have different opinions, but in the end, Carolina has the last word when is about the kitchen/dishes and I have it when it’s about my field, front of the house/wine/reservations etc.
You fell into cooking because of your mother, and then pushed to learn everything you could in Peru, Brazil, Paris – how do all of these travels inform your plates?
CB: I don’t want you to think that I am very cocky by my answer, but once Rosario told me that she felt that I was like a musician… in the way that I can pick up any note and play it in my own way. I agree with her in the sense that since I have traveled a lot in my life and my mother is also dedicated to cooking, I have expanded my palate and it isn’t very hard for me to pick up the flavors in a dish and bring them back with me in my memories.
Rosario, tell us a little bit about your wine philosophy at both Ambrosia and Bistro? Being that Chile is such a wine-rich region, do you rely more heavily on Chilean wines or do you take inspiration from more global wineries?
RO: Both restaurants are very similar but they have two big differences: size and costumers, and the wine lists reflex that completely. Ambrosia Restaurant has a bigger, extended wine list, with local and international wineries, while Bistro has smaller, local and more playful selection.
Carolina, you spent time at Gregory Marchand’s Frenchie – what did you take away from that experience? I imagine it must’ve had some influence on your latest endeavor: Ambrosia Bistro, yes?
CB: I always used to say that going to study in France and having the chance to work by the side of Greg was the best decision in my life (until I decided to have Iñaki). It gave me a great rhythm of work, and at that time it was just him and I in the kitchen, so I had to get everything done in time — a lot of pressure, but great speed training and personal organization. I learned the importance of fresh and seasonal products. Of course, there is a big influence in what we do in the restaurant, but especially at the bistro.
It’s been about six months since you opened Bistro, how’s it been going?
CB: I am very happy to say we are full house (even though that is not difficult because it is very small, 30 seats). But for me, the most important, is to see that people come back, and come back and come back for more!
Tell us about some of the differences between running Ambrosia, which is much more formal, and Ambrosia Bistro, more casual.
CB: It’s not that different. The way that I create the menu is basically the same. At the restaurant, the menu is a bit longer and just a bit more classic, due to what our clients are looking for. At the bistro, there is an open kitchen which makes it more challenging in the sense that people come to watch you work, not just to eat your food, so it’s kind of like also being an entertainer.
RO: Both are different and I definitely like casual better. But I don’t think Ambrosia Restaurant is too formal anyways, it has a family touch that makes it friendly and not at all stiff.
Even the neighborhoods of Ambrosia (Vitacura) and Bistro (Providencia) are markedly different. How does that affect that clientele? Atmosphere? Menu? Cooking style?
RO: Actually, since we opened the Bistro we get to see a lot of friends that never went to Ambrosia Restaurant. That’s how different both locations are. But if this urban tiny Bistro feels like home to me, the Restaurant would be like a vacation house, in a quiet neighborhood, beautiful garden, lots of space. I love how different both are, so you can have two different and unique Ambrosia experiences, even if we share items in the menu and in the wine list.
CB: Both restaurants share some dishes, so the style in food is pretty much the same; the difference is mainly because of the neighborhood. Providencia is younger and more hipster than Vitacura, which is more classic. So I allow myself to put on louder music, the ambience is more relaxed and laid back and because of the same, people are more willing to try new or different things.
Where was the inspiration for Bistro? Was it always part of the plan or did it evolve naturally out of Ambrosia?
CB: We’ve had this idea for a long time, but we decided to go forward with Ambrosia first, which is my family’s, and get to be “renowned” for that. Then we would open up our little spot; this way it was easier for us to gather the money we needed without needing more investors. Our inspiration was mostly everywhere we went that we could eat at the bar, a lot of those places were in NY.
RO: Having a restaurant is a way of life and we always wanted our own little restaurant, in our neighborhood, walking distance from home so we could integrate family life, too. So Bistro was always part of the plan, but all the experiences we gained at Ambrosia help us shape it. Bistro is better because of Ambrosia, no doubt about it.
Can you describe a couple of dishes on your menu right now featuring Chilean ingredients that you’re especially proud of?
-Juan Fernandes Octopus with pebre Chileno (this is a really, really good quality octopus)
-Sea urchin with, bean pure, and dashi.
-Queso de cabeza (pork head cheese) with apple pure.
-Locos (Chilean abalone) with parsley pesto.
Rosario, what are you pairing some of those dishes with?
-Octopus with pebre Chileno: Here I recommend a Rose, will balance the spicy pebre, compliment the octopus and lift up the tomato. Could be Erasmo Mouvedre from Maule.
-Sea urchin: I am getting to know sake, and willing to study more so I can go further with the pairings, especially since Carolina is getting more inspired by Oriental ingredients, flavors and techniques. For this dish, I would say the last sake that I tried: Nihon Sakari Tokubetsu.
-Queso de cabeza: I love this with Chilean Riesling Meli, which balances the fried pork, the acidity from the apples, even the pickles.
-Locos (Chilean abalone): We once served this with an old vine Semillon from Apalta and it was superb. Carmen DO Quijada.
Last supper, last cocktail?
CB: Pasta and something with Campari
RO: Seafood at the beach, Champagne
Next up on your travel bucket list?
CB: We are planning a trip to Italy (or should I say EATALY?). I would also love to go to San Francisco and Japan.
RO: Italy, family vacation at the Ligure Coast
CB: Mentor/Gregory Marchand, Idol/David Chang, Girl Crush/Padma Lakshmi
RO: Idol: I know that maybe Danny Meyer sounds boring, or obvious, but for me reading his book “Setting the Table” was mind-blowing. Completely changed how I saw the restaurant business and made me the restaurateur I am today. Girl Crush: I know Carolina said Padma, and, well, Padma is OK… But I definitely think Gail Simmons is twice as fun. Yes, we are big Top Chef fans.
Best lesson your mother taught you?
CB: Value family above all, they are your best link to the past and most likely to stick with you in the future.
RO: Always made me believe that everything is possible, and that Carolina and I combined would be unstoppable
How do you inspire the next generation?
CB: Being true to myself, not afraid of what others think of me. Do what you love, if you love it, you will succeed.
RO: By doing my job, loving what I do, giving a good experience not only to our customers, but also to our team, suppliers, community, etc. Being a happy, hard working, and driven women.