[DEPARTURES 100] With her dreadlocks and tattoos, at first glance Carolina Bazán could be an eco-warrioress. But appearances are deceptive. The Chilean chef’s impressive culinary curriculum – which includes honing skills in Lima, Milan and Paris – meant she was recently anointed the 'One to Watch' at Latin America’s 50 Best awards for her restaurant Ambrosía in Santiago.
A diplomat’s daughter, Carolina lived in various corners of the Americas until she was 13, giving her a taste for diversity. Her mother, the ambassador’s wife, would take cookery classes before trying out new creations on visitors. Carolina says: “The house was always full of people and we kids would be the waitstaff. Although it’s hard to adapt to change when you’re young – I was born in Buenos Aires and lived in New York, Peru and Washington – I look back now and I’m grateful for having lived through other realities as it means I can be flexible with my menus now. When we definitively returned to Chile, my mum set up a small eatery called Ambrosía and I’d help cut mushrooms after school.”
With gastronomy in her DNA, Carolina signed on for cookery school when she was 18. “Although I didn’t know what to study, it was obvious really! I worked in Peru with Marisa Guiulfo then a friend of my mum’s offered her a restaurant space in central Santiago. She agreed to take it on but only if I was in charge of it. I was only 23!”
So much responsibility from a young age meant that crunch time was on the horizon and Carolina’s next aim was to gain experience at a three-star Michelin establishment. “By 2010 I needed to spread my wings – and also have someone else tell me what to do! I had basically left school then headed a kitchen.
“So I went to study in Paris. But I soon realised these starred restaurants weren’t really my style – too structured – and that there’s a movement of young chefs independently doing their thing, focusing on great quality and reasonable prices without any stars on the door. I worked at Frenchie in the second arrondissement, alongside chef Gregory ‘Frenchie’ Marchand, who was given that nickname by Jamie Oliver.”
When Chile beckoned again, Carolina and her mother teamed up for a supper-club style restaurant, Chez Nous, which was the launchpad to the second edition of current project Ambrosía. The warm space feels more like a family home than a restaurant, which has a ring of truth given that some of her relatives are involved in the project: ‘The Wall’, located in one of the three dining rooms, is a photographic family tree, her father took care of landscape gardening while her girlfriend Rosario Onetto is the in-house sommelier.
Talking about Ambrosía’s menu, Carolina says: “It can change daily depending on what’s available – that’s how I decide. None of my seafood is frozen so if the fish isn’t any good, I won’t put it on the menu. My concept is simple dishes where flavours stand out.”
And that notion of simplicity – dishes such as lamb sweetbreads on a mushroom puré and polenta or pan-fried fresh tuna with smoked aubergine puré, spinach droplets and cucumber slivers – led to Carolina and her team bagging their prize at 2014’s regional 50 Best.
She says: “I did the maths and the 260 voters who get to select just seven restaurants chose us. Wow! I’m still wondering who came to eat here! I never thought I’d be on that list – either everyone else is doing really badly or we’re doing really well!”
With that coveted prize under her belt, Carolina’s next project involves taking her cuisine to print. “I’m compiling a book with a photographer friend that will focus on seasons, providers and their ingredients. We’ve covered winter and now that it’s spring, we’ll start the next phase.”
Photos: Leclic Estudio