BOGOTA: When Alvaro Clavijo returned to open El Chato in Bogota, Colombia after gaining experience in places like Noma, L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon, Atera and Per Se it was a bit of a risk. With that CV, Alvaro could have not only have worked anywhere, he could also have opened a project in any part of the world and the odds would have been stacked in his favour for the venture to be successful.
Returning to Colombia was, however, what he really wanted because it was here that he could showcase what he had learned in his travels around the world. He knew that the country offered lots of possibilities from ingredients that needed to be discovered to constraints of getting produce in a city that stands 1,600 metres above sea-level.
Neither when things were not going as planned did Alvaro lose hope. Despite difficulties to get recognition particularly in the local press, he persevered taking on a lot of debt to finally make the restaurant one of the best restaurants in Latin America. You could say it was the Latin America World’s 50 Best restaurants list that changed his fortunes because when he was finally recognised internationally, he also managed to be understood locally.
Today, that perseverance has been rewarded as the restaurant has been included in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list in 80th spot and in 2020 placed 7th in the Latin America list. That’s not bad for a contemporary bistro where Alvaro’s aim is to create a restaurant where people can go not just once but would enjoy returning even every week.
Alvaro, you were on the verge of closing the restaurant before you got to the Latin America World’s 50 Best restaurants list? Now you are also in the World’s 50 Best restaurants list. How close were you really to closing the restaurant?
Well, more than closing it, I was very obstinate in not closing it because I wanted to prove that I could do it well and that my concept made sense. I went into a lot of debt to be able to do it. I really looked for all possible resources to get the project off the ground and I never gave up. Not because of a matter of pride, which is something I want to emphasis’e, but because I felt that people had not given themselves the opportunity to try it.
I never saw an end to it and I never reached a limit. Now that I think about it and I see that it was a very important time in which, despite everything, I never considered letting the project die. Obviously 50 BEST boosted us a lot in the media. Unfortunately we didn’t get the approval of the local press until 50 BEST recognised us and that helped us a lot.
It is often the story of many restaurants who are maybe misunderstood or else cannot emerge until there is a tipping point where fortunes seem to change. Do you think this was the most crucial turning point in your career?
For us it was simply a media boost that helped us internationally and this recognition made many people who did not believe in us locally take us into account.
You’ve worked in many places around the world from Paris to Barcelona, New York, Copenhagen and then returned to Colombia. With the benefit of hindsight this has turned out to be a good decision. But have there been moments when you regretted it, particularly when el Chato was maybe not fully understood?
Not at all. I think that if it hadn’t been El Chato it would have been something else. Every chef reaches a moment when he feels ready to present his own proposal, to present his ideas and demonstrate what he has learned and to showcase his knowledge. I wanted to come back to Colombia to do it. I think I reached that point that many cooks reach when I felt it was time to execute my vision. There is nothing wrong with working on other people’s projects. We never stop learning and growing. But in my case it was time to come home and execute my vision.
You have a reputation of starting to create a new Colombian cuisine that is ingredient driven. Can you explain how you go about creating dishes?
We always start from the unknown, from what we do not understand. That way we can discover, evolve and work from there. We always work from the unknown, curiosity leads to creativity.
For someone who is not familiar with Colombian cuisine or Colombian ingredients can you explain what makes it distinct and why it intrigued you enough to return back?
Because it is something unknown. There are ingredients that have not been exposed in the world or even in Colombia. For me, somehow it was something that made sense and also meant a challenge. A way to prove to myself how good I was at what I did. So arriving in Colombia and working with ingredients that are not so easy to get or expose boosted my motivation to open El Chato.
In many places around the world it has become difficult for chefs wanting something special to find it particularly since farmers tend to cater for demand. How difficult or easy is it to create an ecosystem around you?
It is quite difficult. Especially since we are at 1,600 meters above sea level in a city with very complex accesses. For us, something as simple as getting fresh fish is very complex. This forces us to change the technique that I was used to using in other countries. This made me think and focus much more on conserves.
The suppliers don’t feel like bringing some products from the outskirts of Bogotá and not selling them. That is the reason why many products are lost in Colombia and the world. An example is a purple potato. People get scared, they don’t understand this product because they see the recipes for traditional soups and they don’t have purple potatoes, so they don’t buy them and the suppliers stop bringing them. But part of my job these past few years has been to try to bring back some of those products and then find ways to keep them so you don’t have to depend on a stable supplier.
Your first job was as a dishwasher but you were not good at it. But you then started cooking in the same restaurant and loved it. What made you choose the kitchen over architecture? Have there been any moments when you regretted the decision?
Just sitting in a room made me uncomfortable. It doesn’t seem natural to me. Being in a kitchen changed everything for me. The aggressiveness, the sound, the fire, the dynamism, that made me fall in love with kitchens. I have never regretted it. I believe that in all types of careers there are difficult moments but that withdrawing and running away is not the way to resolve things.
If you had to define your style of cooking what would it be?
My base is French, my techniques are a bit Nordic, my organisation is quite American but my commitment is the Colombian ingredient. So it is a style that varies but that I have managed to package in a bistro with these influences.
El Chato is a bistro and you want to have people eating there several times a week and not just once every six months. There seems to be this tendency now, particularly after the pandemic to frequent more casual places? Is the same thing happening in Bogota?
I think that in Bogotá it has always been like that. Everything is more focused on the informal since here we have never had a movement of fine dining. I feel that the restaurants in Bogotá were dominated by restaurateurs and not by chefs. Later, when new restaurants and chefs came, they worked a lot with Spanish or foreign influence and not long ago there were already new proposals similar to what could be fine dining and with a Colombian focus.
For me, because of my education and at the time I arrived in Bogotá, it would have been more logical to open a fine dining restaurant. But the reason why I didn’t want to do it is because I wanted people to be proud of the food I make and for them to be able to come every day. I feel that El Chato has become a fun restaurant for recurring customers because it is dynamic and it is not always the same.
What are the challenges you face in what you are doing in Colombia?
Getting ingredients is not easy. Getting staff was not easy and always very complicated. Well-prepared room staff is also complicated. Food costs vary a lot due to transportation. Sometimes the products arrive and sometimes they don’t… In general, it’s about working in instability but I don’t see it as a problem, on the contrary, I think it’s something fun and that motivates me to always be prepared and to know how to create an incredible result with what we get.
Colombia is perhaps less well known than, say, Peru in Latin America when it comes to its cuisine. Do you think this will change?
I think it’s pretty difficult because Peru has a tradition. Although it is also a mistake to compare them. Each country has a very different gastronomy and influence. In the long run, the important thing is to be able to expose what the country has and if this is achieved, at whatever level, it is a great achievement.
Where do you want to be in the next five years?
I am a 100% cook, so whether it is in El Chato or in another project, I will be cooking. I want to start doing more projects and all at this level. In Colombia and in other countries. I would also like to have a restaurant where I cook more but work fewer days.