Episode #40: Alvaro Clavijo
The chef of the restaurant El Chato in Bogota, Colombia.
Alvaro Clavijo is the chef of the restaurant El Chato in Bogota, Colombia. He is generally a quiet guy and you really don’t see him giving a lot of interviews. He spent a decade cooking in France and the US in some of the world’s top restaurants and his technique is among the best in Latin America, though there is no tasting menu, no elaborate story or some vague idea about saving the world. He just works really hard and tries to get the most out of every ingredient. Everyone that goes to El Chato loves it for that reason.
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On the pandemic giving him time to ferment things and make ice cream:
Alvaro: “Something that we did during the pandemic that was very, very important, especially for me and my team…My sous chefs and I were developing a lot of things, because we had a lot of free time. Like a lot of restaurants that focus on no waste of a product or whatever, but we wanted to really focus, to not lose anything of what we buy. So, we started a fermentation program, which was reusing a lot of flavors that we like or we used to work. But we discovered, like let's start to think on this ingredient like this. The way we cook it. There's a bunch of things that we can do with it. When you have time to play with ingredients, super creative. And that's something that was very fun for us and I think we are cooking at a much better level than before.”
Nick: “Is there any particular ingredient that you came to know in a different way through this?”
Alvaro: “I especially like the results after like letting them be by themselves fermenting or trying to make new vinegars. Like for example, we were using a lot of coconut in a lot of ways. So, coconut was something very fun to work with, because we were working with a coconut vinegar. And when you ferment it for cocktails it’s super fun. That was one of the things we discovered that was fermented coconut becoming a benefit. That was like something we really enjoyed a lot.
There are a bunch of things I can tell you. For example, we are making some OK vinegar. Right now, we are making a bunch of vinegars. I don't know if you remember the way I cook, because I think you'd only be once at my restaurant. But we like to work with a lot of acidity. So our goal was working with a lot of ingredients and explore them.
Colombia is a country that is full of fruit that are extremely sweet when they reach the point when they are ready to eat. So, we were using them in a lot of stages. And I like working with fruits and fermenting them. It's unbelievable the flavors you can achieve. I mean, the variety of fruits that you can get in this country is like wild.”
Nick: “There are more fruits in Colombia than almost anywhere, at least for the size of the country, I think. I don't know. But there's probably a million things you can do with them. It's just there are so many that everyone just eats them fresh and doesn't really take the time to do that much with them.”
Alvaro: “I actually think it's kind of ironic because we Colombians are used to eat plantain for everything. When it blackens they are like super sweet and that’s when people love it the most. And the palette of Colombians – I mean, I'm killing myself because I'm Colombian and it’s the way I grew up – we were eating all the time sweet ingredients. I mean fruits and we're very used to it. Our dishes are super, super sweet. We don't need spicy. We don't need acidity. There's not a lot of balance in traditional foods. That's what I call a little bit ironic because we as we were saying, like Colombia is a country that has a bunch of fruits, but we don't use them a lot in our cooking. We just mainly use them for juices and for drinking, but, but we don't use in the way we are, at least in my restaurant. trying like to achieve now.”
Nick: “It's funny too, because, I mean, in general, Colombian food tends to be sweet. In general, you have a meal in a Colombian restaurant and sweet is the overwhelming sensation that you get. But your food really isn't sweet. It's more acidic, more bitter.”
Alvaro: “Yeah, right. And that was very hard for us when we beganbecause Colombians they didn't really understand.”
Nick: “Maybe that is your way to connect with Colombians, even though it's not sweet, they still get the flavors of these fruits. And they can still connect to these fruits in this way, even though they're being used in a totally different way.”
Alvaro: “Yeah, that's the fun. I mean, I'm grateful for the pandemic in that way, like letting it stop, right, and start to like, think more, I have more time like to develop a lot of things, fruits in general. That's one of the most fun parts about the time we had in the pandemic.”
Nick: “So you as a person fermented, basically.”
Alvaro: “Yeah, I mean, we ferment a lot.”
Nick: “No, I mean you fermented. Slowed down.”
Alvaro: “Exactly, exactly. You know, for example, we were using this black garlic machine. And there's this part that is electric to make black garlic in a faster way. And we have like three of those in the restaurant. And we mainly use them for black garlic. And used a lot of ingredients in that pot and it was so much fun. You know, feijoa? Which is like a very typical Colombian fruit. We're treating feijoa as black garlic. And then we made ice cream with that. And that was so amazing. I mean, the flavors that you can achieve from that, it's like, well, something that you've never tasted before. So, imagine as a cook, it's like a playground. You know, it's like so much information that you can do with those kinds of things and having time. Just being able to play with things. That's something that I never had before because my restaurant is big. We don't do tasting menus, we do a la carte. And when you do a la carte and have 80 people at the same time, I mean, it's rush hour. It's crazy. So, you are like running basically every day.”
Nick: “What other ice creams did you make?”
Alvaro: “You know, titoté? Do you remember the black the coconut rice? In the US when you think about coconut rice you will start to think it's a white rice, made out of coconut. But titoté is the milk of the coconut. You burn the coconut. You take out the water. You blend the coconut with the water inside of the coconut, and then you strain it and let it reduce. Solids from the natural oils of the coconut, they start to separate. And it burns to become like a paste. And in traditional Colombian Caribbean food it's called titoté, which is the burnt coconut reduction. And we were making ice cream out of that. We were selling that so much. A lot of fruit. A lot of fruits. And also, before we closed, I was saving to buy this amazing ice cream machine. I was saving like a year for it. And then I took a lot of time just to develop recipes. So, we did a lot. We changed flavors every day. At some point, I thought I was going to be able to make a business out of it. But since we reopened, we have been so much busy that we don’t have time for anything else.”
On the evolution of El Chato and his relationship with producers:
Nick: “Has it changed a lot since you opened?”
Alvaro: “Everything. I mean, when I opened, especially when I took over, as a young chef, opening a restaurant and then taking over and a lot of expectations from everyone, you tried to show yourself in a lot of ways. And so you take this dish, and then maybe it's just a salad, but you want to use all your techniques you have in your mind in one salad. And then it becomes like a disaster, you know? So the beginning was horrible. I was trying to prove to myself I was a great cook. But at the end it was horrible. I was terrible. I mean, we were, I thought at some point, I was gonna be worse than the chef before. So I was very concerned about it. But then I started to invite a lot of chefs from all over the world. Feriends that I worked with. And I got a lot of advice from very close friends. And then I relaxed and let go. And let the product talk about itself. And that's what we do.
Now, we try to expose people. We are a very young country, especially when talking about restaurants. And Colombian customers, they are not very used to these kind of things. We're very proud about a product, like popular food, but we don't really know our roots. So that's the reason I decided to go deeper in what Colombian ingredients are. And our main goal is to work just with Colombian ingredients. So, when you want to show something, and you want people to understand it, you have to you have to let the product talk by itself. So, that's the way we think of food, the way we think of creativity in the restaurant. We really want the ingredients to talk by themselves.
So, that's also very hard to achieve, especially when you're getting ingredients, like you know my country, I mean I live in the center of the whole country. Mountains up to 2600 meters above the sea level, so getting fish is impossible. So we work with a lot of vegetables and fruits. And we work with a lot of ingredients that travel all over the country just to get to my city. And it's very hard to get them fresh. It's very hard to preserve them. So it's not an easy job. When we started it was more confusing, but now I think it's is getting more fun. And I'm very proud of what we do right now.”
Nick: “How is your relationship with the producers changed since you opened?”
Alvaro: “I mean, at the beginning when I came back to Colombia, I had a motorcycle. I took a backpack and I started to travel all over. I remember traveling all over, literally all over. Just trying to know. I mean I was born and raised here in Colombia, in Bogotá, but I lived almost all of my 20s working in the US and Europe in restaurants. So I didn't really know ingredients in my country.
I like to research a lot of things. And I saw all these amazing things. I didn't really know them. I heard about them, and then you try them. And then you see them as a cook. And it blows your mind. Because you start to think about all the other things you can do with them. I started to develop a lot of things, especially when we started in Bogotá. So, we started to work with three small producers and farms around Bogotá. Like the closest one is 40 minutes away from my restaurant. So very close, actually. But to start, this woman started to grow a lot of things for us. She was so excited about growing things for us. So, we were trying to recover different kinds of onions, or different kinds of carrots. At least show different traditional things that we can also try to work with. Like, for example, guatila I don’t know if you remember guatila. When travel through Central America, they use the root on the guatila and in Colombia we didn't use them. So we tried to incentivize a way for our producers to think out of the box.”
Nick: “For the things they couldn't sell. They knew how to grow them. It's just nobody would buy them.”
Alvaro: “No. And for example, if you think of potatoes, for example. I mean, you lived in Peru, you know this probably, but I don't know how it's improved. But in Colombia, in Colombia, when you see a purple potato people, they might think it's like, fucked. I mean, it's like that. That potatoe is useless. Because they don't really know them. They don't really understand the thing. The think it went bad. It’s something as simple as that. People grew up with just white potatoes, so that's how people think about potatoes. A lot of chefs have worked with this kind of thing, these kinds of people. They really understood the importance of growing a bunch of natural things. But they didn't use to grow them very often. And we were losing them because it's useless to us to grow purple potatoes if nobody's going to buy them.”
On not having a tasting menu:
Nick: “So you don't have a tasting menu at all anymore?”
Alvaro: “I mean, when you went to my restaurant, I did because you were there. Because I only have you once in my restaurant I really wanted you to try a little bit of everything of what we do. That’s the reason we did it for you, but we don't normally do it. I mean, if you go you get a menu and then you order. But when we get special customers, we ask them if they want to have something.”
Nick: “But it's not on the menu, an option for a tasting menu?”
Alvaro: “No, a lot of people come to the restaurant and they ask for it. Can the chef send us something? Okay, you have allergies? What allegergies do you have? And then we build something for them. But I mean, we do it if they ask for it. I mean, as I was saying, that we are very young country concerning restaurants. And I don't want to confuse people. I didn't want people to think, Colombians to think Okay, that's tasting menu restaurant that is super expensive. I only go there once a year for a celebration, that’s it. I didn't want it to go that way. I wanted people to be able to, as I was saying, if possible, come two or three times a week. That's the reason why we did what we did. And that's the reason we do what we do. And that's the reason we don't do tasting menus and for many people they don't understand them very much. I think people think that's something special for a special occasion. I wanted for my restaurant to be more casual.”
Nick: “El Chato isn't really… when I see tasting menus working, it's like there's this whole philosophy and story and that's built into the whole menu. Take a place like Central or whatever where you have altitudes and ecosystems, but most the time they don't, for me, they don't work. I'd much prefer to drink some nice wines and order food as I want and enjoy it that way.”
Alvaro: “I mean, because in the end, that's something you want. If you have certain about food and you enjoy those kinds of things, that's the way you want to go, you don't want them to tell you what to have. You want to be able to order. That's something I especially enjoy. I mean, I enjoy restaurants like that. And I respect them a lot. I mean, I grew up working in those restaurants. But at some point, you don't want to hear the whole story. You want to be able to choose.”
Nick: “I like to be exposed to different things too, though. I do like tasting menus, sometimes when they're introducing an ingredient I'm probably not going to order or recognize, and it exposes me to something else. But my issue is just most of the time, they're just forcing something that you don't really want. To show off a technique that you really don't care about. Or, like you mentioned earlier, at the beginning, you were trying to do all these techniques at El Chato and it just didn't work. You're just trying to do everything for a salad. Instead, just letting the ingredients talk. If I remember right, you limit the number of ingredients on a plate, or no?”
Alvaro: “Yea we try to use like three.”
Nick: “Right. Like most of your plates are just three ingredients. Or maybe four or something.”
Alvaro: “We try to push like three or four maximum. But what we're doing right now, something you can find in my dishes is, for example, two or three. We expose ingredients in different stages of cooking. For example, let's think about the corn. What can we do with corn? We can use the cob. We can use the grain. We can use the hair. We can use the leaves. And we can find those kinds of things.
As I was saying when I decided to go back to France, and staying in Spain is because I really enjoy. And if you see my cooking, the way I trained in all this, like all these countries and amazing restaurants… I define my cooking and say, Okay, my basics are French. My organization, the way I think and organize all my life in my kitchen, it's the US in a way that Thomas Keller gave me. Which is something that I really, really enjoyed working for him. And when we plate and think about our setup, it's a little bit noisy, and Denmark gave me that. So that's my three basics. And then we take these three things, and we apply them to Colombian ingredients.”
Quotes from this interview have been gently edited for context and clarity.