“My mom’s always saying that I’m addicted to problems,” says Chef Alvarjo Clavijo, speaking from the kitchen of his award-winning Botogá restaurant, El Chato. “If I don’t have 16 problems a day, I’m not happy at all.”
Fielding interview questions over the phone between frequent pauses to taste, critique and praise the work of his team of cooks, Clavijo is in his element — happily problem-solving on the fly while discussing El Chato’s ascent to number 7 on Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants, the highest entry in his native Colombia.
“Having been named the best restaurant in Colombia comes with a lot of responsibility,” he says. “We need to be super focused on what we’re doing right now. When you’re having a lot of success, it’s very easy to screw it up.”
The road to El Chato’s success had its own set of challenges, and maintaining the level of excellence his restaurant is now known for offers new ones daily. But a problem-addict like Clavijo wouldn’t have it any other way.
“At my restaurant I encounter a lot of problems,” he explains. “Which is good. It gives me the opportunity to solve them.”
After working his way up from washing dishes in Paris to cooking at world-renowned institutions like Noma in Copenhagen (four-time winner of the world’s No. 1 restaurant) and Thomas Keller’s Per Se in Manhattan, Clavijo left behind the top-tier kitchens of Europe and New York and returned to Colombia to open a restaurant of his own. He envisioned it as a place that would showcase Colombian cuisine by leveraging the French, Nordic and North American techniques he’d learned abroad.
But long before his new, completely Colombian restaurant had even opened its doors, it presented Clavijo with his first major problem to solve as its head chef. The problem was a simple, but fundamental one: in his own words, “What the fuck am I going to cook?”
Unlike Argentina, with its world-famous carne, or Peru — renowned for ceviche, quinoa and corn — Colombia’s cuisine hasn’t historically had the sort of distinct identity that translates well to a high-end restaurant. “There isn’t really something emblematic in Colombian cuisine,” says Clavijo. “People think about beans, or arepas, or empanadas. But I saw an opportunity there. I really, really, really, wanted to explore and work with everything that my country has to offer. Things that just don’t exist anywhere else.”
By area, Colombia is the most biodiversity country in the world. Its beaches, mountains, jungles and desert are brimming with native species unique to their respective regions. To a skilled and adventurous chef like Clavijo, looking to Colombia’s untapped nature for culinary inspiration was a little bit like opening the door to an alien’s pantry and finding shelf upon shelf of fascinating ingredients with untapped potential, never before seen in the culinary worlds of Europe or the U.S. Turning his problem-solving skills to answering the question of “What does Colombian cuisine consist of?” he decided that first he needed to ask himself a different question: “What foods grow in Colombia?” And thus, El Chato was born.
In designing El Chato’s constantly evolving menu, Clavijo has committed to using only 100 percent local Colombian ingredients, telling the story of his country in its vibrant flavors and textures. From esoteric species of potato, to exotic fruits like fluffy guanabana and tangy lulo, to the highly nutritious coca leaves used by indigenous peoples long before they were co-opted by drug cartels, Clavijo wants diners at El Chato — both locals, and foreigners — to discover just how special and distinct Colombian food can be. “That’s something that I really invest a lot of my time in,” he says. “Going through all of those amazing unique ingredients we have in my country. That’s what we do here.”
Luckily for Clavijo and his particular addiction, as he began using his talents to show off the natural bounty of Colombia, a whole host of new problems arose. Whether it’s making sure all the ingredients for his popular dish of crab with avocado puree and pickled mango reach Bogotá from their respective parts of the country on time or working with ingredients that are new to both his customers and himself, his creativity is always challenged. His dedication to keeping prices low enough for locals to be able to explore their country’s produce through the lens of high-end cuisine gives rise to its own set of hurdles Clavijo constantly confronts with gusto.
More than all the accolades and international attention that El Chato has earned, it’s surmounting these challenges, by making creative last-minute changes to his menu, developing personal relationships with producers, and creating dishes that serve as both an education and a leap of faith, that keep Alvaro Clavijo a happy chef.
“Everything that’s happening around this restaurant is super exciting for a cook. All of us, all of my cooks, they push me and we push each other to keep being creative. It’s a lot of fun.”
In his full conversation with PRØHBTD below, chef Clavijo breaks down his cooking style, his restaurant’s ethos and the importance of showcasing any Colombian ingredient he finds interesting at El Chato, even coca leaves.
You’ve worked at some of the top restaurants in the world, many of which span different cultures and cuisines. How do the French, Nordic and U.S. influences you picked up working in restaurants like Noma and Per Se show up in your kitchen?
If you look at the style of cooking that we’ve developed here at the restaurant, generally I’m French with my cooking style, but I try to be super organized in the U.S. way. The way you guys in the U.S. manage your kitchens is the most impressive organization I’ve ever seen in my life. I try to adopt those kinds of things. So a base of French cooking, organizationally a U.S. kind of thing, and my plating is very Nordic.
What do you mean by Nordic plating?
One of the hardest things when I came back to Colombia was that when you make a dish, people here tend to want to take half of the ingredients out because they’re not used to them. Certain herbs and things. People are used to seeing them as a decoration, so normally they leave it on the side. So what I’ve been doing is making layers in my dishes. I layer the different ingredients so if you want to reach one of them, you have to go through all of them. That’s a very Nordic style. It’s visually simple, but requires a lot of technique.
What makes El Chato different from the restaurants you’ve worked at in the past?
El Chato is a combination of everything that I’ve done. But what I’ve been able to do here that’s unique is searching for ingredients that are specific to Colombia and trying to be 100 percent local, which is very hard.
Colombia is an amazing country for growing things. You can grow whatever you want to here. But if you go to a local market here, people are used to eating the same things — one or two varieties of potatoes, one or two varieties of onions. But you can grow so many things here. And there are a lot of native ingredients that we have forgotten because farms are incentivized to only grow commercial varieties of food that people recognize.
What I’m trying to do here is use more native ingredients to show people that they exist and so that they become motivated to eat them too. We’re developing and motivating a lot of local, small-scale farmers to be able to produce a lot of new things specifically for us.
Walk me through how you go about creating a new dish.
We try not to use more than three, maybe four ingredients per dish. That’s really important because with all of these Colombia-specific ingredients we are using, I don’t want someone to see a dish on the menu and have it be made of six different ingredients they’ve never heard of. Then, when they eat the dish, there would be so much going on they wouldn’t be able to learn what these new things actually taste like. They’d get confused.
But if I can just point to three things, people can learn. They can notice, “Ahh, there’s acidity, there’s sweetness,” and understand what these new foods are like. So I push us to use technique to be able to express an ingredient in a certain way, so that people can recognize what they’re putting in their mouth.
So for example, one of the dishes we’re selling a lot of right now is one with mushrooms. We do pickled mushrooms, raw mushrooms and a mushroom pure, and we serve that with fish and tucupí, which is fermented Amazonian cassava. That dish is all based around one ingredient, but expressed in different textures.
One of those native Colombian ingredients you use in your cooking is coca, which is more commonly used to make cocaine than it is to make high-end cuisine. There’s such a stigma and such a strong association between coca leaves and cocaine that it wouldn’t even be legal to cook with them in the U.S. What are some of the reasons you use coca in your dishes, and what do you think about the prohibition on that plant that we have here in the U.S.?
I feel that my goal and my responsibility is to really show what Colombian ingredients are. And coca leaves are part of that. So we cook a lot with coca.
You and I grew up seeing coca leaves or even marijuana leaves as a thing associated with a drug. But for years and years people before us were using those same leaves for other things. To me it’s a matter of education, of getting people to know that there’s more to those plants. The world we live in right now is all about information, but we’ve still lost a lot of connection with how we understand and interact with nature. That’s something that I really want to work on here, just as a Colombian.
The properties of coca leaves are amazing. Before anyone started making cocaine with them, our natives used them for a lot of things. I’m very proud to use it, and I’m not going to stop using it. I really want to use it as much and as long as we can.
Actually, we’re making a coca tamal right now, which is a pretty common and universal Latin American dish, especially in Mexico and Colombia. My approach was to try and make something very commercial, very approachable for the people here and make the dough and everything with coca leaves. And they’re selling a lot. It’s a vegan option that we have. We also have a dessert that we make with coca leaves and lemongrass that is selling a lot.
Using coca leaves to make coca tamales is never going to be as profitable as using them to make cocaine. But I want to show people what it’s capable of. I don’t want people to only see it as a drug. That’s not the only way to use that plant.
What is it that you want your clients to feel when they arrive in the restaurant?
Because of the international success we’ve had, now we’re starting to be seen as kind of a fancy restaurant and I’m trying to fight against that. I don’t want to be seen like that at all.The idea for this restaurant was to make customers feel like they’re in a super easy going ambiance. I don’t want them to feel like they’re in a stiff restaurant. I want them to feel like they can come here two or three times a week.
Normally in a fine dining restaurant, it’s not like that. People come once for the experience and then maybe they come back next year. But this is not a fine dining restaurant. We’re a comfortable restaurant that delivers really high quality food to its customers, which makes them want to come back.
And you try to keep your prices relatively low to allow more local people to enjoy your food, right?
Yes, it’s really important to us to try and keep the prices cheap so that local people can eat the food that comes from their country. I mean, if you come with U.S. dollars it’s cheap. If you come with Colombian pesos, it’s just ok. Working with local producers is super expensive for us, so it’s been hard to be able to keep up that level of accessibility while also offering the quality of ingredients we work with.
My goal is for people to be able to come here as often as they want to. So our prices are cheap, and we don’t make a lot of money. But this whole project is more of a cultural thing than a way to get rich. For us it’s more about showing our ingredients and what we’re capable of making with them than making money. The money will come in other ways, I hope.
What has been the biggest change that international success has caused for El Chato?
For some Colombians, even though we’re using Colombian ingredients, they’re used to eating them in other ways. So when they come here, they see, “Ok, this is pork belly, and pork belly we can just eat at my house. My mother cooks it much better than this restaurant.” It’s very hard to be able to keep that kind of customer satisfied.
But being named as the best restaurant of Bogota and getting international press has made Colombians interested in what’s happening here. The way I see it, what we do is education. I’m really grateful for our success, because it allows us to educate our own people on new ways to enjoy the food of their country. It makes them more willing to try new things.
[At El Chato] I’m able to do what I’ve always wanted to do as a chef, but I have to make sure I don’t push too hard away from what customers want and expect. It’s very important for us to strike a balance between the traditional Colombian cooking customers recognize and showing the undiscovered side of native Colombian cuisine’s potential. Little by little, we’re achieving more and more of what we really want to do, which is Colombian’s eating their own food and being proud of eating their own ingredients.