Rodolfo Guzmán was hacking away at something you're not likely to find in an L.A. market -- tepu wood from Chile. He had brought it for a dinner at Playa, John Sedlar's Beverly Blvd. restaurant, that would show how he works indigenous Chilean ingredients into stunning modernist dishes.
Guzman, 34, has rocketed into the culinary stratosphere with Boragó, his 6-year-old restaurant in Santiago.
Translating what he does there into a one-night stand at Playa required the focus of a visionary, which he is, despite his easy-going good looks. Born in Santiago, Guzmán forages the length of his long, skinny country to search out unknown foods and explore native cooking techniques for his intricate, upscale preparations.
At Playa he presented mussel broth in the style of curanto, a southern Chilean dish of meats and seafood buried in the ground with hot stones and native woods. It took years to rework that into something feasible for Boragó.
Guzmán had to simplify it even further for Playa. The outcome was a small container of intense mussel broth surrounded by soil in a tin bucket. A clump of greenery represented the giant nalca leaves that cover steaming curanto in Chile. Tepu sticks bristling from the bucket were blasted with heat before serving to create smokiness. Tepu, Guzmán said, is a wood used by indigenous Mapuches. "It gives a personality to the food that is amazing."
Ashes blackened with squid ink drifted over Chilean salmon in a reworking of rescoldo, a way that food is cooked in charcoal to flavor it with smoke and wood aromas.
A golden tube that stretched across each dinner plate was orange skin puree, against which Guzmán leaned flakes of sheer, crisp chicken skin. A few drops of golden chicken broth were spooned alongside as each plate was served.
Snacks that started the dinner were fluttery white rice crackers to dip in mussel sauce, and thin caramelized apple slices layered with chicken liver and cherry pâté
Dessert, a bluish-purple accumulation of violet flower ice cream, blueberry nougat meringue and blueberry crisp nougat, involved maqui concentrate that Guzmán brought from Chile, marveling that he got it through inspection at LAX. Maqui is a small berry with such powerful tannins that it is "like having a whole bottle of red wine in your mouth," he said.
Guzmán had worked at Playa since early morning. Host chef John Rivera Sedlar provided staff to help and took a hand himself, bending over trays of apple snacks to get them ready to serve.
Apples, oranges and lemons from Chile were in tall glass cylinders on the tables, and Chilean wines accompanied the dinner.
Guzmán left the next day, anticipating the release of his first cookbook December 3. It's called "Entorno," which means environment, and it celebrates Chile's natural resources as well as his cooking. His six-year plan includes a series of books, each focusing on a single ingredient. Next up is "Endemica," about Chilean mushrooms.
Another project is working with Chilean artisans on a collection of handsome, rustic dinnerware that he will sell at Boragó.
"My country is very unknown and very unique on earth," he said proudly. "Everything that is happening in Chile is very different from the rest of Latin America."
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