Despite Executive Chef Álvaro Clavijo's extensive experience in some of the world's most renown restaurants - like NOMA in Denmark, and Per Se in New York - El Chato is unconcerned with being a restaurant of sophisticated formalities; in fact that's one of the things that makes it unexpectedly remarkable. Sure it's hip and stylish, the front of house staff is warm, all of that's good... but when the food comes out, it is magic! This is food that arrests you in a way; that asks for a moment of silence to savor and take in a few mouthfuls with total attention.
It started with chicken hearts... then escalated to beef tongue... apparently I was feeling courageous. My usual veggie-loving tendencies would have typically said "Uhm, thanks for the preposterous suggestion, but nope on the animal organs for me." Well, if eating hearts and tongue are unsettling to you fellow animal-defenders out there, then you may need some serious grit to order the rotisserie chicken here. At El Chato - in Bogota, Colombia - you'll be served the entire chicken on your plate! Yes, the whole body, dangling roasted little head and all. WAIT! Bear with me. This is precisely something animal lovers should commend and appreciate! One of the many things to love at El Chato is Executive Chef Álvaro Clavijo's desire to connect his diners to the food and where it comes from.
Getting to Know the CHEF
// a personal conversation with Álvaro Clavijo
What's the hardest or best lesson you’ve learned in the kitchen?
When I began working in Per Se in New York, one of the chefs said to me "The difference between ordinary and extraordinary is consistency... and you have to be consistent every day in what you're doing". That shit really reformatted the chip in me for the rest of my life, in absolutely everything that I began to do from that point onward. It's a phrase that Thomas Keller uses a lot, in all of his restaurants. I was just arriving from having worked in Paris at Joël Robuchon, a two Michelin star restaurant. So I felt: "I'm coming from France to the States, pfff, it's gonna be a joke working here"... but no, arriving to New York was totally the opposite. It was like walking into the mouth of a wolf... As if I hadn't learned anything, that was incredible.
Your fondest memory related to food:
I remember really well when I was little, my stepfather made an egg salad. I must have been fourteen. Fourteen years having eaten eggs in all forms: scrambled, fried, eggs with onions, eggs with arepas... but never cold. It had never occurred to me to separate the yolk from the white of a cooked egg, and grate it to turn it into a cold cucumber salad... "wow"; to see a common ingredient used in such a different way was a revelation.
I also remember while attending culinary school in Spain, in one class we had to taste a dish with snails and pig's feet. At the time I was like "I'm not trying that, that's too intense", and my teacher said "either you try it, or you're not allowed back in the classroom". I tried it and my eyes opened wide. I remember it being like the first time I tasted truffles... "that's delicious!" and the teacher replied "the difference between a good dish or ingredient and a bad one is not that there are bad ingredients, but ingredients poorly cooked". From that point onward I became a lot more open to trying everything.
Was your family supportive of pursuing a culinary career?
After high school I went to Paris and began working in a kitchen, but I'd never considered it as a career. Once I started studying Architecture, I told my mom what I truly loved was food; I wanted to study culinary arts in Spain... but she refused. I secretly went abroad without telling her. A few months later when she found out, she stopped talking to me and withdrew all financial support.
For Christmas, we used to all go to Washington where my grandma lived. One time my sister suggested I make a great dinner to impress my mom with what I'd learned... "Cook whatever, just cook something that you know you can do really well!"
Paella!! My sister and I went to the market the next day, and bought ingredients, including a huge salmon head to make the broth.
I began making the broth and threw in the fish head. It was loaded with fat, pretty much making the broth 3/4 fat and 1/4 broth! But I went ahead and added all that fatty broth to the paella, and created a ginormous fishy greasy mess... which everyone proceeded to eat. And that's how I intoxicated my entire family over the holidays one time... At that point my mom decided: "ok, we gotta support his culinary career. He's already in this, so he might as well do it right, and not kill anybody."
With their support I scaled from a terrible tapas restaurant in Spain where I washed dishes and cooked basics, to seeking more artful Michelin starred restaurants, moving to France, doing internships, learning a lot... then I was in Denmark in NOMA, and then Per Se before moving back to Colombia... I still travel once a year to do a stage (brief internship) abroad to see what's new in the culinary industry.. but yeah, that's the story.
The Art of Fermentation - Sandor Katz, and the Escoiffer classics from all over the world.
Getting to Know EL CHATO
// Álvaro tells us about the restaurant's philosophy
El Chato is off the beaten path, so to speak, and yet it's doing really well...
It is. They recently nominated us as best restaurant here in Bogota. I feel like for it being a small restaurant in a more hidden part of town... well that says something... And without investing in it as much as I would like, it has maintained itself; it's been a project that has been really interesting for the guild, for the people – I think there's something interesting there.
In the States there's an ever-expanding movement of local produce, seasonal ingredients, humanely raised animals, etc. Is this the same in Colombia?
It's not quite the trend that it is in the US, but that's what we're pushing for at El Chato, and believe that it's an added value to the restaurant. Working with and supporting local providers who take more care in raising game humanely, or growing crops organically is going to have a higher cost than generic ingredients. A lot of restaurants in Bogota charge high prices just 'cause the place looks pretty, and they use many imported ingredients. We source great ingredients, while still keeping the price and experience accessible by staying local.
Tell me about the whole-chicken on a plate... it's... unique!
Alvaro: Some people see the whole chicken with the head on their plate and feel it's grotesque, but that's because they've lost the connection between eating chicken and realizing that it was once a living being. In fact many probably never had the connection to begin with...
What do you envision for El Chato moving forward?
Alvaro: Currently menus at El Chato are inspired a lot by traditional Colombian recipes, using those as a base to introduce regional ingredients from which we adapt many of our dishes. The vision moving forward is to evolve into something original; to make food not so inspired on what already exists in Colombian cuisine, but rather act more as authors of new ideas, while still using local ingredients. Ideally as the restaurant grows, we won't use any foreign ingredients, like Olive Oil for example - in Colombia we don’t produce it. Right now we render our own vegetable and animal fats at the restaurant.
Pictured above, an heirloom potato variety from Ventaquemada, Colombia is one of the ingredients El Chato sources from a local group called Selva Nevada, who focuses on working with local communities to "rescue" regional ingredients that would otherwise fade into a decreasing diversity of food crops. Álvaro doesn't reserve his use-great-ingredients philosophy solely for his restaurant clientele:
“Making good food accessible to a broader community is important. Just last night we held a dinner event at the botanical gardens which was open to the general public; people from all walks of life came and were welcomed to enjoy a great meal.” -Álvaro Clavijo
El Chato is an inspiring reminder to ask on our part: "What might I do, big or small, to lessen the disparity between healthy food and affordability? How can I influence this imbalance...?" Perhaps I ask this more to those of us who's vocation is based in the culinary realm. We all have the opportunity to bring health to the world. As someone with a passion for food in a way that feels driven beyond even my own will, I'm learning to accept that part of my "mission" is to honor my love for food, and through it somehow cultivate healing. (I'm still figuring out the how!)
Not sayin' we have to individually bring about a revolution or to bear this big, complex question on our shoulders alone. Feeling guilt about having the blessing to enjoy beautiful food is not the point either!! For many, becoming more aware, more connected to where their food comes from might be all that they do, and that's wonderful and enough. To El Chato, and Álvaro, I'm thankful for them inspiring awareness free of finger-pointing, but rather in a sincere way that brings curiosity and delight.
If El Chato were a person, they'd be the one in the room that everyone wants to be friends with… the one by whom everyone is magnetically intrigued. They exist without any effort to impress anyone, and yet they do, simply by being authentic and unassuming. They make you feel utterly comfortable in their presence, and uniquely special at the same time. They give you enough of their sincere undivided attention, and still by the end you have a longing feeling of wanting to be in their presence longer. That’s El Chato: modest yet elegant; simple yet cultured; warm yet perfectly unconcerned. The one you smugly brag about knowing – 'cause they have "it", and knowing them makes you feel like a little bit of their magic seeps into you too.