Sergio Barroso can’t stop thinking about food. Concepts for new dishes come to him all the time while he’s cooking, walking, even sleeping. “I have lots of notebooks,” explains the young Spanish chef. “I keep one at home and one here at the restaurant, full of recipes, ideas, drawings. When I have an idea, I jot it down right away.” Take his coconut curry “risotto,” for example. “I thought that if I used calamari, finely diced and cooked very briefly, it might resemble the texture of risotto.” His idea worked. The new dish, served with a piece of local conger eel dusted in merquén, a smoked-chili seasoning, is now one of his favorites.
Barroso and I are chatting at Alegre, the sleek restaurant he opened a few months ago in Valparaiso, a bohemian port city 70 miles northwest of Santiago, Chile. The city, which clings to steep hills overlooking the Pacific Ocean, is an improbable jumble of rainbow-colored houses, seemingly built atop one another. Old funiculars take residents from their neighborhoods to the city center below. Opening a refined restaurant like Alegre—with its innovative Mediterranean cuisine and touches of molecular gastronomy—was a bold move in a scruffy meat-and-potato-loving city. Perhaps bolder still was Barroso’s decision, at the peak of his European career, to move halfway around the world to run a restaurant in a country he’d never even visited.
The 28-year-old Barroso has a single-minded focus that’s uncommon in someone so young. He has been cooking professionally for nearly half his life, working his way through some of the top restaurants in Europe. The chef is soft-spoken and reserved until something strikes him as funny; then he dissolves into shoulder-shaking laughter.
Housed in Palacio Astoreca, an ornate 1920s mansion turned boutique hotel, Alegre is named after its stylish neighborhood, Cerro Alegre. The hotel and restaurant opened in September after a $5 million investment by Swiss-Chilean owners Vincent Juillerat and Francisca Joannon and three years of meticulous renovations. “It’s still such a new concept for Valparaiso,” Juillerat says of Alegre. The city’s denizens often aren’t prepared for the intricate tasting menus, with their playful renditions of local dishes. “Some are surprised to see the food,” he continues, “how it’s arranged or the small portion sizes.” But after earning a perfect seven-fork review in El Mercurio’s Wikén (the cultural supplement of Chile’s most prominent newspaper), Alegre has curious foodies driving the 1½ hours from Santiago to check it out.
Though he’s been in the city for nearly a year, Barroso still has not seen much of it. “I’ve been too busy working,” he says sheepishly. No surprise: in three months, he not only opened one of Chile’s most innovative restaurants but also had to train a team of 20-something culinary students. Given the lack of gastronomically ambitious restaurants in Valparaiso, these young cooks hadn’t eaten, let alone cooked, in an upscale, European-style restaurant. “The first month was horrible,” he recalls with a chuckle. “Macarons were especially disastrous.”
But the change after three months was remarkable. They started out with simple foods, each week adding a new sauce, a new technique, a new dessert, though Barroso had to make nearly all the food in the beginning. “From the first week we set the standards very high. I’ve had to be strict with the cooks so that they learn to be excellent,” he says. Now “they’re doing a great job.” Still, Barroso isn’t taking a day off anytime soon. He spends time with each cook during meal service, observing, guiding, assisting—and making sure that every dish is perfect.
Born into a family of chefs in Madrid (his father José Luis is a cook at an elementary school, and his older brother Raoul owns a tapas restaurant), Barroso began cooking professionally at age 16, staging at top restaurants in Cádiz, London and Madrid, including a stint with Spanish chef Alberto Chicote at Nodo. At 23, he landed a dream job at El Bulli, the Michelin three-star restaurant whose elaborate 35-course molecular tasting menus made it one of the top-rated restaurants in the world until it closed in 2011. It “was definitely a special experience,” he says of his time there. “[It] was only open for a six-month season, so you went there to work and to learn as much as possible.”
“Sergio was one of the most professional persons that I trained,” says Mateu Casañas, a former chef de cuisine at El Bulli (now with El Bulli Foundation). “In maybe two or three weeks, he understood perfectly how Ferran [Adrià] works with the food, the dishes, the techniques and the concepts.”
Between seasons, Barroso worked for acclaimed chef Denis Martin at his Michelin-starred restaurant in Vevey, Switzerland. “Sergio is a very creative person and an excellent chef,” Martin says. “He loves playing with tradition and giving it a different meaning.” Barroso later worked at the five-star Monte-Carlo Beach hotel in Monaco before deciding to make the move to Chile.
Joannon and Juillerat received over 200 CVs for the Alegre position, many from Michelin-starred chefs, but Barroso’s stood out. “Sergio has great experience and has trained in some of the best spots,” says Juillerat. “As soon as we met him, we knew he was the one.” He adds, “He’s raised the restaurant to a level that we could have never even imagined.”
A restaurant like alegre would be excellent anywhere, but it’s particularly intriguing against the backdrop of Valparaiso. Despite its World Heritage designation a decade ago, the place has a decidedly gritty feel. But it’s a city on the rise, thanks in large part to Valparaiso’s recovery and urban development program, which just completed a six-year, $73 million project to help buy and restore historic buildings, improve streets and repair a number of the antique funiculars. Now there are new hotels, restaurants and art galleries popping up, and a sense of renewal is in the air. Still, there’s a romantic vibrancy and cultural authenticity to Valparaiso rarely apparent in more heavily urbanized cities. It’s easy to spend hours weaving through the maze of steep staircases and winding streets, and around each corner you’re rewarded—with a sweeping view, a stunning townhouse, bougainvillea cascading over an iron gate.
the black-suited server presents us each with a piece of slate topped with a shiny, silver sardine can. There are no garnishes, simply a spoon laid alongside. He removes the lids for us, revealing plump mussels and rosy-hued macha clams topped with a bright pimentón- and garlic-laced coulis, or according to the menu, “mussels in escabeche.” A lime green mini-cocotte arrives next, revealing a ruby red cherry gazpacho with postage-stamp squares of pisco-marinated salmon topped with salmon roe and white acacia blossoms. The whimsy continues with a “liquefied” tortilla (a play on Spain’s popular potato-and-egg snack)—light-as-air potato foam laced with caramelized onions and topped with an egg yolk—served in a tiny vintage glass canning jar.
Barroso’s attention to detail is impeccable, and his commitment to local ingredients is total. Everything he uses, down to the sea salt and olive oil, comes from Chile, and most everything is purchased daily at the local markets. Even the wine list is almost exclusively Chilean, with just a few bottles from Argentina and France to round out the mix.
But it’s Barroso’s sense of fun that makes the meals truly enjoyable. One dish, simply titled Seasonal Vegetables, consists of a garden of barely blanched spring vegetables and baby lettuces sprouting from a mound of quinoa and fresh cheese. “I wanted to prepare a dish that I could change each season,” he explains.
Barroso cooks to delight his guests. “To see a person eat really well—that’s what I love the most,” he says, breaking into a grin. In a way, his food parallels Valparaiso: colorful, layered, unexpected. Hopefully one of these days, he’ll have a chance to explore his new home.
—Anna Watson Carl