In the Chilean capital of Santiago, many high-end restaurants offer fresh seafood on the same day it was caught, but that is a true challenge if you consider that the closest coast is around 170 kilometers from the city. That's where chef Gabriel Layer comes in. I joined Gabriel in his truck one Saturday morning in April to find some of the freshest seafood available.
Our first stop is Osaka, the nikkei of Peruvian chef Ciro Watanabe, which has been named one of the best restaurants in Chile and South America for many years in a row—their sashimi is a god's delicacy. Gabriel is wearing blue overalls, sunglasses, and a baseball cap, under which he hides his red hair. He turns down the volume on the radio to announce his arrival at the restaurant.
Gabriel is one of Osaka's most faithful suppliers, and his mission is one that only a few restaurant suppliers in Santiago are willing undertake: to provide kitchens with fish caught that same day.
From there, we head to the coast to look for the freshest fish for Ciro's kitchen and other restaurants in Santiago for tonight's dinner service. To do that in a country with 6,435 kilometers of coast is a difficult task. We are not certain if we'll find anything.
Gabriel runs a small business called La Caleta Chile, which brings fresh fish to restaurants in Santiago. The idea for this project came to him in 2009, when returned to Chile after living for four years in Malaga, Spain. "While talking to my chef friends, I realized that restaurants are willing to pay more for something that seemed impossible to get up to that point: fish just out of the sea," he tells me.
Most restaurants in Santiago get their seafood at the Terminal Pesquero, a huge warehouse located just outside the Chilean capital. Nearly 75 percent of the country's seafood ends up there, supplying almost every market and street vendor. But it take the seafood-filled trucks at least 12 hours to get to the capital from the coast—typically, it takes more than a day. That fish is often sold as "same-day" because it arrives that day, but it's actually been out of the sea for more than 24 hours.
Determined to combat this problem, Gabriel got his business going in 2012. And he did so well that all the chefs he supplies started to change the way they offer seafood. Now they don't specify a type of fish on their menus, but rather just offer "fish of the day," because they never know exactly what Gabriel is going to bring them.
We are on our way to Route 68, which connects Santiago to El Quisco, the closest cove, located 130 kilometers east. An hour and a half later, Gabriel parks his truck just outside the warehouses where the fishermen's union keep their fishing, which they cast at night and pick up first-thing in the morning.
"Hey, Ginger!" a couple of fishermen scream at him from the wooden cabins. "What are you looking for?"
Red lingcod, cojinova, limpets, sea urchins, and jaivas are some of the requests placed for that night. But it's already noon and there is not a lot left.
"You are late, Ginger," they tell him. Gabriel doesn't look worried. He looks for a couple of numbers on his phone. He calls but no one picks up. A guy approaches us in the parking lot and asks Gabriel for a conger eel and a couple of cojinovas. He closes the deal and buys a couple of them—huge ones, well-fed by the sea. Now he just needs to get urchins, limpets, and hopefully a few jaivas.
"In the beginning, when I started [this business], I used to get very frustrated because whenever I got to the coast they were already sold out," he tells me as he gets a Styrofoam box filled with ice to carry the fish he just bought. "There were times where I would leave empty-handed," he adds. "Now I've learned that fishermen have their own rhythm, and if it's a good day like today [with a sunny, calm sea] they go out to the sea again and come back with their boats filled with fish. So, I think that if we wait for a while, we are leaving with a truck full of fresh fish."
It took him a lot of work to earn the fishermen's trust at first.
"To give me a portion of their fish wasn't profitable for them," he says. To win them over, he decided to apply a fair-trade system: He started paying them the price that the fish command at the end of the distribution chain; because it has a few intermediaries, it usually ends up ten times the wholesale price. In order for Gabriel's business to work, chefs need to be willing to pay more than they would at the Terminal Pesquero.
"And they do it because they can, and because the people that dine at their restaurants are very demanding. They can tell the difference with an extremely fresh product," he says. "A fish like this on a menu doesn't cost less than 15,000 Chilean pesos [around US$25]."
He dials his phone again, but the guy he's calling doesn't pick up. "I'm trying to locate my favorite fisherman. He is a dry diver. He only gets the really big fish and harpoons like no one else because he doesn't tear the skin when he does it. The complicated part of it is this: Sometimes he picks up and sometimes he doesn't. Or he disappears. One time, I came two days in a row and I bought from him—just him—500,000 pesos [US$800] of fish each day. After that, I didn't see him again for two weeks. He spent it all. Sometimes I tell him, 'Hey, look at your emails so I can place the orders,' but he tells me, 'I don't have enough money to get internet in my house.'"
All of a sudden, Gabriel smiles: far out to sea, he sees a fishing boat. It's carrying limpets and sea urchins. Bingo. He has the stock he needs to go back to Santiago.
Using WhatsApp, he tells the restaurant owners in Santiago about the products he can bring to them that night.
With his truck filled with the day's catch, Gabriel and I are on our way to Punta de Tralca, a small and quiet beach located a few kilometers away from El Quisco. He wants to locate the diver that gets concholepas—a kind of sea snail—and other mollusks that are very valuable to fishermen.
He calls him, but no one picks up.
Gabriel doesn't make a fuss about it. Instead, he takes off his overalls and dons a pair of shorts. He places some cojinovas and sea urchins in a metal bowl before cutting the fish in half and tossing its skin to a seagull. He then cleans the sea urchins, slices a white onion and cilantro, squeezes a few lemons, and mixes everything on a bowl. His ceviche is now ready, despite the absence of a tablecloth or a five-star restaurant bill.
"This is the best thing in the world," he says, playing hip-hop out of his cellphone speakers and looking at the sea. Half an hour later, he's on his way back to Santiago—and he still has a long day ahead of him.