“I hope my parents are proud of me,” pauses Chef Guisell Osorio of Sabores del Sur as a tear swells in her eye. “I know they are”, she then reassures herself. Guisell left Chile at 21 to pursue her dream in the “Land of Opportunity”: the United States. Ever since she was a child, Guisell loved to cook and prepare food. Building off of her grandma’s homemade recipes, Guisell created what is now a well-known South American bistro in Walnut Creek, a suburb of San Francisco. Her family was nothing less but proud. Last year, before her father passed away in Chile, he asked Guisell’s mom to get a special cookbook stuffed deep in the closet which was filled with his own recipes. He asked that the book be sent to Guisell. With this gesture he wanted to show his love and support for Guisell's passion. “If only his writing was a bit more clear”, laughs Guisell as she reminisces about her parents.
Sabores del Sur, which means "Flavors from the South”, is located in the business area near the Pleasant Hill BART station. A flow of business customers come here for lunch from nearby office buildings. Once inside, the place envelops you like a cozy blanket. Traditional and modern Latin music plays subtly in the background. The restaurant is well lit, with comfortable chairs accompanying each table. At the far corner of the restaurant, an exotic collection of Chilean objects are put on display, two of those delicate antiques being Guisell’s grandma’s old sewing machine and telephone.
As I looked around the unique restaurant, I noticed that only women worked behind the counter. I quickly found out that almost every one of those women had children and Chef Guisell ensures that each employee is able to balance family and work. “I make sure they are paid fairly and are treated well.”
Guisell is often the person who takes your order. If you are there for the first time, she will give you several recommendations. You are treated as a special guest.
The menu has about 4-5 choices in every category, which makes it simple and easy to choose. In addition, there are a lot of familiar international names on the menu. Chile’s multi-cultural heritage had a significant influence on its cuisine. German influence can be seen in the sausages like Prietas, Chilean-style blood sausage served with potatoes. The traditional Shepherd's Pie (Pastel de Choclo) has a Chilean twist by using a summer corn crust rather than potatoes.
Scanning the menu intently, I decided that I was craving a meaty sandwich. Guisell was at the register and recommended Churrasco (Grilled steak with tomato, avocado & aioli), but I had my heart set on Pan con Chicharrón (Peruvian-style fried pork with sweet potato & onion salad).
Interestingly, Pan Con Chicharron is traditionally eaten for breakfast, but I couldn’t even finish half for lunch - it was so filling! The flavorful sandwich creates sweet, salty, and tangy flavors by combining pork, sweet potato and red onion relish. Chicharron is a term used for cooking meat, typically pork, by braising and frying to create a tender, but also crispy piece of meat. The sandwich is made on a traditional bread called Marraqueta, Chile’s version of a French baguette.
To go with my sandwich, I wanted to order a soup as well. There were 3 soups on the menu, but Aguadito de Pollo (Peruvian-style organic chicken & rice soup) sounded best at that moment. What made the particular soup very unusual was the sudden, bursting sweet corn flavor. In Peru, they call this soup “levanta-muertos” which means “wakes up the dead” because of its restoring and soothing qualities.
My mom ordered Traditional Chilean empanada since this was the only traditional food we knew before coming to the restaurant. Chileans eat empanadas at any time of the year, but they are most popular during Fiestas Patrias holidays to celebrate Chile’s independence. Every culture seems to have it’s version of these turnover pies (Calzones, Pierogies), yet the Chilean version was definitely a new kick of unique. Empanadas came to South America with the Spanish 500 years ago, and every South American culture has transformed the traditional empanada to their own liking. We decided on the Steak Empanada which was very flavorful due to the exotic Chilean spices and “caldúa”. In Chile, they say the juicier the better. The dough kept the whole ensemble together, making it smooth and able to be cut easily, but at the same time, the empanada didn’t crumble or fall part.
For dessert, we had to try Chef Guiselle’s famous Alfajores - crumbly butter cookies, filled with a thick layer of creamy dulce de leche caramel and dusted in white powdered sugar. Originally, the Spaniards acquired Alfajores from the Middle East. The word “alfajor” actually comes from an old Arabic word that stands for “excellent” or “luxurious”. After Alfajores were brought to South America, every country in the continent made its own version of these cookies, becoming local specialties filled with dulce de le leche, jam, or chocolate, and sometimes coated in a sugar glaze. Chef Guisell’s Alfajores were irresistible and I munched on both cookies even though the second one was meant for someone else.
A lot of different people come to this place: families with South American background, business people from nearby offices, and cultural foodies. As I waited for my order, I noticed one family ordering a red drink poured form a large glass jar. I was curious to try it. It turned out to be chicha morada, a beverage prepared by boiling purple corn with various fruits added in and a pinch of cinnamon along with a few cloves. To me it was delicious and refreshing. This drink is considered to have many health benefits being packed with antioxidants.
Chef Guisell was born in Santiago de Chile in a very large family. She grew up during the 80s under the difficult military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. Rules were very strict, an example being that 8 p.m. was the curfew for all people, adults and children. “That’s why people had parties at night”, Guisell exclaimed, “If you didn’t leave on time, you were stuck at someone’s house for the rest of the night, so what’s a better way to spend the evening then a party” It was also a time of “Macho community”, meaning that the girls couldn’t go anywhere without a male chaperone.
When Guisell was 17, she moved to the US with her parents for 2 years and attended a high school in the East Bay. She immediately fell in love with the feeling of freedom of the “Land of Opportunity”. As the family went back to Chile, Guisell promised herself that she would come back.
Guisell returned to the Bay Area 2 years later. The only problem was that she had a mere $27 in her pocket, yet she also held a dream to build her own business. After several rounds of jobs, she slowly began to create her informal business, Sabores del Sur, selling her favorite South American foods to friends and family.
As she developed her business on her own, she found it hard keeping in touch with her family. Her family didn’t have a phone in Chile until the late 90s. In order to speak with her parents, Guisell had to call the community center at a specific time each week. The person from the community center in Chile would run out and call Guisell’s mom. Every minute of the conversation was precious.
To get the authentic recipes from Chile, Guisell would often call her grandmother, who happened to be the only family member in Chile with a phone. At the sky high cost of $2 per minute, she would write down the tips from her grandma and later incorporate the recipes in the building of her restaurant. Many dishes today are based on the same magic recipes from Guisell's abuelita.
But it was not just the mysterious deliciousness of grandma’s recipes. Guisell told us, “One day, I realized that I had it in me, I had a gift of being able to make delicious foods and a way of making people happy with it! I am very blessed because I do what I love. My restaurant is like my living room and I have guests every day. I love it!” Guiselle prepared and built her restaurant for a full year before officially opening it in 2004. Prior to the opening, she did a lot of research, testing, and took what seemed like an infinite amount of culinary and business classes.
“Was it hard building your own restaurant as a woman?”, I asked. “I never thought or assumed that things would be different because I am a woman”, replied Guisell, “ I never thought I would achieve less or could do less. I thought of myself as a person with a dream and I knew that I would work hard, do the right thing, and I would get there.”
Guisell thinks of herself as being very fortunate. When she first started, programs such as La Cocina and Women’s Initiative took her under their wings as a talented entrepreneur and provided commercial kitchen space, industry expertise and other resources for her success.
La Cocina is an incubator for aspiring working class, food entrepreneurs with a mission to improve equity in business ownership for women, immigrants, and people of color. According to La Cocina, “Women account for only 33% of business owners nationwide and still make 46-75 cents for every dollar their white, male counterparts make”.
The other secret for her success? “I always treat those around me with respect, and in return they respect me”, said Guisell, “and I always ask questions. That’s how I learn. When I was little, my aunts would say, ‘do you always have to ask questions, Guisell?’ And I still do.”
In addition, Guisell always keeps researching and learning ways to improve her restaurant. She keeps a journal of ideas that lessons from other accomplished business people and chefs. “There is always something to learn,'' she stated.
Chef Guisell has always been a positive contributor to the community. Sabores del Sur supports Fair Trade, Locally Grown and Buy Local Programs. “I believe in giving back, and I have always lived by this principle”, shared Guisell. When Guisell was just starting out, she would give back by volunteering at the AIDs Foundation and Breast Cancer Foundation events by Cheering, helping set up and clean up after.
Guisell is especially passionate about Chilean Teletón, a charity event held yearly since 1978, which raises funds to help children with developmental disabilities. “This event cut across political divides and got our country together. It helped us create opportunities for children and their families that are often struggling”. Considering herself very blessed, Guisell says she started asking people to donate to Chilean Teleton instead of giving gifts on her birthday. Sometimes during Christmas, she organizes dinners for friends and family and asks guests to contribute to Teleton as a donation in order to attend her event.
It's easy to tell that Chef Guisell has the strength of an iron fist and a soft kind hard for everyone in need. After visiting “Sabores del Sur” , I felt like I had visited a friend in South America, someone who truly cared about me and wanted to make sure my mom and l felt comfortable and ate well. I hope to come back to her place soon with my friends so that they become a part of this experience too.
Sabores del Sur
Address: 271 Lafayette Cir, Lafayette, CA 94549