In Conversation With Chef Fernanda Guerrero of Araya

by Priyanka Elhence
12 Jun 2024

Chef Fernanda Guerrero recalls her professional culinary journey – from Chile, Singapore, and everywhere in between – that led her to create irresistible breads and magical desserts at Araya.

You would never think from looking at her incredible dessert creations, the single-origin chocolate trolley, and La Panera bread course at Araya – Singapore’s first Chilean restaurant – that Chef Fernanda Guerrero was not a formally trained baker and pastry chef.

Guerrero’s career has seen her work in feted restaurants including Alegre, voted Best Restaurant in Chile (2013-2014), and NAPA Wine Bar & Kitchen, named one of Shanghai’s best restaurants by Tatler in 2017. But long before she came to work in these big-name kitchens, she had been practising her trade in her family’s restaurant in Chile, which her parents ran for 32 years. Interestingly enough, she was in charge of the grill or ‘la plancha’ in the hot kitchen then, and not even remotely interested in bread and pastry.

I asked her what made her venture into these unknown territories then. “I started hating the smell of garlic,” she revealed. It was only after Chef Francisco Araya, her partner at work and in life, asked her to look after bakery and pastry during their time at Alegre, a top-rated restaurant in the port city of Valparaíso, Chile, that Guerrero traded the hot grill for the hot oven. The Chilean couple have been friends since childhood, but only became a couple much later after Araya returned back home after his time in Japan. They then worked in Shanghai together, eventually moving to Singapore in 2023. 

“I loved having the freedom to create something that complemented the menu at Araya – the creativity and not having to deal with the smell of garlic everywhere. I have always been very organized, and I think having such good organization skills really came in handy when transitioning to bakery and pastry,” she said.

“Of course, I have made a lot of mistakes along the way, but that’s just how you learn. Even now, I participate in a lot of online workshops and courses, because the only way to improve in pastry and bread making is practice. And I love how once you have consistency with the basics, you can play around with ingredients a bit more to create an entirely new dimension. It’s fascinating to me,” shares the 36-year-old.

“My oven makes me super happy. I am thrilled when the breads come out fluffy and with the right crust. With bread, even though you have the recipe, it can be so stressful because it can be very temperamental despite a precise execution. My different breads need different levels of fermentation, so it takes a lot of organization, but it’s worth it."

Despite the hours of proofing to consider and the behind-the-scene details that go into bread making, it’s her dessert creations that are more labor- and time-intensive. “It’s more like a sweet kitchen, rather than just having cake for dessert. It’s my job to give our diners the last flavor for the evening; the final memory and imparting taste for guests at Araya from a meal that reflects the rich heritage of Chile and South America. While I largely use quintessential South American ingredients like Andean potatoes, corn, quinoa and lucuma, I am also conscious about tweaking tastes to better suit the local palate.”

Guerrero recalls a hard lesson learnt in Shanghai, when she had been requested to make a cake for her (local) diner. She created her most treasured one – Latin America’s famous Tres Leches Cake (or three milk cake). Although the cake was absolutely perfect from a cultural point of view, it was just too sweet for the local palate and not as well received as expected. “But that is where I started to learn that you have to adapt when you are overseas. It was only a few years ago when I went back home and had the cake myself at home that I realized just how sweet it had become for me too.”

(Related: Get to know some of Singapore's top chefs beyond the kitchen)

La Panera selections at Araya include, from L-R: Chapalele, Chorizo, and Marraqueta

So what is Guerrero’s place of zen in the kitchen now? “My oven makes me super happy. I am thrilled when the breads come out fluffy and with the right crust. With bread, even though you have the recipe, it can be so stressful because it can be very temperamental despite a precise execution. My different breads need different levels of fermentation, so it takes a lot of organization, but it’s worth it. I love it when diners like my bread and ask for more,” she says. For instance, marraqueta, the classic pan Chileno, is the least complicated of her La Panera trio and requires the shortest fermentation time; chapalele, the potato sourdough, proofs during service, while the Chorizo soft bun is the most complicated and requires overnight fermentation, as well as another ferment in the morning after shaping.

The couple plans to change their menu at Araya approximately every eight weeks, and have just recently launched their marine-inspired menu, Costa. “It wouldn’t be the same experience if the menu had an ordinary bread course or just another dessert creation that didn’t showcase our Chilean culture in some way. I don’t want our diners leaving underwhelmed because dessert was just something ordinary, rather than something that complements the heritage and the soul of the restaurant.”

And it’s exactly with this ethos that Guerrero created her stunning carrito de dulces single-origin chocolate trolley, using cacao from six different top quality chocolate producing countries (Amazonia, Peru, Venezuela, Brazil, Ecuador, and Mexico). “Most diners like finishing on chocolate, but I didn’t want to make something too heavy. And since I had so much choice and so many great options, I didn’t want to limit myself to just one creation. Hence the chocolate trolley, using a variety of flavors and an assortment of single-origin chocolates from different places, was born.”

While sourcing chocolate was easier, getting her hands on other native ingredients like lucuma and cochayuyo (a Southern bull kelp from the Chilean coast that she dehydrated and made into a spread for the bread course) was more challenging in the beginning. “Lucuma (also known as egg fruit), is a fruit native to the Andean valley, hugely abundant in Chile, and used for all forms of dessert, as well as a natural sugar substitute for diabetics. But in Chile, it is typically sold in pulp form, and it was only here in Singapore that we got to see and use the fruit in its original form.” 

While she is very excited to introduce the flavors of Chile to the world, Guerrero is seasoned and humble enough to know that the flavors have to be presented in a ‘new yet familiar’ way that will be attractive for diners. “My flavor profile is classic. You have to make all the components familiar for people to want to try the creation. I really enjoy being innovative with something that is originally Chilean, but adding a small twist to it so that more people can enjoy.”

To end, Guerrero shares: “Chile is a beautiful country and has so much variety and diversity to offer, both from the land and sea. We have an amazing team at Araya (most of whom are from Chile) with so much energy and passion, and I want people to leave the restaurant happy and smiling. Everything goes back to memories and like my most favourite desserts, I can’t wait to show Singapore more of Chile and the South Pacific.”