Flavors of the South
By Lou Fancher
Born in Santiago, Chef Guisell Osorio learned her culinary skills from her grandmother that put her delicate dulce de leche-filled cookies, known as alfajores, on the shelves of Whole Foods Market. Early childhood years spent celebrating food and family in South America led Osorio to realize her love of cooking was more than a passion. A 28-year Walnut Creek resident married to retired Walnut Creek police officer Brian Isaacson, Osorio launched Sabores del Sur catering company in 2002. Tapping into resources for up-and-coming food entrepreneurs at La Cocina — a Bay Area nonprofit that supports women of color and female immigrants building businesses in the food industry — Osorio started out by selling goods at Bay Area farmers’ markets. Demand grew rapidly for her robust empanadas (golden pastries generously stuffed with meat or vegetarian fillings) and amazing alfajores. With her catering business thriving, Osorio turned to her next dream: a restaurant.
On April 17, 2014, she opened Sabores del Sur, Walnut Creek’s first eatery devoted to authentic cuisine from Chile. Tucked into an office building on Oak Road, just steps from the Pleasant Hill/Contra Costa Centre BART, Osorio says the location on the city’s outskirts is more affordable than the downtown core and offers an on-site kitchen for her continued catering services. “It’s not as visible as downtown restaurants,” Osorio says, “But I’m planning that soon, everyone in Walnut Creek will know we exist.”
For those already in the know, the chef’s warm personality is part of the attraction. Lomito, a thin-cut pork sandwich with avocados and tomatoes and a steak sandwich with green beans “already have people hooked,” Osorio says. “South American cuisine is new to them, but each time I cook food from home I’m amazed at how much customers enjoy it.”
Osorio chooses organic meats because “they just taste better” and loves exploring how to integrate American produce into traditional Chilean dishes. “Corn here is watery and sweet with tiny kernels,” she says. “Chilean corn is fat, so different. At first I couldn’t figure out how to use it, but now we have a shepherd’s pie made with corn instead of potatoes.” Local squash adds flavor to doughs and soups, and tomatoes splash color in salads and add moisture to sandwiches. Osorio says peppers used to spice the restaurant’s food come from Peru and her aunt’s backyard garden in Chile. Recognizing the growing number of vegan diners, no lard is used at Sabores del Sur, a step away from tradition towards healthy nutrition.
Training her 12-person staff Osorio employs a show-and-tell method of cooking. “I tell them how things should smell and show them the colors that are best. With the baking, the dough has to be a specific texture you can feel with your fingers.” Even the coffee drinks are carefully prepared. “There are very good baristas and then there are others who simply make coffee,” she says about the art of coffee making.
Proud of Sabores del Sur, the name her mother gave her catering and restaurant business, that loosely translates to “Flavors of the South,” she’s fond of the connection it has to family and the delicious cuisine she learned to create in her grandmother’s kitchen.