Araya-Restaurant-singapore-chef-coupl

Photo: Araya

Almost every evening, Francisco Araya and Fernanda Guerrero stage a performance in Singapore. The Chilean natives have been rehearsing for a decade, and now perform their choreography with precision and panache. A consummate host, Araya commands the audience’s attention by progressively introducing the evening’s programme, while Guerrero swoops in and out at well-timed intervals, and closes the show in spectacular fashion.  

But Araya and Guerrero aren’t actors, musicians, or performance artists; they are the culinary whizzes behind Araya, the 30-seater fine dining venue that’s been garnering rave reviews since it opened last October. Araya’s showcase of Chilean and South Pacific flavours is a rarity here, making its degustation menu a gastronomic treat.

Another rarity: The chefs are a couple who work in the same kitchen. They have been doing so for the past 10 years, since their time at Alegre, a top-rated restaurant in the port city of Valparaíso, Chile. The pair are in a de facto relationship as Chile practices Common Law.

Francisco Araya and Fernanda Guerrero
Photo: Courtesy of Francisco Araya and Fernanda Guerrero

Because of how much time they spent together, they don’t have an anniversary date — “It was sometime in September”, says Francisco, 40, with a laugh. September 8 is typically when they commemorate the occasion.

Although their love blossomed over the years — thanks to a shared passion for food and the culture surrounding it — the couple have known each other since they were teenagers. 

“I was a friend of her sister’s back when I was a teenager. I used to go to her house,” says Francisco. “I knew him as part of my sister’s group but nothing else,” explains Fernanda, 35. “I didn’t know that he was a chef, and he also didn’t know that I was pursuing a career as a pastry chef.”

Fernanda, a pastry chef, shows off her house-made selection of bread that is served at the start of the meal. (Photo: Araya)

Sharing a love for food

Both grew up in a town just outside Santiago, Chile’s capital, and both hailed from restaurant dynasties. Araya’s grandmother owned a few restaurants, and many of his uncles were chefs. “I was probably five years old when I learned to cook, making pancakes, rice, stews. It was natural in my family.” 

Meanwhile, Guerrero’s parents owned a restaurant that ran for 32 years. “I basically lived in our restaurant. It was very close to our school, so we did our homework there, had our meals there, brought our friends over, had parties there. So yeah, we grew up in the restaurant business and we love what we do.” 

Francisco Araya and Fernanda Guerrero
Photo: Courtesy of Francisco Araya and Fernanda Guerrero

Later, Araya cut his teeth at restaurants in Chile and Spain – including elBulli – before opening 81 Restaurant in Tokyo in 2012. The latter received a Michelin star the following year. But fate brought him back to Chile, where he spent almost a year in Alegre.

Coincidentally, Guerrero was looking for a job then, and found herself in Alegre. “I didn’t know he was a chef there. When he came to interview me, I was like, ‘Oh, Francisco!’ He was still so handsome,” she says, laughing. 

“When we started to date, I told her, ‘Look, I’m moving back to Asia, this time it’s Shanghai. Do you want to come with me?’” adds Araya. So the couple took a leap of faith and decamped to Shanghai in early 2015, establishing themselves in NAPA Wine Bar & Kitchen, an award-winning contemporary European destination located on The Bund. 

Drawing the line

In the beginning, working together was challenging, not for the fact that they were in a foreign land so far from home, nor for the long hours they spent toiling in the kitchen. It was because they talked about work all day long, even after clocking out. 

About five years into their Shanghai journey, they decided to practise compartmentalisation. To keep the line between work life and home life distinct, the couple made it a point not to bring up work issues. “The last few words we mention about the restaurant or food is during the commute home,” says Araya.

“We make that clear. Otherwise you don’t have a life. I mean, we don’t consider being a chef ‘work’; for us it’s a lifestyle,” he adds. “But when you talk about it all day, it just drains your energy because your attention is focused somewhere else.”

Francisco Araya and Fernanda Guerrero
Photo: Courtesy of Francisco Araya and Fernanda Guerrero

At home, conversations revolve around travelling, their families, their dog Sherry – a six-year-old rescue from Shanghai – movies to watch, and restaurants to check out. They go on dates every week, and usually end up in a restaurant or brasserie that serves steak, fries and salad, washed down with a glass of Port. At home they cook Chinese food – either Cantonese or Shanghainese; otherwise it’s donburis, sushi or Chilean dishes.

The last few words we mention about the restaurant or food is during the commute home. We make that clear. Otherwise, you don’t have a life. We don’t consider being a chef ‘work’; for us, it’s a lifestyle. But when you talk about it all day, it just drains your energy because your attention is focused somewhere else.

Francisco Araya
Araya, which opened in October 2023, was a dream several years in the making. (Photo: Araya)

It takes two to tango

Guerrero says: “You could get too used to seeing someone every day, but in the end it’s about passion, communication. It’s a partnership. Whatever relationship you’re in, whether you spend three hours a day, or all day together, you still have to work on it, right?”

As in any relationship, disagreements do happen. In the kitchen, arguments could arise over a certain product or technique or result. Their workaround is to provide constructive criticism, with a perspective on what isn’t working and why. 

Last August, the chef-couple relocated to Singapore to realise their biggest dream — to helm their own restaurant, Araya. The restaurant at Mondrian Duxton Singapore is run in collaboration with homegrown restaurant company Culinary Arts Group

The pursuit of Michelin stars or a spot on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list are just the icing on the cake for them. “We focus on being sustainable as a business, and being financially responsible with our team,” explains Araya. 

araya
(Left to right) Moqueca, a dish made from kinki and picaña, wagyu with chimichurri. (Photos: Araya)

With Araya assuming the role of head chef (and master showman), it’s his job to prepare six of the dishes in Araya’s nine-course tasting menu, as well as interact with diners at the counter. Moqueca, one of his signature dishes, is made from Japanese kinki (shortspine thornyhead) and served with amaranth (a gluten-free grain) and an African palm oil dressing.  

Another signature, Picaña pairs wagyu with chimichurri, that Argentinian herb sauce now almost ubiquitous in contemporary menus. 

Meanwhile, pastry chef Guerrero charms guests with her bread platter, three courses of desserts, and – for the evening’s final flourish – a trolley of chocolates. Her bread platter consists of Marraqueta, a classic Chilean bread roll; Chapalele, a sourdough potato bread served with smoked chilli butter; and a soft bun with chorizo and paprika. A standout dessert is Antarctica, a concoction of goat’s milk ice-cream, dulce de leche and Patagonia berries. 

Araya’s parting words of advice for budding chefs and those wanting to venture into the F&B business as a couple: “What we do seems to be a really old-school method of a family business. I think it would be good if that tradition continues, but I feel that many young chefs and restaurateurs are not willing to take the risk or they’re just determined to do one business, sell it and then ciao. It’s nice when you create something as a couple or as a family.”