July 18, 2014 3:33 pm

The Briton who used all her money to open a restaurant in Chile

London arts project head Cecile Latham-Koenig moved to Santiago for love and ended up opening an innovative eatery
©Jose Luis Stephens

Cecile Latham-Koenig in her restaurant, Blue Jar, in downtown Santiago

There is a touch of culinary England in the government quarter of downtown Santiago, the capital of Chile. Sitting at a table in the dappled shade of a jacaranda tree outside Blue Jar, the restaurant she owns with her husband, Cecile Latham-Koenig ticks off on her fingers some of the highlights of the menu: fish and chips, salmon fish cakes, strawberry trifle, treacle puddings and a big breakfast as English as it gets, featuring eggs, home-baked bread and freshly made marmalade.

Latham-Koenig, 54, is British and was head of music and arts projects at London’s Barbican centre when, in 1997, she fell in love with a Chilean and decided to move to Santiago. “I’d worked at the Barbican for 16 years and had an amazing job that I loved. And I loved London too. When I made the decision to leave I don’t think I realised how brave I was being or how big a decision it really was,” she says.

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Moving to the other side of the world for love or work is undoubtedly exciting but it can also be immensely challenging. Latham-Koenig says that, for the first few years, she was “profoundly lonely and frustrated” in part because she didn’t speak the language. “I’d gone from organising huge events and having complex conversations about classical music and found myself struggling to string together a sentence to order a meal in a restaurant,” she says.

A few years later, the relationship that brought her to Santiago ended, but by that time she had found her feet and learnt Spanish, so she stayed. She soon met her Chilean-born husband, chef Nicolas Baudrand, and the pair bonded over a shared love of food and fine wine. The couple opened Blue Jar in 2007 and according to Latham-Koenig it has since become a staple of the government quarter, hosting ministers, presidential hopefuls and public servants of both parties. “We say that Blue Jar is the ministry that survives any change of government,” says Latham-Koenig.

The restaurant is a success today but opening it was a brave experiment, not least because the pair invested all their savings in the project. “We partly called it Blue Jar because we were broke when we opened it and were saving all our money in a big jar,” says Latham-Koenig. “It’s a very personal place because of that. We didn’t have any money so everything in the restaurant, from the chairs to the coat hooks, was handmade by us and by local craftsmen.”

The modern Chilean and British menu was initially challenging for local customers: while Chile has an abundance of fresh produce and fine wine, the culinary scene is still relatively limited.

Posh people don’t eat pulses here so it was a challenge when we had lentils and beans on the menu

“There are great ingredients here but not a great cuisine,” says Latham-Koenig. “We are one of the few chef-owned restaurants in Chile and we were the first to use ingredients like quinoa. We are still breaking down attitudes to some ingredients. Posh people don’t eat pulses here so it was a challenge when we had lentils and beans on the menu. It’s taken six years but our regular clients trust us enough now to try new things.”

Chileans also have a relaxed attitude to punctuality. “Initially it drove me mad,” says Latham-Koenig. “Now I’ve instituted a rule that if you are more than 15 minutes late for your reservation we give the table away. It took a bit of getting used to, especially for ministers and other dignitaries who are usually pandered to, but now it really works.”

There is a relatively strict social hierarchy in the country – it is still very class focused and Latham-Koenig says customers were surprised to see her working in the restaurant. “I wait on tables, clear tables and so on, but being served by the owner is unusual here. I feel that we’re helping to change some social perceptions and I’m proud of that.”

Today Latham-Koenig is happy to call Santiago home. She has three children, aged 15, 13 and nine, and the family have a 1940s house in Vitacura, one of the wealthier suburbs.

The family were in Santiago when a huge earthquake struck the city in February 2010. “It was terrifying, absolutely horrific. The noise of an earthquake is really loud, like a car crash. It’s as if the earth is roaring. We were all right but everything in the restaurant was shattered. I’m terrified that there will be another one.”

Making a success of a life on the other side of the world doesn’t mean losing touch with your roots. Latham-Koenig’s children go to school in Santiago but still identify with their British heritage. “Despite being born here they eat Marmite and like to watch Doctor Who,” she says.

Latham-Koenig says she still pines for some aspects of London life. “I miss my family, of course, and things like browsing in Daunt Books, walking on Hampstead Heath, good oriental food and the diversity of the city.”

She has two key tips for others taking the plunge and moving abroad: “learn the language intensely and well and don’t mix with other expats”. Of the latter she adds: “It’s depressing to hear other people moan about what they miss about home. It’s far better to develop your own techniques to stay in touch with the things that matter to you. I have Radio 3 on my iPad and we now wake up every morning listening to it. It helps me feel connected with Britain.”

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Buying guide

What you can buy for . . .

£100,000 A one-bedroom apartment in Barrio Italia, a suburb of downtown Santiago

£1m A three-bedroom apartment in Las Condes, one of the newest and most fashionable areas to live

£2m A four-bedroom home in Vitacura, one of the city’s most
family-friendly suburbs

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Inside knowledge

Latham-Koenig’s verdict . . .

Pros

● The mountain views and the ease with which one can get out of the city and into the countryside

● The downtown area has a buzz about it, with a good mix of political and creative types.

Cons

● By South American standards Santiago is a safe city but burglaries can still be an issue

● Pollution can be a problem

● The threat of earthquakes

Cycle up San Cristóbal Parque Metropolitano is one of the largest in Latin America and the view from the top is breathtaking

Eat out at Lomit’s A traditional diner in Providencia. The 80-year-old owner still works there most days

Walk through the gallerias These downtown arcades are home to many traditional shops and often feature beautiful architectural details

Photograph: Jose Luis Stephens

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