Villaseca, Chile (Reuters) - In the hot and dry village of Villaseca in central Chile, one local restaurant's most valued employee is known for its consistently sunny disposition.
The sun's rays are hard at work here at Delicias del Sol restaurant, cooking up delectable dishes in the eatery's 20 solar ovens that can reach temperatures of up to 180 degrees Celsius (356 degrees Fahrenheit).
Now in its twelfth year of operation, the local establishment is a collective comprised of 25 partners from the region, known as the Association of Solar Artisans of Villaseca.
The ovens were originally introduced to the village as a trial project from the University of Chile and the Institute for Nutrition and Food Technology to see if they could get people to use solar energy at home.
When word got out that a novel way of cooking was going on in the village, curious tourists started dropping by to taste the sun-cooked fare.
"The original project wasn't to start a restaurant. The project that came from Santiago [from the University of Chile and the Institute for Nutrition and Food Technology] was for people to use solar ovens in their own homes. However, that same dream combined with the entrepreneurship of those involved, inspired us to show people what we were doing at home on a daily basis - cooking with solar energy. We wanted to show tourists what really can be done with a solar oven - saving energy, protecting the environment, preventing deforestation," said president of the Association of Solar Artisans of Villaseca, Juan Ibacache.
With the help of a $20,000 dollar grant from the United Nations Development Program, the restaurant followed soon after the association was formed.
This energy-efficient success is particularly well-suited to the aptly named 'Villaseca' or 'Dry Town' community which receives approximately 310 days of sunshine a year.
On top of that, firewood for wood-burning ovens is notably scarce in this arid region of Chile, and fuel is increasingly more expensive, making the sun-powered ovens even more attractive to locals looking to save on fuel costs.
"Where we are living things cost a lot - fuel is very expensive and this [solar energy] is free. We have the sun year-round so it is viable for the long-run," said Luisa Ibacache, a member of the Association of Solar Artisans of Villaseca.
Tourists now come from around the world to try the eco-friendly sun-baked concoctions such as stew, roasted meat, fresh bread, and even cake for dessert.
"Well, it's very interesting cooking, I would say what the solar panel, I never saw it before, so, it's very interesting and the food's just great in the oven," said 26-year-old German tourist, Kristina Haller.
Due to high demand, the restaurant has even teamed up with tour operators to arrange visits.
"To come and get to know the restaurant, to eat food that tastes delicious, it's really beautiful. And to see what the people from the town do [referring to the cooking], it is truly an enjoyable experience," said Chilean tourist, Andrea Carriela.
Delicias del Sol, which started out with a 16 person capacity, now seats 120, and an arbor is currently under construction to seat an additional 30.
Judging by its satisfied guests, it looks like the sun will be this restaurant's star employee for years to come.
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