Chile, as we know it now, is a fairly young country. As recently as my childhood, which fell squarely in the Reagan years, the fascist dictator Augusto Pinochet terrorized the country with oppressive economic reforms and alleged crimes against humanity, leaving its citizens dispirited and its economy in shambles. It wasn’t until a referendum in the early nineties that Pinochet was ousted in favor of a democratically elected president.
And my, how far they’ve come since.
I was recently invited to visit Chile by Rodolfo Guzman, chef of Boragó in Santiago, under the sponsorship of Foods From Chile, a division of the government devoted to promoting the country’s agricultural exports, and for which Guzman serves as a culinary ambassador. (LAN Chile, Chile’s national airline was also a co-sponsor.)
Although I thought that the primary purpose of my visit was to attend Ñam, the country’s largest food conference that attracts chefs and journalists from all over Latin America and Spain, it was not. I did get to attend Ñam, but I was there for less than a day, and only saw two presentations.
Instead, my itinerary – organized by Foods From Chile – was focused on showing me the country’s agricultural exports.
At the beginning of our tour – this, a junket for American press – I was given a packet of information featuring a portfolio of twenty-three foods that Foods From Chile wanted to highlight. For a week, Foods From Chile took us on tours of farms and facilities that exported these foods to the United States and arranged for all of the restaurants we visited to cook with these foods. We visited fruit orchards, processing and packing plants, and one of the country’s largest olive producers – Olisur, owned and run by Italians – where I learned about the production of olive oil. We visited three wineries in three different valleys, tasting as we went. And we met with members of various agricultural councils promoting foods from the portfolio.
What was both disappointing and surprising, however, is that almost all of the foods in the Foods From Chile portfolio are not only common, but also abundantly produced in the United States. They included salmon, chicken, prunes, walnuts, berries, and avocados.
Why would you fly American food journalists to Chile to show them foods familiar and available to them? And how much harder was it for them to make a case for sustainability?
Why not focus, instead, on foods unique to Chile, ones not familiar to other parts of the world? Why not try to create new markets?
So, although I was impressed by the quality of the produce I saw and all of the facilities we visited (some of which were stunning), the Foods From Chile portfolio of ingredients is not what I wish to share with you about my trip to Chile. You don’t need me or Foods From Chile to tell you that we, in the U.S., get produce shipped from South America, especially during our off-growing seasons, when those on the other side of the equator are in growing season. If you doubt it, look for Chile on those little stickers you find on your fruits and vegetables.
[Note: In the time since I started drafting this blog post months ago, I was informed by Foods From Chile that, having considered our feedback on this matter, the organization has added a page on their website devoted to showcasing indigenous produce.]
Instead, I’d like to tell you about the things that I saw and experienced in Chile that the rest of us – especially those of us in America – may never have the chance to see or experience, like a booming economy, which, in Chile, is driven by locals and immigrants alike, who have begun capitalizing upon the country’s abundant natural resources. To someone from a country with an economy that has been circling the bowl for the better half of a decade, Chile’s can-do attitude is inspiring, its growth exciting and palpable.
I’d like to tell you about how breathtakingly beautiful the country is, a skinny strip of land that stretches over 2,500 miles from the beaches of Peru to the Strait of Magellan. It spans almost every climate known to man, from the desert of Atacama in the north to the tundra of the Antarctic in the south, with lush rain forests and valleys in between, all hemmed in by the Andes to the east and the Pacific to the west. I only saw a fraction of the country, and I hope to see more of it one day.
And I’d like to tell you about the people I met there, like Doña Maria. She makes amazing empanadas. They’re baked in ovens made from straw and dung (the traditional way). And you’ll find them at her modest restaurant – Rancho Doña Maria – overgrown with vines, on the side of Autopista los Libertadores forty minutes outside of Santiago. Doña Maria offered a variety of fillings for her empanadas. We had the most popular one – pino – a mix of chopped (not ground) beef and onions that’s surprisingly sweet. The crust was amazing – more lardy than flakey, and blistered all over. Her Flintstones-sized ribs were amazing too. The meat came practically melting off the bone. Rubbed in spices, the meat was juicy and tender. To finish, we shared leche asada – dense blocks of custard roasted in the oven until the top took on a dark, golden crust and served with sweet, caramelized syrup infused with cinnamon.
There are so many things I’d like to tell you about my trip to Chile, that I’m dividing this blog post into two parts. This first one will focus on my time in Chile’s capital city, Santiago. A blog post to follow will focus on my visit to the coast, and to three of the country’s wine valleys.
Routed through Atlanta on my way to Santiago, with a four-hour layover to kill, I darted from my arrival gate at Hartsfield-Jackson International to the airport MARTA terminus. From there, it was a straight shot to the Midtown station, from where I walked two blocks to Hugh Acheson’s restaurant, Empire State South.
I sat at the generous, wrap-around bar and had tender fiddleheads tossed with ramps and morels, a light spring gathering made hearty by chunks of house-made “hot dogs.” There was a jar of pimento cheese paved with bacon marmalade and served with a pile of soldier toasts. I ate far more of it than I should. And to finish, I had a “cheese puff.” It was basically a choux pastry profiterole filled with Winnimere cheese ice cream and garnished with dried sour cherries and nuggets of “walnut buttercrunch.”
With an hour to spare, I returned to the airport via the MARTA, boarded my flight, and promptly fell asleep. When I awoke, nearly eight hours later, the sunrise greeted me outside of my window, breaking hazily over the jagged Andes.
I arrived four days ahead of the Foods From Chile tour to spend some time, on my own dime, in Santiago.
But to say that I went at it alone would be misleading and unfair.
Rodolfo Guzman organized an incredible itinerary for me, and my friend Dr. John Sconzo, who joined me a couple of days later. Every day, Guzman arranged for a friend, or a chef, or one of his cooks to pick me up, or meet me somewhere for a meal. When he was free, he joined us as well.
So, what is Chilean cuisine?
I’m not qualified to answer that question. The extreme geographic diversity of the country alone makes its food culture highly regionalized, and certainly beyond the grasp of my short visit.
But the one thing I did learn about the modern, Chilean diet, is that it is the product of both indigenous and imported cultures. There are many references to the the Mapuche, a hearty group of indians indigenous to southern Chile. Having resisted both the Incan and Spanish conquests, the Mapuche and their food culture survive to this day. Their diet consists mostly of grains, foraged vegetation, and meat. Although Chileans use a lot of spices in their cooking – the most well-known being merkén, a ground smoked pepper – it isn’t particularly spicy.
Mixed in with the Mapuche culinary traditions, are newer (and, to me, more familiar) ones from Europe – most notably the Spanish, and Italian.
Given its stretches of mountain ranges and coastline, with large pockets of arable land in between, Chile offers a broad range of foods.
Seafood is abundant, fresh, and good. I saw plenty of it on this trip.
Meat, of all varieties, is also celebrated by Chileans. One of the restaurants that Guzman took Sconzo and me to – El Mesón de la Patagonia – specializes in meat from the Patagonia, especially lamb, which the restaurant roasts on cross spits in an open fire pit in the restaurant’s courtyard. The ribs from those spit-roasted lamb, were especially great.
And, to my great joy, the Chilean diet is full of vegetables, fruits, and nuts, which grow prolifically in the country’s central region, one of the few areas of our world that enjoys a true Mediterranean climate. (The Chileans say that their central valleys are so fruitful that you could throw a nail on the ground and it would sprout a nail tree.)
Shortly after dropping me off at my hotel to unpack and settle in, Guzman’s sous chef, Tommy de Olarte – a Peruvian by birth – took me, by unground rail, to the arts and crafts village at the old Dominican convent on the far west side of town for Chilean “corn pie” (pastel de choclo). It’s essentially a meat casserole sealed under a thick layer of mashed corn, milky and sweet. The one we had contained chicken meat and ground beef that had been spiced with cumin (they can sometimes also contain hard-boiled eggs). The “pie” arrived piping hot in an earthenware bowl. And it was delicious. I especially loved the crisp edges of the corn mash, which had gone crusty in the oven.
For breakfast one morning, Tomás Olivera Leiva, chef of Casa Mar, took Sconzo and me to two markets.
At the Mercado Vega Chica, we had mechado (brisket sandwiches) and sopapillas (thick, fried pancakes) alongside a few octogenarians who looked like regulars, which was reassuring.
Then we moved on to the Mercado Centrale, the city’s main market. Walking past the main hall, thick with touristy tables and aggressive hawkers inviting you to them, we entered a quiet section of the market where we claimed a few stools at stall number 54 – Marisqueria Bahamondez – and huddled over a steaming bowl of soup of picorocos. As its name suggests, stall 54 specializes in seafood. The soup’s cloudy broth of onions, garlic, chiles, and cilantro was unspeakably rich with the brininess of the sea and the fragrance of white wine. Between slurping spoonfuls of soup, we fished out the picorocos – giant barnacles – and sucked the sweet, crab-like meat out of the conical shells.
I spent a day eating with Raul Esteban Yañez Campos, a local food writer and blogger. He spoke no English, Chinese, or French, and my grasp of the Spanish language is embarrassingly weak. So, we got along with a strange and spontaneously invented form of sign language, and Google Translate. (In case you’re wondering, the popular American phrase “hot mess” translates as “desastre caliente.” I thought you might find that useful information.)
Amidst the bustle and chaos of Santiago is a charming little garden attached to an equally charming pastry shop. This is where we started our day. The chef and owner of Canela Patisserie, Alejandra Hurtado, was formerly the pastry chef at Rodolfo Guzman’s Boragó. Like the shop, Hurtado’s pastries are tidy and neat.
Leaning towards a classically European aesthetic, her pastries incorporated local ingredients. There was a gorgeous maqui berry tartlet, for example, piped with meringue that had been colored a pastel shade of lavender by maqui berry juice. We had macarons filled with chestnut purée and raspberry jam, and a dark chocolate bomb with a shiny, textbook glaçage coat. And, Hurtado served us an elegant version of the traditional Chilean leche asada (oven-roasted milk custard), which she dressed up with leche asada mousse and murtillas, a local berry that looks like a red blueberry.
Chileans don’t mob Bar Liguria for its service (which is slapdash at best, neglectful at its worst), or even its New World-Italian food (which is good, but not great). They go for the lively scene (to see and be seen), and the live music. Who can resist a little piano and accordion action? I couldn’t. (Bar Liguria has branched out to quite a few locations in Santiago. We ate at the original location.)
Afterwards, Campos and I had a second dinner on the sleek outdoor terrace of Arola at the Ritz Carlton, the Santiago outpost of the Spanish Michelin-starred chef Sergi Arola’s restaurant group. We were served a sampling of the chef’s signature “tapas.” As pretty as they were, collectively, they were a confusing and disappointing lot, flirting with both modernist and traditional Chilean cuisines, and yet committing to neither. There was a garishly large blob of cold chicken salad topped with avocado and shrimp that made as little sense as the DIY “pan con tomat” kit, which invited us to cut open our own tomatoes and rub them, with garlic, on some barely toasted white bread so blond and bland that melba toast seemed flavorful by comparison.
We amused ourselves, instead, watching the hoards of fans across the street chanting for Pearl Jam. It was Lollapalooza week in Santiago, and the rock band was staying at the hotel.
Ana Maria has become an institution of traditional Chilean cuisine, one that focuses heavily on fresh seafood and roasted game. I went twice, once with Guzman, and once with Foods From Chile.
They don’t do small at Ana Maria. When you order quail, three whole birds arrive in a brothy stew of vegetables. When you order wild boar, you get three, large, fists of meat in a sticky, ginger glaze (one of my favorite dishes here). Giant Patagonian pine nuts arrived in a bowl. Spliced lengthwise, each pine nut was at least an inch in length. The texture of cooked chestnuts, they were simply sautéed with some herbs.
And, when you ask for sea urchin, they bring you a whole plate of them: fat, creamy, sweet.
Locals disagree on how to eat their sea urchins on toast – whether to dress them, or eat them plain, with little more than salt and lime. At Ana Maria, the owner’s son, who ate with Guzman and me, prefers sea urchin on toast with a smear of butter, some salsa verde, lime, salt, and a spot of extra virgin olive oil. I tasted both versions, and I prefer them dressed the way the owner’s son likes them.
For dessert, we were served a smattering of Chilean fruits, including a cup of diced quince, which I especially loved for its tartness.
Thanks to chef Trey Foshee of George’s at the Cove in La Jolla, Caliornia, I had the great pleasure of having dinner with Francisca Pacheco, who is not only Foshee’s aunt by marriage, but also co-manager of her father Coco’s landmark restaurant, Aqui Esta Coco (translated: “Here is Coco.”) in Santiago, along with her sister.
As the story goes, Coco and his business partner parted ways decades ago, leaving his partner with their restaurant, which was named after Coco. After the two split, Coco Pacheco decided to open his own restaurant. To attract the customers that had been loyal to him at the old location, he named his new restaurant Aqui Esta Coco (“Here is Coco”). While Pacheco’s partner closed Coco long ago, Aqui Esta Coco still stands today, more than forty years later. And it is full every night.
In 2008, fire destroyed Aqui Esta Coco, burning it to the ground. Instead of closing the family business, Francisca and her family decided to use the opportunity to build a better restaurant. Full of nooks and crannies, the new Aqui Esta Coco is a stunning space that is also environmentally friendly (nearly half of the restaurant is made from recycled material). Francisca invited her good friend and the architect of the restaurant, Gino Falcone, to join us for dinner. Before dinner, Falcone gave us a tour of the interior, explaining the family’s intentions and his motivations for the whimsical and imaginative design.
Since Aqui Esta Coco is considered one of Chile’s greatest seafood restaurants, it wasn’t surprising to find a nautical theme to the interior design. Entering the restaurant, I was greeted by a giant whale made of hardened and glazed seaweed hanging above the main bar. There was another bar in the dining room, towards the back, that was made from a salvaged sailboat, with the bartender standing “inside” the boat, and guests seated around the prow.
But above all, the restaurant had an organic feel to it. From the salmon skin placemats to the floor-to-ceiling glass enclosures lush with greenery, diners are surrounded by nature.
The sinks in the bathroom were made of enormous Patagonian tree stumps, hand-picked for their knobby grooves, a natural pipe system for run-off.
My favorite part of the interior design was the restaurant’s floor, which was pieced together with wooden floor boards salvaged from a century-old gymnasium. Thick with decades of varnish and painted all different colors, they were reassembled at Aqui Esta Coco in mismatched form, with red, blue, and green boards running between unpainted ones. I loved it.
Francisca treated us to a feast. We started our dinner in the kitchen, where we spooned creamy sea urchin roe from their spiny, briny shells.
More sea urchin – a whole dish of it – was brought to our table, along with mussels the size of a child’s fist, and oysters – the ones with frilly, black skirts that the locals so highly prize. We also had thick slabs of abalone – the size of my palm, and at least an inch thick – as tender as chicken breasts. And an entire king crab, with all of its meat picked for us, heaped into the open shell of the crab’s torso.
We ordered quite a number of desserts. My favorites, again, were the fruits.
The papaya that’s indigenous to Chile (also called mountain papayas) is smaller than the tropical papaya that I’m used to seeing. They’re almond-shaped, and bright yellow. The Chileans cook them until they’ve softened, after which they’re preserved in sugar syrup. The meat is firm and fleshy, having an almost leather-like quality to it that I loved.
We also had “tuna,” or, what we call prickly pears. It’s like eating watermelon with edible seeds. Locals claim that they’re a good cure for hangovers (probably because they’re a good means of hydration).
And, we had lucuma. Lucuma is a sub-tropical fruit that originates in the Andes mountains. It looks like an avocado, both inside and outside, but its flesh is yellowish-orange. Lucuma is also called “eggfruit,” because its flesh is “dry” and chalky like that of a hard-boiled egg yolk. Lucuma is often ground into a sugary powder and used in confectionary. At Ana Maria (mentioned above), lucuma had been incorporated into a meringue that was layered into a “cake.” And here, at Aqi Esta Coco, the lucuma powder had been used to flavor a creamy pudding.
After dinner, Francisca, who is as youthful and sassy as a teenager, jumped in her vintage Volkswagen Beetle parked in front of the restaurant, and started off into the night. The next day, a copy of her father’s cookbook was waiting for me at my hotel, a gift from Francisca.
Late one night, Sergio Meza, a sous chef at Boragó and a Mexican by birth, and Guzman took me out for Chilean hot dogs at La Fuente Viticura, a beer garden around the corner from their restaurant. The traditional Chilean hot dog – “el completo” – is a Viennese-style sausage tucked into a toasted bun; dressed with sauerkraut, melted cheese, and tomatoes (sometimes pickles); and sealed with a thick blanket of avocado purée and mayonnaise. They’re huge.
Not surprisingly, Serious Eats wrote about “el completo” a few years ago, and gives a list of places where you’ll find them in New York City. In that blog post, Serious Eats also mentions that, in addition to “el completo,” Chilean hot dog vendors offer other crazy combinations of hot dog toppings. And La Fuente Viticura is no different.
Another night, we met up for snacks and drinks at Bocanariz, a wine bar in the Centro district of Santiago. Bocanariz focuses on the wines of Chile. They offer wine flights of all kinds – some, focusing on a single grape varietal; others, a specific wine valley or region. The wine bar’s manager took us down a hatch located off to the side of one of the main rooms. About fifteen feet below was a surprisingly chilly cellar, lined with bottles of wine and paved with gravel. It was a nice, quiet retreat from the energetic crowds above.
Rodolfo Guzman is a native of Chile.
He was, at one time, a professional water skier in the United States. But an injury left him searching for a new career. That’s when he returned home and took up cooking. Now, he is one of the most important, leading culinary voices in Chile, if not all of South America, a continent that is quickly positioning itself as the world’s next culinary destination.
Beyond being a talented cook, Guzman has an immense knowledge of the indigenous flora and fauna of Chile, which he hopes to make encyclopedic in a new research partnership he has forged with the Chilean government (under whose auspices Guzman was able to bring me to Chile) and the Universidad Católica. Working together, they hope to catalog and study as much of the country’s plant and animal life as possible. It’s an incredible undertaking, given the wide range of climates and environments in Chile.
Guzman’s botanical and biological interests are evident in his cooking, which tends modernist in both thinking and presentation (influences from the kitchens of Europe in which he trained – most notably, Mugaritz). I don’t believe I’ve ever seen as many unfamiliar ingredients in one sitting as I did at Boragó.
I ate at Boragó twice on this trip, both times as a guest of Guzman. Each meal was a lesson in Chilean horticulture, regionality, and culinary history.
Everything from the water – unfiltered rain from the Patagonian rainforest – to the bread – which was served with pebre, a local condiment made with peppers, garlic, onions, and olive oil – to the many varieties of berries and fruits, many of which I had never encountered, that they made into juice pairings – celebrated the the natural resources of Chile.
Guzman evoked the scent and flavor of the coastal Quintay forests in a tartare of beef, which, in the wintertime, he mixes with mushrooms foraged from that forest. In the spring and summer, he covers the chopped meat with the salty-tart leaflets of an oxalis-like plant, also from that region of Chile.
He coated conger eel in ash and perched it on the banks of a lake of machas broth, blushing with the peachy-pink color that the machas clam (mistakenly called “razor clam” by locals; it’s triangular in shape) secretes when cooked. This dish, like many other dishes, including an inky dashi made out of ulte seaweed, was rich with the xian of the ocean. It was one of my favorite dishes at Boragó.
Guzman introduced me to “curanto,” the Chiloé (Chiloé is an archipelago of islands in the extreme Southern part of Chile) equivalent of a clam bake. The curanto is made in a large, dug pit lined with hot stones. The ingredients – clams, potatoes, meat, fish, vegetables – are piled into the hole and then steamed under a thick canopy of fleshy nalca leaves.
At Boragó, the flavors of the curanto were distilled into a broth, rich with the flavor of clams and pork, which was served in a cup surrounded by moss and twigs among which was tucked a nugget of fried potato. It was delicious.
And there was a meringue at the end that had been flavored with powerful scent of rica rica, a powdery substance that grows on the brush of the Atacama Desert in northern Chile. Rica rica tastes intensely of pine resin and menthol. It’s flavor is so strong that a little dusting of it will leave you tasting it for hours. While I was in Chile, I also saw rica rica ice cream, and had a brownie spiked with rica rica.
If you want to learn about Chilean ingredients, about Chilean regionality, and Chilean culinary history, Boragó is a great place to start. I look forward to working with Guzman this December, when he will be cooking as a guest chef at this year’s Twelve Days of Christmas at the Restaurant at Meadowood in Napa.
Beyond eating, I had little time to tour the city of Santiago, which is home to approximately seven million of Chile’s seventeen million people. But, I did spend an afternoon on Cerro San Cristóbal, atop which is a giant statue of the Virgin Mary. From that high vantage, you can see most of Santiago sprawling out from underneath you.
At the foot of that mount is “La Chascona,” poet and statesman Pablo Neruda’s home. For an abbreviated history of modern Chilean history, I encourage you to visit the compound, which has now been turned into a museum.
And, out of curiosity, I spent an hour walking through Alto Las Condes, a multiplex shopping mall in the heart of Santiago. For a moment there, I forgot that I left the United States.
In my next post, I will take you to the coast of Chile, where I went foraging with Guzman, and to three of Chile’s most prominent wine valleys. Until then, I leave you with a list of the places where I ate in Atlanta and Santiago.
Empire State South
Aqui Esta Coco (Santiago)
Arola at the Ritz Carlton (Santiago)
Boragó (Santiago) (once, twice)
Canela Patisserie (Santiago)
Casa Mar (Santiago)
La Fuente Viticura (Santiago)
Marisqueria Bahamondez (Santiago)
Mercado Vega Chica (Santiago)
Mesón de la Patagonia (Santiago)
Noi at the Hotel Noi (Santiago)
Rancho Doña Maria (outside of Santiago)
Photos: The Andes Mountains through the haze of dawn; Santiago in the morning; a scooter on the sidewalk in Santiago, Chile; empanadas out of a mud-brick oven at Rancho Doña Maria; the bar on the rooftop of the Hotel Noi in Santiago, Chile; Patagonian lamb on cross spits at Mesón de la Patagonia just outside of Santiago, Chile; corn casserole and empanadas at Antulican in Santiago, Chile; stall #54 – Merisqueria Bahamondez at the Mercado Centrale in Santiago, Chile; macarons at Canela Patisserie in Santaigo, Chile; musicians at Liguria in Santiago, Chile; a plate of sea urchin at Ana Maria in Santiago, Chile; oysters on the half-shell at Aqui Esta Coco in Santiago, Chile; king crab at Aqui Esta Coco in Santiago, Chile; Boragó in Santiago, Chile; beef tartare with oxalis-like leaflets at Boragó in Santiago, Chile; Cerro San Cristóbal in Santiago, Chile; the quiet courtyard at Neruda’s “La Chascona” in Santiago, Chile.