As the movie Ratatouille pointed out, the ring of the familiar and the allure of the distant or not so distant past, often has a lot of influence on what is considered to be “delicious.” Indeed, various iterations of “comfort food” have popped up everywhere, frequently to great popularity when done well and that is as it should be. Sometimes, as a result, it is easy to forget the other side of deliciousness – the adventurous side, that of the exotic and unfamiliar, the new and the intriguing. As much of the world has seemingly shrunk it has become increasingly difficult to be beguiled by the unusual. One part of the world that is gaining much deserved attention for its many incredible products not found anywhere else is the continent of South America. From Colombia to Brazil to Argentina and in between on the Atlantic side and Chile, Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador on the Pacific, there are sensational native products that are finally gaining attention outside of their respective tierras. A major reason for the increased attention is the creative culinary talent that is bringing out the very best of those products.This year’s Madrid Fusión featured the work of superstars and rising superstars of the Andean cooking of western South America including Gaston Acurio (Astrid y Gaston, La Mar) and Virgilio Martinex (Central) of Peru, Rodolfo Guzman of Chile (Boragó) and Kamilla Seidler and Michelangelo Cestari of Bolivia (Gustu). Each of these individual chefs have focused on the wonderful native ingredients of their respective countries and have produced their own signature styles of delicious, creative cooking. My son and I were fortunate to have been invited to a special dinner on the final night of Madrid Fusión highlighting the cooking of these Andinos. Organized by the Spanish food writer, Ignacio Medina and hosted by Chilean native Carlos Pascal at his finely appointed cooking school and pop-up, Kitchen Club, the dinner brought together the talents of Cestari, Guzmán, Martinez and Pascal assisted by Martinez’s wife, Pia León and Guzman’s sous chef, Tommy de Olarte amongst others.
It was an intimate gathering that felt as if it was taking place in someone’s very well appointed private home. The space is clean, minimalist, white and beautiful. There are two distinct kitchen set-up that are dream arrangements for anyone who enjoys cooking. It would be an ideal place to to take advantage of the primary purpose of the space, which is culinary education.
The atmosphere was relaxed and fun with guests mingling amongst each other and the chefs, who took some time to socialize and repeat their morning presentations from Madrid Fusión before getting down to the business at hand. In the meantime, modern cocktails featuring Pisco were served.
The guests were seated around a large communal table. Each of the state of the art kitchen centers was in full swing with the chefs and their assistants busy preparing and plating. It was wonderful to witness the welcome camaraderie between the chefs as they would all unite to help each other to finish and present each dish with the dish’s creator describing it to the curious diners. The first dish presented was an amuse from Carlos Pascal, the Chilean born chef who runs the Kitchen Club and the host of the evening. Pascal did an excellent job of blending the culinary cultures of the lands of his birth and his current home. His Batatas Bravas al Merkén took Chilean sweet potatoes and a Chile specific spice, merkén, applying them to a Spanish classic. The result was fresh, fun and fantastic!
Virgilio Martinez, working with his wife Pia León, has developed a reputation as one of the most creative chefs in the world with dishes as delicious as they are beautiful. His first dish, combining scallops with Andean cereals and microgreens was colorful, brightly flavored, and superb with excellent textural contrasts.
Next up was Michelangelo Cestari of Gustu. I had previously experienced the cooking of Martinez and Rodolfo Guzman and while I was looking forward to experiencing more of their cooking, I was most curious about what Cestari would do. Both Peru and Chile have a wide range of bio-systems and microclimates with a huge variety of product available as a result. Land-locked and largely mountain-high, Bolivia, has temperate to tropical jungles in its eastern half descending from the Altiplano of the Andes, but lacks the luxury of the diversity of its neighbors when it comes to the products of the sea and the shore. I have been quite near to Bolivia in the past having visited Lake Titicaca from the Peruvian side. While the food was ok, what was available had been quite limited. During their presentation that morning at Madrid Fusión, Cestari and Kamilla Seidler piqued my cyriosity even further as they showed their creativity within a limited range of product. Seidler was cooking elsewhere on this evening, but Cestari delivered. His first dish was one inspired by his Venezuelan-Italian heritage. Calling it “Carbonara Boliviana”, Cestari replaced pasta with strands of hearts of Bolivian palm and replaced bacon with jerky made from alpaca meat. The egg stayed, but was served as an intact yolk. The result was inspiring.
Martinez’ second dish was as colorful and as wonderful as the first, but this one introduced a most exotic element to it. Totally vegetarian, the dish put together avocado, tamarillo, amaranth and a very curious product known as cushuro, an edible bacteria harvested in high altitude wetlands. The cushuro visually resembles caviar, but without the “pop” one would typically get eating that delicacy. The texture is somewhat chewy and the flavor akin to that of tofu. I found the ingredient more interesting than truly delicious when eaten on its own, but it worked well within the context of the dish.
Cestari’s second dish was a facsimile of one that would be served at Gustu, Unable to bring fresh fish from Bolivia to Spain for this dinner, Cestari substituted cod. Typically the dish is served at Gustu with either trout or pejerrey, fish from Lake Titicaca. The seaweed is actually a freshwater plant called llullucha from what Cestari described as a “small” lake about 4000 meters above sea level near Potosí. C’oa is an Andean herb from around Titacaca that is typically used for fish. The concept of the plate is one that follows from the concept of the restaurant, which is to utilize local products so as to support the region’s biodiversity as well as to help enhance an economic base for the area. So long as their cooking remains imaginative and tasty like the dishes presented here, their reputation will continue to grow.
Pascal’s final dish was one that involved audience participation. With all of the mis-en-place done by the chefs, it was up to the diner to cook and assemble his or her dish at the table. A small fire stand and hot stone was placed on the table for every two people. Strips of beef tenderloin were presented to cook on the hot stone. In the meantime, each diner received a bowl with a bed of caramelized onions topped by the yolk of a quail egg. The cooked beef was then triangulated on top of the onions and yolk and then a thick foam of choclo (Andean corn) was piped on top with an Isi cannister. The dish was crowned with a crisp wafer made from black olives, adorned with micro-blossoms and finished with a broth. The interactivity was fun and the dish wonderful.
Rodolfo Guzman of Boragó in Santiago, Chile had the honor of the final two dishes of the evening. In Peru the common use of indigenous ingredients has been well incorporated throughout its various cuisines for some time. The wealth of such ingredients is just as great in Chile, however, perhaps because of the Eurocentricity of its ascendant culture, many of these products have been largely forgotten outside of the native cultures. Guzmán has been leading the charge over the past ten years or so in bringing these products back into Chilean fine dining and has been doing so with consummate creativity. This dish fused the products from a small producer in Parral, Chile. Veal is a by product of the dairy industry. In this case, the veal was taken from a small supplier along with the mother’s milk and was cooked long and slow in the milk. The milk was then taken along with the bones from the animal to create a glacé that was slowly caramelized to a form of manjar or dulce de leche. Dehydrated skim milk was used to make a crunchy element. At Boragó, the dish is typically finished with alfalfa from Parral with an aroma providing a distinct sense of place. For this dinner, watercress was substituted for the alfalfa. Everything but the wood on the plate was edible and delicious.
Guzmán’s dessert was also prepared to provide a sense of a particular place in Chile, in this instance the Atacama Desert, where there is less rainfall than anywhere else on Earth. There is an herb that comes from this region. It’s called rica-rica and has an intense flavor. Guzmán used this herb to flavor an ice cream as well as a macaron. It was enhanced with another product from the desert, a sweet syrup made from the fruit of a tree called chañar. The plating was designed to mimic the arid ground of the desert.. With its unique flavors and creative plating, it was a dessert that was both delicious and truly exotic.
This was indeed a special dinner on so many levels. First, the food, outside the experience and comfort zones of most of the diners, was delicious, unusual and creative. I didn’t mention the wines, but these were very good and well paired with the courses. Together, it was a gustatory delight that satisfied a culinary thirst for adventure and left us with a desire for even more. Secondly, it was a fabulous evening of mingling with the other guests and the chefs with close observation of their techniques, styles and the camaraderie between them. It was a night to witness the variety of styles and products that together are making the Andes a hot-spot in global cooking. It was truly an honor and a pleasure to be there.
For all of the photos from this event including plenty of kitchen, cooking and personal shots, please click here for the Flick’r Photoset.