Letter from the Editor: A Taste of Chile Vol: 74

May 10, 2011

Chile looks deceptively dainty on world maps. What appears to be a wisp of a country smashed between the Pacific and Andes actually ranks as the 38th largest nation in the world with a coastline as long as the United States is wide. And we couldn’t appreciate its enormity—the seemingly never-ending stretches of land and road—until we traveled across Chile by bus, plane, boat, and foot. Spread before us were lush valleys, ice fields, coastal flats, mountain ranges, and any number of microclimates. And what inspired us most was the variety and idiosyncratic character the extremes of the Chilean land mass offered the country’s cuisine and wine industry.

Until recently, the cuisine at the most notable restaurants in Chile belonged to its cross-border rival, Peru (not that we’d pass up a meal at Gaston Acuria’s seductive, delicious La Mar). But Santiago restaurants Boragó from Chef Rodolfo Guzmán, Sukalde from Chef Matías Palomo, and Milcao from Chef Crístian Correa change all that, ushering in a new paradigm for Chilean fine dining. Instead of modeling their cuisine on established European and South American haute traditions, Guzmán, Palomo, and Correa look inward to the incredible diversity of Chilean flora and fauna to forge a distinct national dining identity—one dish and one ingredient at a time.

Guzmán, Palomo, and Correa have a model for celebrating the generous land of Chile. One of three pre-Incan tribes surviving in South America, the Mapuche tribe continues to live off the land and adhere to ancient foodways—Mapuche literally means “people of the land”—even as the 21st century creeps closer to their reservations. The leading advocate and educator in Mapuche cuisine, Anita Epulef, runs the Cocina Mapu Iyagl cooking school in Currarehue. She leads foraging and harvesting groups and teaches group members how to cook with indigenous Chilean ingredients to prepare cuisine like bread made of pine nut flour and roasted Andean potatoes.

Enduring food traditions can be found all over Chile’s interior. At Aleli at Arrebol Hotel in Puerta Varas we dined on Cordero al Palo, or spit-roasted lamb, one night and Curanto, or fire pit-cooked shellfish, the next. At Parque Antumalal at Antumalal Hotel, Chef Maria Ignacia Jara prepared classic Chilean Shrimp Pil Pil, or sautéed shrimp with Cacho de Cabra chilies, white wine, and garlic. The dish is Chile’s answer to Spain’s gambas al ajillo, but with the native chili pepper, it's new and fresh.

Just as chefs take inspiration and product from the land, Chilean winemakers have inexhaustible sources of terroir to give their wines character. But not until the 80s did any vintner seriously explore growing vines beyond the established Maipo region outside of Santiago. Nearly three decades later, vintners harvest grapes from cool coastal climates, the foothills of the Andes, and even the northern Atacama Desert. And a small, revolutionary group of winemakers from the Movement of Independent Vintners, or MOVI, are pushing Chilean winemaking boundaries even further.

If your idea of Chilean wine is drinking young, simple table wine, and Chilean food means gorging on meat and potatoes, think again. The MO of Chile’s best winemakers and chefs right now is to look forward through a lens of the past. It's a wining and dining scene coming into its own, and its trailblazers and the land that inspires them are going to put Chile on the map in a big way.

To stay posted on our travels and latest dining adventures, be sure to follow us on Twitter and become a fan of StarChefs.com on Facebook. In the coming months, we’re headed to Austin, Chicago, New York, and Portland, so reach out and give us your give us your nominations for chefs, pastry chefs, sommeliers, and mixologists we should check out in those cities.

Antoinette Bruno