As chefs around the world try to emerge from Europe's shadow and champion local flavors, Chile is offering one model of what that revolution might look like
In Curarrehue, it's usually raining. The misty green town in southern Chile is surrounded on all sides by ancient forests cut with glacial rivers and massive, active volcanoes. This being a rural logging town, all construction is done with local timber so that the clusters of homes, as they draw near, are almost indistinguishable from the woods.
Anita Epulef wraps her head with a brightly printed scarf and moves easily around her open kitchen, pulling clay teacups from the shelves. She's a chef and teacher—and a fabulous host. Within a minute of meeting her, I'm drinking pleasantly bitter tea, dipping piñones, soft pine nuts as long as my pinky finger, into a sweet and sour rose-hip syrup, and breaking tortilla rescoldo, an unleavened bread cooked by the residual heat of the oven's hot stones.
Anita's restaurant, Cocina Mapu Iyagl, focuses on local ingredients and traditional techniques. She's a champion of what makes Chile's culinary scene truly special: its wild, native products, many of which exist here and nowhere else in the world. Like Anita, most of the local population is Mapuche, Chile's largest indigenous group, which accounts for just under 5 percent of the country's population. They've been here long enough to have won battles against the Incas, and to have maintained their territory throughout the Spanish empire's rule. It wasn't until the late 1800s that their ancestral lands were made part of Chile in a violent military occupation.
Soon after the Mapuche lost their independence, the region around Anita's restaurant commercialized. By the 1930s, nearby Lake Villarica was transforming into a glamorous holiday destination with powdery slopes, water sports, and hot springs. For Anita, leading Mapuche cooking classes and cooking for tourists who venture down south (and press groups, in my case), is a way to move forward while honoring her past.
Along with Anita, there is Alejandro, the local lonko, or community leader, a twinkly-eyed man with a big round belly and thick, graying eyebrows. He pulls a blue handkerchief from his pocket and uses it to push down on the barbed wire across the road from his house, allowing Anita to lead us into the wilderness. His grandfather lived as a nomadic herder until the 1930s, when the area's logging industry took off and the government moved the Mapuche community into permanent homes. Alejandro's family keeps a few long-haired pigs and two impeccably organized greenhouses. The rest of their food, they forage. "We take only what we need for today," he says, snapping a plant up from the ground. Coligue is cone-shaped, sheathed like corn. Alejandro peels its spike-tipped leaves to reveal the pale shoot inside. He picks nalca, with green leaves open like giant palms to the sun. The plant has nubby stems, deep red at the base. To Alejandro's amusement, I chew on a raw root, sour as rhubarb, and spit it back out.
In Anita's kitchen, we dip the coligue shoots in a super-sharp lemon-cilantro dressing. We drizzle uniformly cut boiled potatoes and local mushrooms with chili oil. We rip up soft, just-fried bread and use it to spoon up pebre, a smooth salsa with an aji pepper base. The soup, with a broth of toasted pine nut flour and shallots, is its own kind of flavor puzzle. Anita lists the handful of ingredients that went in and I just can't get my head around its layers and layers of flavor. The piñones coated with caramelized onions are stunning and soul-satisfying—Anita says they begin to harvest these nuts only after the trees have matured for 80 years. I say it's worth the wait. Everything here is cooked carefully, seasoned precisely, and presented beautifully.
Like much of the world, Chile's fine dining scene has largely been dominated by Euro-centric ingredients and techniques. But two weeks ago, Rodolfo Guzman represented Chile at the Madrid Fusion food summit in Mexico. He's a 32-year-old chef from Santiago with a made-for-TV smile. Tall and blue-eyed with shaggy surfer hair, he's an ideal poster boy for his country's burgeoning culinary scene, and already a star at home. Though he worked in Spain for a year with chef Andoni Luis Aduriz at Mugaritz, Guzman is intensely focused on his own food culture. In 2007, he opened his Santiago fine dining restaurant, Boragó, with a very specific goal: to elevate Chilean food. For Guzman, this meant drawing inspiration from his country's oldest, most marginalized cuisine, and researching Mapuche cooking techniques like volcanic rock or natural emulsifiers like Acacia bark. It also meant rediscovering the little-known varieties of mushrooms stippling Chile's far-flung forests, the edible flora and fauna that thrive only at very high altitude, and the gorgeous seafood of Easter Island. Guzman's Endémica tasting menu, which he describes as "a piece of Chile's own heart," highlights these wild foods.
At Madrid Fusion, Guzman told this story. Over Skype, he told me that the theme of the summit was the "third revolution" in culinary history: the rise of American cuisine. Inspired, he took to Twitter to encourage diehard support of Chilean products over imported ones. Finally, he switched to all caps to make his point: WE HAVE TO CHAMPION MAPUCHE CUISINE! IT'S TIME.
Sound familiar? I'm reminded of Sean Brock's proclamation of Southern pride, "Fuck prosciutto and red wine. We've got bourbon and country ham." The South Carolina chef has won awards for his modern, personal interpretations of Low Country cooking. And Guzman's quest for edibles reminds me of Rene Redzepi, the chef who traveled a frozen Denmark looking for native produce before opening his Copenhagen restaurant, Noma. People thought he was crazy. Fellow Danish chefs, preferring French traditions to their own, called him a "seal fucker." By most standards now, Noma is the best restaurant in the world. In fact, the food industry has celebrated these two cuisines so thoroughly by now—Southern, Scandinavian, and before that, Spanish—it's easy to forget that they were overlooked until just recently. It took champions, in and out of the spotlight, to bring these food cultures the respect and attention they deserve.
Last fall at Boragó, I tasted a dish of Chilean beef leg, cooked sous-vide until very tender, then coated in a sweet, black powder made with raw cane sugar. Guzman instructed me to eat with my fingers, as the Mapuche might have done, and the dish was styled to look rugged and natural, pocked like volcanic rock—but the flavors and textures were delicate. Just before I took a bite, servers dropped dry ice into a bowl of aromatics and a fresh, herbaceous-scented smoke rolled across the table like mist on a Curarrehue hillside. Meanwhile, a light rain fell on Anita Epulef's new tin roof.
Images: Araceli Zuñiga