In Chile, Molecular Gastronomy and Locavores Collide


Araceli Zuñiga

On a recent press trip to Chile, a couple of journalists and I went rogue, breaking from our busy schedules of meeting artisanal food producers for one night on the town. But between us—a Brazilian, a Mexican, a Russian, a Spaniard, and myself—we simply couldn't decide on a restaurant. So our little gang decided to make like Americans and crawl, from one spot to the next, enjoying a few dishes and drinks at each place. We hailed a minivan taxi in the concrete-heavy financial district and got off at Avenue Vitacura, a chic, tree-lined boulevard that hosts a trio of Santiago's youngest fine-dining joints.

Overhearing us discussing the food, Palomo's mother pulled up a chair and proudly told us how her son had spent time in the kitchens of Juan Mari Arzak, Ferran Adrià, and Daniel Boulud.

We began at Sukalde, with Matías Palomo, a young Mexican-born chef with a passion for Chilean ingredients, who later accompanied me grocery shopping, to scout out local foods like ulmo honey, made from the white blossoms of the ulmo tree, which flowers for only one month each year, starting now. (I had the last of this honey jar this morning, it was so fragrant and irresistible I wanted to dab it on my wrists like perfume.)

Palomo has converted an old Santiago mansion, preserving the structure of the family home and restoring the original fixtures in most cases, but incorporating a touch, here and there, of modern design and furniture. The new, mostly steel kitchen is encased in glass, and makes for a lovely view if you're seated in the casual, graveled backyard. During the day, Palomo serves high-low pub fare like burgers with homemade mustard. But come nighttime (and I mean night, Chileans dine late), his energetic mother runs the front of house and the menu goes upscale.

To create my favorite bite, Palomo bakes purple cornflour and salt into ring molds, to form tiny jewelry boxes. Inside, he places a bijou-sized piece of Konco (a fatty white fish from the deep, cold waters of Easter Island) dusted with chili powder and salt, and wrapped in parchment paper. Palomo makes use of the classic French technique, en papillotte, but shrinks it down to tapas size—it should have been a perfect, single bite, but I couldn't resist the temptation to cut it in half, and make two.

At one point, overhearing us discussing the food, Palomo's mother pulled up a chair and proudly told us how her son had spent time in the kitchens of Juan Mari Arzak, Ferran Adrià, and Daniel Boulud. It shows. Palomo's dishes, which he creates with the assistance of nearly 20 cooks, are super-refined and playful.


Araceli Zuñiga

From there, we went next door to Rodolfo Guzmán's restaurant, Borago. For anyone expecting starchy, dressed-up street food in Santiago's fancy restaurants, this place will no doubt change your mind. Deeply influenced by the Basque restaurant Mugaritz, where Guzmán worked for a little over a year, the tasting menu highlights foraged Chilean ingredients in a modern, luxurious space.

For our amuse-bouche, we were offered diguenes, a local tree mushroom that looks, basically, like a raspberry dressed up as a ghost. The fungus was fried, then strung from the branches of a miniature tableside tree, to mimic the experience of the harvest. At one point, servers dropped dry ice into a bowl of aromatics in the center of the table, gently disco-clouding us with a rush of scented smoke. This accompanied a plate of tiny, slow-cooked pieces of local, grass-fed beef-leg, which Guzmán covered in a powdered chancaca, a traditional syrup made from unrefined sugar, honey, and spices.

For dessert, we walked a few blocks down to Carlo Von Muhlenbrock's Osadia, with its elaborate, fountain-patio setting and chilled, second-floor cheese-room. Muhlenbrock is a pastry chef by trade, and part of the country's Chilean-German community from the south, which has its own rich culinary traditions. He served a slew of German-style kuchen, cakes made with local fruits, fresh miniature ice cream cones, and a simple flan topped with murtas (a small, red myrtle berry), which his team collected from wild highway-side bushes, in plastic bags.

Muhlenbrock is especially devoted to incorporating immigrant dishes into Chile's mainstream food culture, and wrote a book on the subject. In Manos del Sur, he lovingly documented the dishes of about 20 Chilean-German women, telling their stories and sharing simple photos of their hands at work. It's a beautiful book, as much about Chile's history as its food, and I recommend taking a peek if your Spanish is up to snuff.


Araceli Zuñiga

His background is decidedly different from Palomo's or Guzmán's, but all three chefs have traveled abroad to work for famous, international chefs, then returned home to Santiago (Palomo was born in Mexico because his Chilean parents fled during Pinochet's rule).

On Avenue Vitacura, they're applying what they've learned to their local products and traditional dishes, and though they each do it their own way, they're drawing inspiration from Chile's native ingredients—Conger eel, enormous South American pinones, or pine nuts, local mushrooms, roots and flowers—indeed, the chefs have access to their own unique range of products.

During the remainder of the press trip, I got a taste of Chile's impressive artisanal vinegars and oils, killer seafood, small-batch wines, and hard-to-find fruits. (I was especially charmed by Sonia Manzi, a former Avon-lady living outside of Santiago who keeps an orchard of 200 lucuma tress, an ancient Andean fruit with a bright orange flesh, a starchy texture, and a floral, melon nose, that she grows exclusively for Santiago's high-end pastry shops.)

And after dessert? From this point onward, friends, I remember little. There were thirteen men in white linen suits, singing and dancing on a stage, in a three-story nightclub. There were a few tall glasses of pisco on ice, and in the morning, as the sun came up and we wobbled past the amused doormen, there was the distinct feeling of wanting to stay in Santiago another night or two.