By Olivia Amter
Warmed plates, a flourish of color, a crack, a sprinkle, a placing of the star item, maybe another sprinkle, a dollop, and a bell rings. It’s a common sequence of events in a restaurant, and it means someone is about to eat. But at this restaurant, and especially on this night, this sequence of events is just about the only thing that can be compared to a normal night out in search of a bite.
The brilliantly named, Proyecto Cocina Sin Fronteras (Project Cooking without Borders) is the brainchild of Chef Fernando Rivarola, chef and owner of El Baqueano in Buenos Aires. The project aims to create an environment in which renowned chefs from around the world may come to his BA restaurant, regional ingredients in tow, and collaborate with him in a fantastic display of cooking local. The project emphasizes the use of regional, traditional foods as a way of exchanging cultural knowledge, preserving traditions, and challenging the food scene to move away somewhat from its focus on imported cooking styles and flavors to build a gourmet food scene. Proyecto Cocina Sin Fronteras has already held multiple of the once-a-month tasting menu nights, after having kicked off with decorated Brazilian Chef Alex Atala of D.O.M., whose restaurant has been given the recognition as being among the top 10 restaurants in the world.
For this edition to close the 2013 cycle, renowned chef Kamila Seidler of recently inaugurated Gustu in La Paz, Bolivia joined us in Buenos Aires. What makes her role in this restaurant so special is the history behind it. Gustu is not only an innovative and tradition-honoring restaurant, but also a socially minded, poverty combating project created as part of The Melting Pot Foundation by Chef Claus Meyer of NOMA, the famed Copenhagen restaurant known for its use of traditional, regional ingredients and often raw items. Seidler, along with co-Chef Michelangelo Cestari, were chosen as the perfect team to engage in the teaching and training of low-income Bolivian youth in the culinary arts as a way of providing valuable vocational skills in a country known for its extreme poverty. At the same time, the project aims to bring local ingredients into the gourmet food scene, which is more inclined to be dominated by foreign styles and ingredients. Now, Gustu is a fully functioning restaurant that employs low-income Bolivians in the kitchen and in the dining room.
But onto to the main event: our Cocina Sin Fronteras night that showcased Argentine and Bolivian cuisine in the dining room of El Baqueano, on the corner of Chile and Bolivar in the San Telmo neighborhood of Buenos Aires. I was invited not to the dinner table, but instead to participate in the before, during and after of the night – far more of a treat, as far as I was concerned. I was joined by veteran food photographer (and much more talented then little me) Pablo Baracat and the ultra fantabulous food film director, Ferran Castellnou. You have never seen food and restaurants look so beautiful as in his videos on The Great Cuisine.
As soon as the tables were set and final details finished, guests began to arrive into the sumptuously decorated dining room that, as I was told by Pablo, was too dark – mood-lighting you might call it – for effortlessly beautiful photos. Too bad! I was mostly there for the food anyway. And you wouldn’t believe the smells.
On the bar in the main dining room Chef Fernando Rivarola was also prepping his area, gearing up to prepare his dishes within meters of the guests at their tables. His manner is relaxed and warm, and his quiet display of passion for what he does infectious. He was quick to hold out a bowl for me to try one of the ingredients he was carefully placing on a dish. We discussed the deliciously sweet and salty sea asparagus in depth. His first dish was the deliciously fatty river fish given the name “Jamon del Rio” (Ham of the River), which was delicately stretched across a wooden plate.
In the kitchen, everything was also already underway. Chef Kamilia Seidler was engrossed in the preparation of her courses, hardly looking up except to exchange a few word with her sous-chef, who had traveled with her from Bolivia, or flash a smile and make a joke. If she was at all nervous, she did not show it – her assured movements showed her confidence in the kitchen.
Her first dish was a puffed, fried corn cracker filled with a sweet corn cream and piled with shredded rabbit meat, pan fried maize and lemon. This teaser was a one-bite dish that exploded with lemony flavor and a mixture of textures (crunch, creamy, chewy, meaty). I would have eaten these babies by the bucketfull if I could have gotten my hands on more. I had to be content with 2 or 3.
With each guest’s arrival it became clearer that there is a specific, food-enthusiast set that attends these exclusive and innovative nights. Without naming names, some of the top people in restaurant reviews, El Gourmet and Nespresso all graced El Baqueano’s dining room that evening. I was impressed.
As the evening got underway I watched as the wait staff, kitchen staff, sommelier and chefs effortlessly came together to execute and serve the dishes. This was no small feat considering that the tasting menu boasted 10 dishes, each beautifully placed onto their own decorated plates. Talk about a feast for the eyes.
The next pair of dishes showed off small andean potatoes in two ways. The first was Rivarola’s papas andinas, which added a touch of socially minded gastronomy to the night in its own right – the micro potatoes are collected by an indigenous community in the northern Argentinian province of Salta as part of the entrepreneurial arm of Fundacion Alfarcito. The potatoes were prepared in a variety of textures and temperatures: puree, foam, fried chips, dehydrated, in paper-thin strips, crunchy, and even whole and cooked at low temperatures. A creative mouth-full for sure.
Chef Seidler followed with papalisas, a leafy tuber, with red beets, perfumed with hibiscus shards and hibiscus flower vinegar – a supremely earthy and surprisingly juicy combination.
Seidler spent the night circulating the dining room, serving, interacting and explaining her dishes to guests who were grinning like kids with a new toy, excited to have the star of the night standing at their table. If it had been socially acceptable to follow her around, not even trying to hide my eavesdropping, I would have done it. Unfortunately I adhere to social norms and had to be content snapping shots of the happy customers instead.
The rest of the mains catered to the meat-eating traditions of the two countries. Chef Rivarola moved to the Argentine coast first and served up pan fried dumplings stuffed with shrimp from Puerto Madryn and garnished with scallion. The shrimp wrapped in a delicate pasta, conjured up ocean flavors from the sea that, perhaps overwhelming to some, was nonetheless a nice juxtaposition to the land meats that were to come.
Seidler went a little more land animal, putting together a dish with thinly sliced cauliflower, shredded alpaca jerky and and a creamy poached egg yolk. This dish is a twist on a Gustu staple, which uses hearts of palm and quail egg to complement the smoked alpaca meat. I saw first hand how difficult it was to handle the egg yolks, which often burst (as raw egg yolks tend to do) in the chef’s hands as she attempted to carefully place them into the bowl.
On to the main dishes. The first of the mains was Seidler’s llama steak served with cactus, yogurt and wild honey. For anyone who is unfamiliar with llama, it is an incredibly flavorful meat which is reminiscent of a rare tuna steak in texture (at least in this preparation), but with the deep, complex flavor of dry-aged beef. Could this be the World’s next emu?
The next unusual meat was Rivarola’s lamb, which was termed an Argentinian “interpretation of pré-salé”, or a french lamb that is grazed in salt flats, giving the meat a distinct flavor. This version was paired with an under-the-sea scene complete with different types of seaweed chips, powder, mousse and foam, and “salicornia”, those fascinating little sea asparagus. The rush of salt that accompanied the sweet crunch of the ocean vegetable, combined with the visual display of the ocean ecosystem showed off Chef Rivarola’s ability to create a dish that mirrored the flavor of the European speciality, but with a distinctly local flair. Apparently there is a farmer in the south of Argentina that has even taken to cultivating these little guys out of their normally wild habitat.
(Side Note: Notice that so far there has been no “normal” meat. I discovered a hilarious little sign that said this perfectly: “We are not a parrilla. We do not serve beef. We do not serve chicken. We also don’t have a pasta option”. In plain english: Go away picky eaters.)
After a quick palate cleanser of creamy citrus sorbet, we moved on to the desserts. First up was Seidler’s chankaka with tumbo sorbet. Translation: raw sugar cream (almost more merengue like) with passionfruit sorbet and a sprinkle of something crunchy. The dessert was paired with a shot of singani, a Bolivian “fire water” with 40% alcohol. Delicious but oh so dangerous because of its mild flavor and little to no burn (read: drink this all night without noticing until you’re on the floor). Although I have never been the biggest ice cream or sorbet fan, the combination of textures and flavors was so wild it was more than satisfying.
The night was ended with a creative dessert by Chef Rivarola: chayote paste with a thin slice of cheese, a slice of edible wood, cinnamon ice cream, all topped with a peanut tuile. If you have ever had membrillo, guava or batata paste with a slab of cheese you may be familiar with this kind of dessert. However, the slices were thinner than the average hastily made snack and the flavors more delicate. The cinnamon ice cream was fresh and the edible wood (just as surprising and interesting to me as the sea asparagus) was soft and chewy, although not very distinguishable among the other, stronger flavors. The tuile added the perfect crunch.
Before I knew it (some 8 hours later) the night had ended. We laid a table for everyone, poured a couple of drinks and feasted on the nights leftovers. Food, wine, a couple of singani shots, and a whole lot of conversation later it was 4am. Over the course of the evening I had learned so much about food. Whereas I looked at some of the ingredients with surprise and maybe a little confusion, others nonchalantly detailed their origins. It was mind boggling the things I had never even heard of.
And that may have been the trick to the whole event. Not only was the experience a very special meeting of the culinary minds, but at the same time it stitched together traditions and realities, de-mystifying them to some extent. Ingredients were so surprising, yet oddly “normal” at the same time. None of them had traveled very far and all the dishes had an air of home-cooked grub made fit to grace a gourmet table. Whereas we are less impressed by the truly foreign (say, a great sushi restaurant in Buenos Aires), this experience exploits our lack of knowledge of the ingredients found closer to home, making their use that that much more interesting on our dinner plates.
And thats when I finally understood it: what makes Chef Rivarola’s concept so daring is that diners have the chance to take part in something so foreign and yet so local at the same time. So bring on the hand-picked, the low-production, the underutilized and maybe even the foraged. Cocina Sin Fronteras welcomes you with open doors.
For more information on Gustu check out our other articles here.