By Patrick Hieger
Day three was all about a return to cooking, and a recovery of the ingredients, techniques, and producers that make each individual country in South America’s cuisine great. Things kicked off early with none other than Hogs’ Andrés Vallarino, the owner of a hot dog shop that managed to get four of Latin America’s best chefs together to collaborate on signature hot dogs. The man who also made fresh sausage live on stage. It was a bit disappointing that more people didn’t show up for the presentation, because it was one of the true cooking demonstrations, and a lesson, from the cooks themselves, that quality doesn’t have to be expensive.
Vallarino took his time on stage to tout what Hogs has done, and why it’s important. As “just a hot dog shop,” they could get easily overlooked as being just a place to eat, and not part of a larger thread of bringing higher quality food and ingredients to South America. As his sous chef chopped, ground, and cased fresh pork shoulder, Villarain and his Food Lab Group partners discussed the importance of quality. “We don’t want people to confuse quality with luxury,” they said. Though it was quite a luxury to start the day off with a sample of freshly made, freshly seared and golden sausage.
El Baqueano’s Fer Rivarola was next, with a hint in his voice that the previous night’s Sessions dinner might have gone a little too long into the early morning. Nevertheless, he took command of the stage, talking about the importance of rescuing–a word that has gotten a lot of attention during Ñam–Argentina’s and, in general, South America’s native ingredients. His father, he told us, had been a hunter and a fisherman, so he had grown up eating the lesser known, and less desirable cuts of meat and fish, the same types of proteins he now serves in his own restaurant. He mentioned that Argentina has 4,700 kilometers of coast, as well as an important network of rivers and lakes, yet Argentines barely touch fish. Multimedia time.
Like many of the other main attractions, he had a host of videos to share with the crowd that was now starting to grow. The first, and perhaps most important video, was about local fishermen whose trade is slowly becoming extinct, as things like dams and other construction projects threaten the rivers that provide them their catch. With less to fish and therefore less work, they’re slowly forced into living in larger cities, looking for work, but end up finding poverty. It’s a vicious cycle. Rivarola’s point was to show us that what and how we eat doesn’t just affect us–it affects ecosystems, producers, fishermen, the environment, and so on. What we eat has a great impact on a lot of people.
On a lighter note, the presentation came to a close with a brief discussion of his monthly dinner series, Cocina Sin Fronteras, which brings together chefs from around Latin America (and the world at large), to showcase Argentina’s native ingredients. Never disappointing, Rivarola’s final video was from last year’s Cocina dinner with Alex Atala, as filmed by The Great Cuisine. From shopping to prepping to cooking, we got a taste of what the Cocina Sin Fronteras dinners are, and why they’re not to be missed. Remember that “stupidly simple” potato and cheese dish that Atala was talking about during his presentation? He prepared that tableside at Cocina. Make your reservations soon.
Attention quickly shifted over to the Ñam Innova auditorium, where none other than Gastón Acurio took to the stage for one last presentation. A much smaller stage and a more intimate crowd, Acurio wanted to talk about how food can be a tool, used to create a movement. “Food tells a story,” he told us. It is a product, and comes from somewhere, and those are the stories that we need to know, too–not just the story that’s on our plate. This, as he stood gallantly on the dim, heavily-shadowed stage, gently tossing a fresh ceviche.
Though he had touched upon it the day before in his larger presentation, the chef’s main point in the smaller setting was to make us aware of how important the fishing industry is to Peru and how, “little by little,” chefs and their restaurants are taking steps to ensure the industry remains strong. If the more than 25,000 cevicherías in Lima alone can learn to work day to day, with fresh product, they can connect directly with fishermen for the highest quality, most sustainable product available. “Little by little.” And then we were met with fresh leche de tigre in the lobby. Gastón Acurio–chef, poet, provider.
How do you follow up a presentation like that? With a breezy breath of fresh Brazilian air, talking about simplicity in cooking. Mocotó’s Rodrigo Oliveira, entirely in Portuguese, spoke volumes about his love for simplicity, as well as the boteco culture that Brazil is known for. He praised what Andrés Vallarino had done earlier in the day, making fresh sausage on stage, with simple ingredients and a solid focus. That, he said, is innovation.
Mocotó is a “popular” restaurant, literally meaning that it’s for the people. As he cooked “quesadillas” made with tapioca flour that Brazil is famous for, he showed a video of a day in the life of Mocotó. Regardless of its number 16 spot on the list of Latin America’s 50 Best, it doesn’t seem that business was going too poorly for the chef in the first place. Then, in a fit of pure Brazilian happiness, the chef tossed free t-shirts into the crowd for five lucky attendees. Obrigado, chef.
Tired yet? It was a long day, and two great chefs were still yet to come.
Venezuela’s Carlos Garcia, like many of the other chefs, talked about the importance of memories in his cooking. He has a horrible memory he says, to the point that he’s forgotten his kids at school. So, he created a Facebook page to share his culinary memories, and to draw from them in his cooking. For him, an interchange between chefs (think pictures of him with Massimo Bottura, Enrique Olvera, and so on) is of the utmost importance, and plays a huge role in his dishes at Alto. And while Alex Atala had said that food was a much more important social network than Facebook, Garcia was trying to say that tools to create memories, be they notebooks or internet-based, are an important key in remembering why we cook.
Garcia, in his effortlessly cool and easy way, cooked three dishes, inspired by three different memories. One, a dish involving mole that took him back to spending time with Mexican chef Enrique Olvera. Another, a truly Venezuelan dish that reminded him of home. The third, a memory of his week in Chile leading up to Ñam, involving fresh Chilean sea urchin and salt from Cahuil that they had collected earlier in the week. Absolutely hunger inducing.
Finally, Chile’s own Axel Manríquez of the Bristol at Hotel Plaza San Francisco closed out the day. The chef has been cooking for twenty five long years, but got his start watching his mother cook at her “fuente de soda” in Santiago’s Estación Central when he was young. Just like every other chef that has presented thus far at Ñam, youth, memories, and a constant use of both is key to making food look, taste, and be great. After all, that is the slogan for this year’s Ñam: what does your childhood taste like?
From there, the space was cleared, the tables set, and the crowds poured in for the tapas and vino party. Tonight’s the last night to get in on all the action, or you’ll have to wait until next year. We’ll see you there.