By Patrick Hieger
Oh how those festival organizers know how to do their jobs. You might think that with Ñam closing, and chefs like Alex Atala and Gastón Acurio already out of Santiago, that closing day might just pack a little less punch than the previous three days of incredible presentations and events, but day four of Santiago’s most important food festival was just as important as the other three. And, just as delicious.
The morning opened up with Juan Gabler of Cuerovaca and Civico giving guests a lesson in meat. He should know a thing or two about the topic, given that Cuerovaca is one of Santiago’s leading steakhouses. He wasn’t just stressing prime cuts, Wagyu, Kobe or Kurobuta style cuts either. No, the point of the talk was to let people know that even at the grocery store, there’s great meat to be found. Know what you’re buying and know how to buy. Unfortunately, there weren’t any samples to get a better idea of what he was talking about, but you can’t have everything.
Over at Ñam Innova, chef Juan Morales of the forthcoming and highly anticipated d.o. restaurant, got the chance to present his project Juntos Cocinamos. The project currently works directly with local culinary school Culinary, to put students in participating restaurants and give them a chance to succeed. Though still in its nascent stages, 11 students have already been placed in the three participating restaurants that include El Mesón de Patagonia, d.o., and Casa Luz. By next year, the goal is to expand the project to more cities, and across more restaurants, giving participating students a liveable wage and the tools necessary to succeed in the gastronomy industry.
Closing out Ñam Innova, it was none other than Argentina’s beloved Narda Lepes, speaking about “How to raise an ominvore.” Both a chef and a mother of two, she discussed the importance of the choices we make when eating. The big takeaway? If the parents don’t, the kids won’t. Kids have windows of time that we need to take advantage of–moments when they’ll be more likely to try new things. Getting children to eat new things is a constant process of learning, as well as a lot of trial and error. She also emphasized that kids can’t eat alone. New places, new venues, new ways of eating will give children the tools they need to become omnivores for life. Cue the applause. Fin Ñam Innova. See you next year.
Back on the main stage, Carolina Bazán of Ambrosia seemed like she might have been reeling from the chefs’ dinner she held the night before. Nevertheless, just like any good chef, she pushed through and plated a beautiful dish. She, like many of the other speakers who stuck to Ñam’s theme, “What does your life taste like?” went back to memory. Bazán has traveled and lived all over the world, including various countries in South America, the United States, and France. She trained, and lived, and explored in each of these places, but still remembers prepping food with her mom as a child as a definitive moment in her decision to become a chef.
Bazán’s time on stage finished with her presentation of one of Ambrosia’s signature dishes, poached salmon with tomato water, watermelon, and herbs. Her techniques show a literal world’s worth of training, and a keen focus on using locally-sourced ingredients. You might wait until the middle of the week to go eat, once she (and everyone else) has recovered from a long weekend.
Jorge Vallejo of Mexico’s Quintonil took to the stage for the start of the final afternoon sessions. Though he got his start and found his wife and business partner at Enrique Olvera’s Pujol, the chef has already found his own groove at Quintonil, and people are taking note. The restaurant, he said, is more than just a business–it’s a life’s work. Once he and his now wife left Pujol to open the restaurant, it became a labor of love, and an homage to all of the forgotten and overlooked products with which Mexico is just teeming. Quintonil itself is a type of amaranth, a delicious grain that basically grows like a weed, yet is rarely seen on menus.
The highlight of Vallejo’s presentation were his two dishes, one which he just renamed on Friday night. The first was a ceviche of nopales (cactus paddles), with Chile’s own cochayuyo and its roots, as well as avocado, which he says he eats with every meal. The second, a dessert, got its new name when a small earthquake hit on Friday night just as he was plating during the Ñam Sessions dinner. Formerly known as mangoes with chocolate, it will now be referred to as mangoes with chocolate 5.6. Add avocado, green tea ice cream and chocolate powder to charred mangoes and a thick chocolate nage and you’ve got yourself a dish that does, in fact, border on groundbreaking.
For a bit of comic relief prior to what would be a rather interesting final act, illustrator Alberto Montt took the stage to talk about the inspiration for his latest bit of work, Recetas al Pie de la Letra, an artist’s take on the sometime literal names for dishes that can be found throughout Latin America. Think ‘shoe mussels’ or ‘crazies stew’ as exaggerated comics. Montt has collaborate with chef Tomás Olivera, who was to be the final act for the day, on various projects like live cooking and drawing demonstrations. Sure, it was a stretch for a culinary festival, but did offer some good laughs and a reminder that we can’t always take food so seriously.
Finally, chef of the people and lover of music, Tomás Olivera took to the stage to close out Ñam 2014. In what ended up bordering on a Kanye West style talk / performance / rant on stage, the chef did manage to get two dishes out, and give away a prize from Puma, with whom he regularly collaborates. Amidst the chatter, asking who won the day’s soccer game, talking about politics and his general disdain for all Chilean politicians, the chef cooked and plated charquican with a fried egg and blood sausage with sofrito, zucchini and cherry tomatoes.
Prior to retiring the stage to the festival’s final musical act for 2014, Olivera gave us two final pieces of information. The first, that Chilean food is of and by the people, not Rodolfo Guzmán, Liguria, Pebre, Les Toques Blanche, or a variety of other organizations which the chef seems to have had fallings out with prior to his appearance on the stage. The second, a first look at his new project Musicalización, which brings together his fervent passion for music and cooking into a collaborative project involving music and cooking. Members of Inti-Illimani and other local bands have gotten together to create songs based on national, traditional Chilean dishes as an homage to the country and its foodways. Check the first cut here.
After the odd, and politically-charged end to Ñam, the chairs were removed for the last time, the stoves lit up and the music turned on. Tapas y Vinos closed out Ñam 2014 with a lot of buzzed, happy guests. Look out later today for our Day After report, chock full of insights and other nuggets of information.