Rodolfo Guzmán and Virgilio Martínez: two young chefs rediscovering the region
Imagine South America. Imagine its vastness. Now, imagine Peru and Chile, right on the Pacific Ocean, with their coastlines winding along the West coast of the continent. We are talking about nearly 8,000 kilometres stretching between the Pacific Ocean and the Andes mountains, an enormous region that is as diverse as it is wild. This is precisely the source of inspiration that two young chefs, Virglio Martínez and Rodolfo Guzmán, growing up far apart from one another yet surprising similar in their thinking, used to outline their approach to cuisine, totally different from anything we could ever expect: an authentic Latin American culinary movement.
We are talking about a determined return to tradition, the local landscape, and, first and foremost, foraging, a practice that although it may seem unfamiliar is very ancient and has been used by man for thousands of years. Foraging is nothing else than searching for the edible things found in a real natural environment: in forests, grasslands and rivers, along beaches and in the sea.
Rodolfo Guzmán, chef and owner of Boragó in Santiago, Chile is a perfect example. He received his culinary training in Europe and, after a stint at Mugaritz in Spain, he opened his own restaurant in 2007. In 2014, it was ranked No. 5 among Latin America’s 50 best restaurants and is closely based the organic character of Chile’s landscape. It’s no surprise that the tasting menu that has existed since the day the restaurant opened is named Endemica. It’s not hard to imagine that this restaurant, now considered to be the Noma of South America, was at first completely ignored by food critics. Chile, unlike Peru, does not have its own true and proper culinary tradition, despite the fact that the geographies of these two countries are so similar. Modern Chilean cuisine is a bit backward, explains Guzmán. Right now everyone is concentrating on gourmet hamburgers and Continental dishes, cuisine that is full of fat, uses produce from hothouses and does not tie in with the seasons.
Guzmán is a bit unusual: you are more likely to find him on the beach looking for sea figs than at culinary-themed events. His passion and keen desire for knowledge about his homeland and its traditions are obvious in everything he does. Able to pick out 5 endemic species of edible plants in any plot of land larger than 2 square meters, Guzmán is at heart an insatiable researcher. On the floor above the restaurant, he is building an archive in cooperation with the Catholic University of Chile where he hopes to catalogue all the edible plant species growing in Chile. So far he estimates that 40% of his research is complete. Despite it all, his restaurant served 700 different dishes this year. This is all because Guzmán is a true forager: everything served in his restaurant comes from the land and sea of Chile and so climate, rainfall, the amount of sun and the wind influence the often limited availability of ingredients.
Virgilio Martínez was born 5,000 km to the north of Guzmán, in Peru, yet they are two of a kind. After traveling the globe and working in an array of restaurants, from New York to England to Spain, Martinez enrolled in the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu school before returning to Peru, beckoned home by his strong sense of belonging and tradition.
Peru, unlike Chile, has a firmly rooted culinary tradition and is a melting pot of cultures that has given life to a wide variety of cuisines. It was in Lima that Martínez opened Central, his first restaurant, home and culinary proving ground that in 2014 and 2015 was ranked the best restaurant in Latin America and Number 4 worldwide. It is here that Virgilio Martínez decided to start developing his own cuisine drawing on the years he spent researching the native and endemic raw ingredients of his country and rediscovering the traditions of the Inca community indigenous to the Andes and the Amazon rain forest.
On Virgilio Martínez’ menu, you’ll find native varieties of quinoa and maize, potatoes grown at 5,000 meters, highland chestnuts or Kushuru, a freshwater seaweed, prepared using cooking technique linked to the earth’s elements: from cooking on hot stones to smoking using different types of wood, every element in the kitchen in painstakingly researched, organic and inarguably sustainable.
Martínez, also a passionate researcher, has launched a wonderful project aimed at sharing foraging knowledge and information on Peruvian plants: Mater Iniciativa (http://www.materiniciativa.com/en/) is a huge on-line archive, open to all and free of charge, about all the ingredients that can be found in Peru. It is a great journey of regional discovery, exploring the area’s most interesting edible plants.
Purity, tradition and identity. These are the pillars that unite these two young chefs, so similar and yet so different. Guzmán, who brought back the best of his European experience to his home country, is keen to promote awareness about the wealth and variety of Chile inside the country. Meanwhile, Martínez, an inveterate globetrotter, has chosen to carry his approach to cuisine and the traditions of his country outside his national borders.
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