As the Executive Chef of San Antonio Country Club, Nelson Millán stays fresh by traveling to new places and experiencing new cuisines.
Editor’s Note: At the 2017 Chef to Chef Conference in Atlanta, March 5-7, Nelson Millán, Executive Chef, San Antonio Country Club, San Antonio, Texas will present a session called “World of Flavors: Bringing the Latin American ‘Revolution’ to American Kitchens.” During this session, Millán, who is also a Chef Instructor at the Culinary Institute of America’s San Antonio Campus, will demonstrate how American chefs can find their own culinary independence through the Latin flavors, ingredients and techniques that continue to gain popularity. View the agenda here and register for the 2017 Conference here.
Peru’s culinary culture is in a class of its own. This was my experience a few months ago when I was fortunate enough to visit the country for the first time.
For several years I had been hearing about Peru as a culinary destination and how it has been dubbed “The Culinary Capital of Latin America.” And I was curious. It wasn’t until 2011 that I met Pedro Miguel Schiaffino, one of Peru’s finest and most dynamic chefs, at a conference at the Culinary Institute of America here in San Antonio. After presenting on our different food cultures, he extended a cordial invitation to me to visit his country. In 2016, my dream to visit Peru finally came to fruition. I stayed in Lima for ten days but I think I needed at least another two months to visit all the places I wanted to see.
I started my trip by visiting Peru’s annual culinary-centered fair called Mistura. Mistura is a monumental 2-week celebration of all aspects of Peruvian food, art, music and culture. It also incorporates these things from other Central and South American countries as well. During the day for seven consecutive days I paid scrutinizing visits to every booth at the fair. I tried an array of foods and ingredients that aren’t easily available in North America. From several varieties of potatoes (Peru has 5,000 varieties) to Cuy, a well revered large breed of guinea pig in the Andeans region of South America.
I wish I could have the capacity of plugging in an external stomach so that I could try all the variety of prepared food and food products encountered at the fair!
I had to pace my taste testing during the day because at the night I still made reservations to visit several restaurants that made the 2016 S. Pellegrino’s Top 50 best restaurants list in Latin America and the World. I started with Pedro Miguel’s restaurants: Malabar (#38 in Latin America) and Amaz where he executed a smart and intriguing approach to Amazonian cuisine. I also visited restaurant Central run by Chef Virgilio Martinez and his wife Pia Leon (#1 in Latin America and #4 in the World), Maido by Chef Micha Tsumura (#2 in Latin America and #13 in the World), Astrid y Gaston by Chef Gaston Acurio and his wife Astrid (#7 in Latin America and #30 in the World) and La Mar by Chef Gaston Acurio (#12 in Latin America).
Each displayed a refined approach to the different regions, climas, and cultures that are represented within the culinary world Peru has to offer. It was enlightening and exciting. I was inspired.
At the end of my trip, I walked away with several notes:
- I learned that Peru is divided into three food zones. Amazonian Cuisine features sweet water fish, prawns, plantains, and yuca. Cocina Criolla or Cocina de La Sierra (Cuisine of the mountains) features with potatoes, chicken, beef, pork, vegetables, and tubers. And Cocina de la Costa (Coastal Cuisine) features seafood, shellfish, mollusks, and ceviches. Each region cooks with fresh ingredients harvested within their own zones which makes for a great variety and quality throughout the country.
- On top of the variety they have by zones there is a remarkable influence from Japanese and Chinese cuisines called Nikkei (Japanese-Peruvian) and Chifa (Chinese-Peruvian) which offer another dimension to different dishes with multiple layers of pleasantly surprising flavors.
- The simplicity of life and the abundance of uncomplicated, untouched, naturally fresh, non-disrupted food products allows for the most simple meal to taste amazing. Everything is organic, accessible and affordable to the masses. A carrot taste like a carrot used to taste before we messed up our food matrix to grow things faster and be “resistant” to plagues.
- Last but not least, I learned that I need to go back, but this time I want to go with an additional stomach and more time to explore all zones of Peru on an individual basis to offer my members new and exciting food experiences in the years to come.
Since our clubs is not open to the public and we only serve our own captive audience almost every day of the week, we as club chefs have the tendency to think that we live in our own bubble. But the reality is that the members have many other choices and we are surrounded by fierce competition that continues to improve and evolve. In order to keep our members engaged and excited about our menus, it is imperative to constantly create dishes and highlight new cuisines that set us apart from others.
I have found throughout the years that attending great conferences like Chef to Chef plus traveling to other places around the country and world allow me to push my culinary boundaries to keep the creative juices flowing in order to satisfy and surprise our members who are visiting us more frequent as a result.
Hopefully, I will be able to visit Peru again and experience all there is to discover. There is a reason they have nine of the top 50 restaurants in Latin America within a short distance from each other and in the same city of Lima. Thanks to my recent fisit, I understand so much more about this part of the world. And I can’t wait to share it with my members and my staff.