It’s been called the world’s next culinary “hotspot” for good reason. From the Andes to Patagonia to Santiago, chefs in Chile are mixing the culture of the country with the abundance of the land and sea to create an exciting culinary destination for locals and travelers alike.
One young chef in particular, Chris Carpentier, is among the shining stars in Santiago. Although he is widely recognized for his role on the Chilean version of MasterChef and for his appearances on several high-profile Chilean television programs, Carpentier is also the author of two books and the owner of two restaurants, El Barrio and Maldito Chef.
On a trip to Santiago for the 2016 Maccabi Pan American Games earlier this year, I was fortunate to not only to eat at the fabulous El Barrio, but also to have the chance to talk to Chef Carpentier in person. His rise to fame, as so often is the case, did not come without hard work, some professional and personal disappointments and a culinary journey that took him from Chile to Washington, DC, and back again to his home country.
Carpentier was born into a family that is half-Jewish (his father is American and his mother Chilean). His Jewish grandmother and her sister left Poland where they had a watch business and settled in South America. At one point, his grandmother also lived just by Central Park in New York City. Carpentier, whose love of cooking started early in his childhood, has fond memories of the Shabbat dinners hosted by his grandmother, especially of their preamble: the hum of the kitchen talk, the cutting, the chopping and the wonderful aromas that led to happy faces around the table.
With a lack of culinary schools in Chile and a yearning to learn more, Carpentier made his way to the US, to Washington, where he found work in the kitchens of renowned chefs Michele Richard, Tino Buggio and Jean-Louis Palladin. They, especially Palladin, the youngest chef to achieve a two-star Michelin rating in France, instilled in Carpentier the deep respect for locally sourced and locally produced foods.
There were no boundaries with these chefs. They taught him the importance of matching the perfect element, the food, with the perfect cooking technique. (This was around the time that Asian-fusion and California-style cooking started becoming popular.) It became ingrained in Carpentier that the best dish would combine the best products with the best techniques. As he said, “The most important thing for me was to cook, feel, smell, taste and create.”
He carries on these principles today, whether it’s cooking in his restaurant and on his television shows or by altering his grandmother’s kreplach recipe. He plays with every recipe, changing it, experimenting, but always with the deepest respect for the ingredients that he is using.
El Barrio, which means “the neighborhood,” is located on a quiet corner of a neighborhood street. The cooking features local ingredients and integrates Latin American, French, Italian and Asian flavors.
When asked what he loves most about being a chef, Chef Carpentier replied, “I love the minute when a customer has taken the first bite. That first bite is crucial, and you can see their face change, their eyes light up as they savor the taste. It is the moment for me when all the hard work, the 14 hours in the kitchen, are worth it. It’s the little moments like that.”
For this chef, the hard work doesn’t stop with his successes. His next project is to bring his love of food and his cooking style to a new generation of chefs by opening a new culinary school in Chile. His goal is to encourage aspiring chefs to take interest in where the food comes from, to respect it, to develop skills and, most importantly, to take pride in becoming a chef. As we settled into dinner and I took my first bite, I understood what Chef Carpentier was saying. The best ingredients, best technique and the hum of the kitchen—it all comes together at El Barrio.
Top photo: Fresh fish with quinoa and local vegetables at Chris Carpentier’s El Barrio (courtesy of El Barrio).