We arrived at Food & Wine Studio by Pilar Rodriguez to a warm greeting before promptly being directed back to our van. “First things first,” says Pilar, “We need to go to the farm to get some ingredients.” And so begins our cooking class with the charming Chilean celebrity chef.
Food & Wine Studio is based in Chile’s Colchagua Valley, 130km southeast of the country’s capital, Santiago. Not only is the studio situated in one of the most picturesque wine regions we have ever visited, it sits squarely in the middle of Viu Manent Winery offering panoramic views of its vineyards and the mountains as far as the eye can see.
Just a few minutes down the road we pull up to a small, local farm run by Luis. His bounty is as generous as it is diverse. We wander through the rows of lettuces, flowers and herbs, our nostrils filling with fresh aromas of lemon, basil, onion, and mint.
The romaine, char and spinach are all so fresh and ready to be harvested it’s a challenge trying to decide which will make the best choice—certainly not a struggle we have on a regular basis at our grocery store back home!
Soon enough, we return to the Food & Wine Studio with our bags full of greens and our senses primed. The studio itself is small and intimate, designed more as a home rather than a cooking facility.
The kitchen is also small but more than functional opening to an island where our group is divided into pairs and assigned one of the 4 courses to prepare.
Pilar instantly makes us feel comfortable with her easy-going nature, and her passion for food is evident from the start.
She’s quick to smile and tells us (rather convincingly) that everyone can cook, “Cooking is about flavour and having the right ingredients. If you have good ingredients, you’re going to have a good dish. There’s no magic here, everybody can cook, 100%.”
She then leads us outside to a lovely sitting area shaded by a pergola with the Viu Manent estate vineyard as our back drop. We sit down at the outdoor table, where we are handed a plate of three different salts, along with two glasses containing two different types of olive oil. Time for lesson number two…educating our taste buds.
“There are two fundamental ingredients when you’re cooking no matter where you are in the world: salt and fat. They not only give us flavour, but the fat also conducts heat. If you prepare a potato without oil and another with oil, they will cook differently.”
Pilar opts for olive oil over butter for fat because butter coats the taste buds too much. For her, olive oil is a fat that does well with all the flavours without masking them.
She directs our attention to the plate of salts and proceeds to take us through a tasting comparison between a fleur de sel made just an hour away from the studio, a sample of regular cooking salt, and a sample of low sodium salt.
Similar to tasting wine side by side, the differences are much more pronounced with the higher quality, locally produced salt easily standing out amongst the three. She does the same with the two olive oils, providing an extra virgin olive oil from a small, local producer, and one that is a mass-produced standard olive oil. We learn how to taste olive oil properly, ignoring the colour and holding the glass in our palms to warm it up and help release its flavours, evenutally sipping a little and sucking in air at the same time. It’s a noisy and unattractive exercise but also a rewarding one enabling us to truly differentiate the qualities in each.
Unsurprisingly, the locally made extra virgin olive oil is the unanimous favourite among our group. And while the tasting demonstration was incredibly interesting, its sole purpose is to emphasize Pilar’s philosophy of always using good quality, local, fresh ingredients. Point proven, now time to cook. Chile’s cuisine is inspired by wine and Pilar embraces the food/wine connection wholeheartedly. A large sign in Spanish adorns the kitchen wall which translated says: “The taste of a meal almost always reveals and then enhances the quality of the wine. In turn, the quality of the wine not only complements the pleasure of a meal but also spiritualizes it.” It is a gentle reminder that food and wine were made to be paired and when done properly, you will be rewarded accordingly.
Just one more lesson before we actually get down to slicing and dicing our hearts out. Second only to good ingredients being the secret to good cooking, Pilar constantly emphasizes the need to approach cooking with joy and a side of humour. A glass of wine is poured for each of us newly appointed chefs and we are ready. Whether or not the wine’s purpose is intended more for liquid courage, we quickly focus on our tasks at hand but with big smiles on our faces.
Our menu represented the diversity of Chile’s bounty consisting of a blend of traditional dishes with a modern influence.
Our appetizers included handmade Sopaipillas with chilled avocado soup accompanied by octopus salsa verde which was paired beautifully with Secreto Sauvignon Blanc. The first course was sous vide duck on the same spring greens we harvested at Luis’ farm included a green pea, lemon mint hummus as its accompaniment. This was followed by a grilled octopus with onion risotto paired with the Vibo Punta del Viento. We also made Churrascas (bread) to accompany the meal and our dessert was a Turron de vino paired with a local Rosé of Malbec.
An impressive menu for our group with mixed experience in the kitchen. While she had the less experienced in the group believing they could cook, truth be told, she and her two assistants made it easy, and more importantly, fun. It was an exceptionally enjoyable afternoon capped off with a great meal as our reward. Pilar is a firm believer that cooking connects people to each other as well as the earth. Thanks to this memorable experience at Food & Wine Studio, we are forever connected to Pilar and Chile.