Vancouver gets a taste of high-end South American cuisine

Sucking pig confit. Picture: ALTO Restaurante.

Sucking pig confit. Picture: ALTO Restaurante.

Flavours from countries located around the equator are completely different to those of the — widespread — Mexican cuisine. Instead of tortillas, there are arepas; spices are milder and different kinds of meats and fishes are the soul of dishes.

From March 11 until March 21, Vancouver diners have had the chance to taste some rich South American dishes prepared by Secret Location’s (1 Water St.) executive chef Jefferson Álvarez. After starting the year with a series of menus where he explored the taste of Spain, Italy, France, Asia, and Persia, Álvarez decided to close his 11-week-culinary-tour with a flourish; that is, he decided to go back to his Venezuelan/Brazilian roots.

The best way to accomplish that goal, Álvarez thought, was by inviting fellow Venezuelan chef Carlos García to share the kitchen with him during the final dinner of the series. García’s Alto restaurant, located in Caracas, was named among the top 50 in the continent by the British magazine Restaurant.

Inspired by Alto’s cooking but using local ingredients, both chefs are ready to offer a 10-course tasting menu where typical Venezuelan and South American dishes are reinterpreted. High-end techniques and extreme care for the source material are at the core of their approach towards this Creole cuisine.

The dining experience starts with arepas filled with sea urchins that have been previously dressed with white chocolate mayonnaise. It is an experiment based on the fact that fishermen called the restaurant and offered fresh sea urchins. “It’s not common for us, but we are trying to contravene our own rules,” García said with a chuckle.

In Venezuela, dogfish is typically eaten in March/April. Yet, instead of bringing it from abroad, García and Álvarez decided to replace it with B.C. sturgeon. This fish is the star of the second course; it is cured in onion ashes and served together with cassava root puree and a green-crispy salad dressed with passion fruit vinaigrette.

A fosforera follows. This seafood soup, rich in tomato and shrimp, is partnered with some carrots candied in cocoa butter.

Later on, diners will taste a rock fish cooked in the vapour that results from mixing vinegar and pineapple guarapo, a sort of pineapple juice that results from mixing the skin of the fruit with brown sugar.

Among other things, sucking pig confit with onions is served almost at the end of dinner. The idea with this dish is to establish a connection with meals commonly eaten in South America’s rural villages.

Such an evening wouldn’t be complete without dessert. Therefore, at the request of food-writer Luciana Bianchi, García is presenting his tierra de cacao dessert [cocoa dust]. This is the same sweet that granted him an invitation to speak at the 2012 Salone del Gusto and Terra Madre organized by Slow Food. It consists of five different types of cocoa beans presented in different textures with the idea of “remembering Venezuela, the land of cocoa,” the chef said.

Tierra de cacao dessert. Picture: ALTO Restaurante.

Tierra de cacao dessert. Picture: ALTO Restaurante.

García is on a quest to relive Venezuelan cocoa’s golden days, those that made the country a chocolate-superpower near the 1800s. “Venezuelans see cocoa as a plant from where we extract money,” he said, “so we want to give cocoa the starring role it deserves” in every day’s cooking.

Through online correspondence, the two cooks had planned a slightly different menu but officers from American customs didn’t allow García to bring in some key ingredients, such as cassava bread and a particular type of sweet pepper. Nevertheless, creativity prevailed and they were able to come up with a new plan, thanks to Vancouver’s great supply of ingredients from all around the world. “I’m fascinated; here it’s very easy to find high quality products,” García said.

While they exchange of ideas, memories, and techniques, both chefs are already making plans for future four-hands dinners that bring together North and South.

Chefs Jefferson Alvarez and Carlos García.  Picture: Valentina Ruiz Leotaud

Chefs Jefferson Alvarez and Carlos García. Picture: Valentina Ruiz Leotaud

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