A PURSUIT OF CULINARY INSPIRATION

CHEF TOM STAFFORD'S

SOUTH AMERICAN JOURNEY

I was in Peru and Chile in February and discovered a new world of culinary experiences which will now work their way into our summer menus at the St. Helena tasting room. Follow me as I take you through my experiences in the great cities of Lima and Santiago, the generous people I met, and the amazing food and wine I enjoyed along the way.
WHY TRAVEL TO

SOUTH AMERICA

Great question.  Ask me a year ago about where to go for food and wine education, I’m not gonna yell out “South America!” However, after a lot of research and reasoning, I have come to find that Lima is a culinary capital of the world and Chile is on the ‘come up’ on the wine scene. Most of this is due to pioneers in both fields that are finally getting it together.

Peru has some of the most incredible ingredients that anyone outside the country would never even come in contact with unless they made the effort to see it or eat it for themselves. Now top chefs of Peru are taking these indigenous ingredients and making magic on plates. Stuff that cannot be replicated in any other place in the world. If that doesn’t start to get you excited, I don’t know what will, and know  it’s gonna be the recurring theme of this whole journal.

So yea, Peru is all about food… maybe a ‘lil pisco too. By a ‘lil, I mean a ton. As I have discovered with South American food and beverage, the more you learn, the more you want… this seems to be the case with countries that has food and beverage figured out. After Lima, Peru, I’m headed to Santiago, Chile.

WHY CHILE?

Well, Chile isn’t as famous on the food side as Lima, Peru, but the wine scene in Chile is unreal! For this trip, my goal and mission is to hit up to 7 different wine regions in Chile. Those ranging from hot and desert-like climate to cool, rainy and foggy areas that would remind you of the Sonoma coast during the winter time..but the best thing is because is the Southern Hemisphere, that means It’s summer time down there right now!

START OF THE TRIP – DAY 1

January 27-28th travel consisted of leaving San Francisco a ‘lil after midnight, headed for Panama for a quick layover. Then off to Lima. Well, then United told us that quick layover in Panama went from 30 minutes to 4 hours. So I went up and talked to the front desk at the gate and took a shot in the dark and requested an upgrade to business class because of this massive inconvenience. He looked at me like I was insane and told me he would try to make it to where I had a row to myself for the next flight. Oh well… worth a shot, I guess. Luckily we had access to the United Club. Which is basically a lounge where all the drinks and snacks are free! So now I have to drink as much wine as I can physically handle for the next couple of hours. DAMN! Could be worse I guess.

The flight from SFO to Panama was pretty painless. 6 hours of on and off sleep. With my body trying to figure out if I needed sleep or another glass of wine. We landed in Panama and since we had 4 hours to spare, it only made sense to go to the Copa lounge to start drinking local beers at 9am.

So after knocking back some libations, I found myself at the gate about to board the plane. I handed the attendant my boarding pass and it comes up with an alarming red flash. Then the attendant says, “Congratulations Mr. Stafford. You have been upgraded to 1st class!”

So it all worked out in the end for the best. That guy that looked at me crazy at SFO must have hooked it up. God bless him.

So that nice plane ride landed us in Lima in a ‘lil over 4 hours. Got our bags, went thru Peruvian Customs, got a cab, and now we are at the hotel trying to figure out where the nearest pisco sour is.

Till the next entry… adios
Tom

LIMA, PERU – DAY 2 -3

Well, this is a super fun city. People are very nice and everything is super reasonably priced. A nice day out in Lima where you take an Uber a few times around town, go out to lunch and dinner.. then maybe finish up at another bar is probably gonna run you like 60 bucks for the whole day! I’m already thinking about retirement down here.

When I first got in, we went out to a place called Bar Publica. We could hear the music and the people from down the block, and as we walked up and into it, we saw that it was a pub/lounge with everybody drinking large format beers having a good time. So we did the same thing, and noticed that compared to maybe a similar bar in San Francisco, this one felt real. No pretentiousness, no martinis, no status needed… just a bunch of locals.Well, one drink turned into like 3 because we met one of the owners whose name was Sergio. This guy spoke perfect English, was super nice, but more important than all that, loved Seinfeld. If somebody knows and loves Seinfeld, I feel like they have a very accurate and knowledgeable grasp on life. Which this guy totally had.

So I pretty much became best friends with this guy, exchanged numbers, and we finally left his bar at like 2:30am. Next, I walked back to the hotel, and AGAIN got distracted. This time it was because of this burger and papas joint that was smelling like heaven and putting out top notch looking food at 3am! And when I tell you this was one of the best burgers I’ve ever had, I am not lying to you. I’m not gonna go into the details but just know this was a perfectly cooked medium rare burger that satisfied every part of me. It was truly amazing to get that quality type of food at that time of night.

After that life changing experience, we made it back to the hotel at 3:30am feeling like we got a good ‘lil sample of what Lima is gonna be like these next 5 days. I’m totally looking forward to every minute I have in this town because of my first 24 hours I have had already.

Super excited to share it all with y’all.

Tom

LIMA, PERU – DAY 3 & 4

Lima Day 3 (Epic Meal Time)

Another thing that I love about this place is how meals don’t have to be in a specific time slot. For example if you want lunch at 3 or 4 o clock and/or dinner at 5 o clock or even 11 pm that’s cool too. In other countries, most restaurants will close down after a short lunch slot and a lot of times if u miss that window ur screwed, and you have to eat some sub par food. So when I travel to a place that allows me to eat what I want when I want it’s a lot easier to adjust to the time change/culture change.

So in the case of my first “real lunch” in Lima, we went to a place called La Mar around 3pm. The place was packed! Voted the #12 Restaurant in Latin America. Casual atmosphere playing high energy Latin Music, but don’t be mistaken. This was some of the best ceviche I’ve ever tasted. We ordered it to where we were able to taste 3 different ceviches. All three were excellent. Tiger’s Milk is a mixture of ingredients that lifts the flavor of the fresh raw fish/seafood. Every restaurant has their own twist on their tiger’s milk which makes going from place to place tasting ceviche every place you go super interesting. So besides ceviche we had fried wontons filled with octopus served with this infused hoisin sauce to die for. We also had this grilled squid and octopus course with potato cakes that was fantastic. What I’m loving about this cuisine is that everything you have is gonna be super fresh, and incredibly balanced. Spices are not the highlight. It’s the freshness and acidity that makes this cuisine so delicious.

Tom

Day 4 in Lima (Epic Meal continued)

Well I knew the food here was gonna be something special, but I had no idea it was going to be this incredible. From the simple family owned spots that only locals know about to the world renowned top rated restaurants, the flavors here just leave you breathless and wanting more and more.

Monday started off by getting lunch at a tiny restaurant called La Cumbre. This place got packed so fast, and when you’re the only ‘tourists’ in the place, you know it’s the real deal. Sergio told me that this was one of his favorite spots to eat because of the ceviche and a dish called tacu tacu. The ceviche was excellent because of this reddish tiger’s milk that covered the fish. The color came from a pepper called aji limo. It gave it a ‘lil heat but just enough. Tacu tacu is a Peruvian dish consisting of rice mixed with Canary beans, then fried in a skillet and topped with various proteins and sauces. The one that we got was with clams, squid, and shrimp along with a super flavorful aji amarillo sauce poured over the top. Simple food… but cooked perfectly. Wish I had some Vine Cliff Rosé to wash it down.

I went back to the “chill out” bar to tell Sergio how good it was and to talk to the chef about how he cooks some of his favorite menu items. Really cool dude named Pipo that was nice enough to show me the kitchen, and told me to meet him in the morning so me and him could go to the farmers market together so he could show me how he shops and barters for his restaurant.

After that I headed back to the hotel to get ready for the #4 restaurant in the world, (number 1 in Latin America) ….Central!

Ok… I could write a book on my experience at Central but I’ll try to make it short….. Every positive attribute you can think of was this restaurant’s experience for me. Service was impeccable. Wine pairings were spot on and educational. Atmosphere was exactly what you want out of going to one of the best restaurants in the world. It wasn’t stuffy, it was all about getting the guests to wrap their heads around the many different eco systems and indigenous ingredients of beautiful Peru. And then the food….. mind blowing flavors and textures that I’ve never seen, felt, tasted, or even dreamed of. The menu is designed around ingredients of different elevations. From beneath the ocean off the coast all the way to the top of the Andes, and everywhere in between. Fantastic concept and vision from Chef Virgilio Martínez. His team in the kitchen executed these 17+ courses flawlessly over the course of 4 hours. And his sommeliers were tremendously educated and passionate about their pairings as well. We talked to Chef for about 15 minutes about his philosophy and vision for Peruvian cuisine which was a priceless experience. Chef signed our menus and the restaurant gave us a hand made book done by a local artist explaining some of the main ingredients that were used in the preparation of these terrific courses that we had. Amazing meal. One of the best if not the Best I’ve ever had.

Following that, I just went back to the hotel and could not stop talking about the experience. Went to sleep finally … looking forward to the next day when we got the opportunity to visit Maido (number 13 in the world…number 2 in Latin America)!

Life does not suck.

Till mañana…. adios amigos y amigas

Chef Tom

Day 5-6 (Epic Meal Time)

Tuesday started off with me meeting up with Chef Pipo from Sergio’s restaurant at 9:30am so that we both could go to the local farmers market. He probably didn’t think I was gonna show up that early after the night I had eating and drinking at Central for 4+ hours, but I rallied and used every ounce of energy to get my ass up to meet Pipo. Main reason was because I really wanted the local experience when it came to Peruvian chefs getting their products first hand from local purveyors. Building relationships with the chicken lady, the meat guy, the spice dude, etc.

So we went and he taught me a ton about all the different peppers he uses, and also which ones go best in particular dishes. Also he showed me a vast variety of fruits that I’ve never seen before. Fruits are a lot of times used for juices or puree’s in the cuisine of Latin America. Especially the indigenous ones.

He also showed me all the meats and organ meats that just hang on hooks showcasing what each particular purveyor has to offer. All in all, it was Super fascinating and educational.

After that I headed back to the hotel and figured out lunch based on Chef Pipo’s recommendation. He said he really enjoyed this French inspired Peruvian restaurant that specialized in local seafood driven cuisine with great Piscos and nice wines. It was solid. But to be honest, my mind was focused on dinner at the #13 restaurant in the world (number 2 in Latin America).. Maido.

This restaurant was absolutely amazing. Japanese / Peruvian fusion. About 13 courses of incredible constructed and deconstructed dishes. This particular menu was a tour through the ocean along side Peru. So obviously seafood, but also some fascinating vegetarian courses that really blew my mind. Service was sooo impressive and super attentive to coursing out dishes and the somms were very wine educated as well. Chef Mitsuharu Tsumara came out and talked to us for a while about his vision and his philosophy on Peruvian Cuisine with Japanese influence. His food was like nothing I’ve ever had before, it I never felt too lost because a lot of the dishes were Japanese centric with soy, ponzu, miso, soba, components that I have worked with many times. Overall, another terrific and educational dinner. We had a long conversation with the lead sommelier about getting more California wines (as in our wines) on their list and they were very interested in entertaining the idea; which would be fantastic to have our wines at one of the top restaurants in the world.

After that, we were pretty spent so we walked to the hotel to get rest for our one day to be touristas in Lima.

Till next chapter… adios

Chef Tom

Day 7-9 Epic All Around

Day 7
Last day in Lima. Trying not to look like a tourist.

Three straight days eating and drinking like a king can put a toll on you. I knew I was gonna indulge out here but damn… And of course, we have another 3+ hour meal at the #30 restaurant in the world (Astrid & Gaston) for our last night in Peru. But before that we decided to go into downtown Lima and check out some historic buildings, museums, and the outdoor marketplace.

So hopped in an uber and headed downtown which was only about 15 min from our hotel. The downtown square is beautiful and is called the Plaza Mayor. It was constructed in the mid 1500’s and is surrounded by gorgeous yellow buildings that include the Municipal Palace of Lima, Club of the Union, and the Headquarters of the Caretas Magazine. Also in the Plaza Mayor, there is the Cathedral of Lima, the Archbishop’s Palace of Lima, and the eye opening Government Palace. It has been regarded as the finest and most well formed Plaza in the world by some historians.

Heading back to Miraflores to get ready for Astrid & Gaston.

This restaurant was again an excellent experience. The building was huge! It looks like a huge mansion from the outside, and inside has multiple dining rooms and 5 separate kitchens. 13 courses of French inspired techniques but with Peruvian flavors. Seafood driven, with a good amount of white wines to pair with each course. I brought the somm’s wines from Vine Cliff Winery so they could all try with their team and maybe think of having our wines on their wine list since California was not vastly represented. After the fabulous dinner, I chatted with some of the chefs, and found out that one of them knew and worked for a couple of people that I knew in Chicago which was super cool. Next, I gave our thanks to the staff, and headed back to say our goodbyes to Sergio at Chill Out.

After a couple of late night pisco sours with Sergio, we had to get back to the hotel since we had just recently realized that our flight was mad early and that we were probably gonna get a nice long 4 hours of sleep that night. But as it was, Lima was so much more than I anticipated, and believe me when I tell you I had sky high expectations. I really hope I can go back and see the growth of wine culture and maybe even go back to see Vine Cliff on some of these top notch wine lists too. We’ll see.

Alright! Onward to Chile 🇨🇱 for wine…..

Ok, made it to Chile!

Santiago is the first stop, and we will be here for about four days. It’s a city of a little over six million people with a ton of history and diversity. It also sits inside of a wine region called the Maipo Valley that houses some of Chiles oldest and most famous wineries. During our stay in Santiago we wanted to see a couple of these bigger producers to keep everything in perspective in aspects of wine history, and where wine is going in Chile.

Our first winery stop was Cusiño Macul. This is a historic winery that has been making wine since the 1870’s. I was met by the export director named Tomas, who took great personal care of us. He and a colleague of his (Andres) gave us a history lesson of the winery and then asked us if we wanted to take a bike tour of the vineyards….Hell yea!…. Super fun experience. In my opinion, all winery tours should start and focus in the vineyards. Great wine is not made in the winery. When a wine has love and soul, it gets that from the dirt, the climate, the TLC it gets from the viticulturist. Seeing all of that first and, tasting the grapes, kicking the dirt, feeling the rocks… that’s where it all starts to make sense. To me.. at least.

Chile is typically not even in the same sentence as Peru when it comes to the food scene. However what they lack in the gastronomical food aspect, they more than make up with it in the wine culture. Almost twenty DO’s with all having various climates and unique vineyard management. Maipo valley is one of those truly a great regions to learn about where Chilean wine has been for the past 100 years. The other regions I’m gonna visit are going to highlight where Chilean wine is going.

Super excited about this county and the wines it has to offer.

Day 8

The following day in Santiago was all about extremes.

So when traveling to different wine regions across the world my main goal is always to see the best producers representing their respective terroir. I also want to get a real sense of the country’s historical wineries that have been doing it since the beginning. Most of the time when you go to the historical wineries, that means that will include the bigger companies that produce a ton of wine. And usually the more wine you make the less attention to detail and finesse your wine will have.

This leads me into Concha y Toro winery. This place makes a crazy amount of wine. Sooo many different types too. From bottom shelve of the grocery store shelf to the recently graded 98 point Don Melchor Cabernet Sauvignon. I wanted to go here because they are probably the most famous winery in Chile, and the fact that they have been doing making a name for them selves for ~150 years makes me believe I am definitely gonna learn something on this tour.

Welllllllll……about that….You know…when a painter wants to be inspired and wants to go somewhere to learn something about his passion, about different canvas, about the various brushes, etc., he or she doesn’t go to the crayola factory.

That’s what Concha y Toro felt like for me. I knew they made a lot of different wine (good and bad) but… the tour they put us on was ridiculous. I made the reservation and just like every other place that was reserved, I made very clear that I was a wine professional and I want to learn about the dirt, what makes their top wines so unique, and why Chile is on the rise. Something slipped through the cracks and they put me on the “Traditional Tour” where we are part of a large group and we walk through the property talking about the winery. Ok…. whatever… not gonna turn back around just because of that, so we’ll play.

Day 9 – the finale

On my last day in Chile I headed to a heavily costal influenced wine region called the Casablanca Valley. We were attracted to this wine region because of the fantastic Pinot Noirs, Sauvignon Blancs and Chardonnays that I tasted before taking this trip. Most Chilean wine regions typically have a very sunny and hot climate all day; which is perfect for grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon , Carménère, and Carignan, but not for the delicate grapes that I mentioned before. Casablanca is perfect for Pinot, Chardonnay, and S.B. because of the morning fog, and the brisk winds from the Pacific. Think of Casablanca like the Coast of California.

So there is this guy named Julio Donoso. A French/Chilean winemaker that’s teamed up with André Oystertag from Alsace to produce 2 Pinot Noirs that are some of the most unique pinots I’ve ever had from Chile. After tasting his wine I knew I had to find this guy. I had no idea how hard that would actually be.

In the case of Julio, I had to first Facebook stalk and find him, next send him a message , then wait literally 2 weeks to get a reply back from him. This went on for 6 weeks or so, but I still couldn’t lock down a day and time to see him. Luckily when I got to Chile, he got back to me and we got it all set up. Now…. next problem… where the hell is he at? He didn’t have an address. So I couldn’t put it in the navi. So I had to go off of his directions. Ride the road down for 10 min till you see a swimming pool, next you will start to smell the cows, then look for a red gate, next take a left and take that down for about 1 kilometer…there is no exaggeration here.

Somehow we found Julio. He was painting his house and he was like “wow, you made it.. cool… lemme show u around.” He walks me through the property and shows me his wine making facility. No oak anything. All stainless steel and about 12 concrete eggs that he uses for aging his pinots. Super cool. Next he takes me up the hill to show us his vineyards, but first he grabs a shotgun. Wait…What?….he says “Here at Montsecano, we are 100% biodynamic. The bio is for the dirt and the dynamic is the birds.” Because Julio’s vineyard is the only vineyard/food source around, birds flock on it and eat a lot of his precious grapes.

Julio’s vineyard was unlike any vineyard I’ve ever seen. The vines were sooo low yielding. They looked like they were 4-5 years old but they were actually around 12 years old. The clusters were smaller than the palm of my hand, and there were a lot of plants that had no clusters on them at all. Julio said he had been dealing with frost, the birds, and just the natural low yields of his vineyard so it was gonna be a lower producing year than usual. Makes you wonder how he keeps the company a float.

Next up I had a meeting with a guy named Felipe Garcia. This guy is head of a company called Movi which is a group of smaller producing wineries that focuses on artisanal practices and producing high quality wines from all over Chile. Felipe’s brand is Garcia and Schwaderer that he started with his wife a few years ago with the purpose of getting wine lovers to discover the “New Chile” that is happening now and showing the best grapes from the best terroir that Chile has to offer. We met him at Kingston Vineyards where he buys some of his grapes from, and he showed us the particular plots that he works off of to produce some of his wines.

Next he took me to a local restaurant to have lunch and taste some of his wines. Must I say, he brought out about 6 different wines, and they all were excellent. All from different areas of Chile, but all were made so well. All the wines had finesse, and character. Two Sauvignon Blancs, a Syrah, a Garnancha, a GSM blend, and even a Pinot from Burgundy that he made a few years ago. The guy was so down to earth and so freakin smart. Truly a pleasure to be around. After that incredible tasting and lunch we headed back to Kingston…the trip is coming to an end.

After Kingston, the reality set in, I am heading back home…So better rest up for my big trip back to Napa Valley. I can’t wait to take my experiences back with me and begin the planning for our new menu at 699 by Vine Cliff…we are in for a treat.

Signing off…

TS

We hope you enjoyed Chef Tom Stafford’s travel and culinary highlights as he made his way through Peru and Chile. Look for hints of this South American influence in his new menu debuting late August at 699 by Vine Cliff, our St. Helena Tasting Room.

JOIN OUR WINE CLUB

Members receive VIP access to our most limited wines.