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

Chef Tom’s journal to be continued

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