Juan Pablo Mellado is on a mission to rescue Chile’s culinary identity. The 32-year-old executive chef of the Escuela Internacional de Artes Culinarias y Servicios (International School of Culinary Arts and Services) in Santiago is determined to put Chilean cooking back in Chilean kitchens—and in the process alert the rest of the world that Chile has something more to put on the world’s tables besides excellent wine.
“I want to change the way we see our food and make it part of our identity abroad,” Mellado says. “In Chile [today] all you see are international restaurants. It’s a shame, because our country has so much to offer.”
Just naming some of the dishes that Mellado uses to instruct students at his school of 800 is enough to make the mouth water—pastel de choclo, a corn cake characteristic of Chile’s central region; caldillo de congrio dorado (golden conger eel soup), a favorite of poet Pablo Neruda; and humitas, Chilean tamales filled with sweet corn. Mellado concentrates on foods specific to the country’s four main geographic regions—Atacama Desert, Andes, Pacific Ocean, and Antarctic— and is a big advocate of using fresh, local ingredients, including seafood and native fruits and vegetables, such as avocados and blueberries.
A native of San Fernando in Chile’s central Colchagua province—a region famous for its agricultural and wine production—Mellado turned to cooking as a way to see the world. After graduating in 2000 with a degree in international cuisine from the Instituto Profesional Centro de Formación Técnica, Viña del Mar, he rounded off his education in Spain, landing a four-month internship at the legendary El Bulli restaurant on Spain’s northern coast—the best in the world before it closed its doors earlier this year. It was there he noticed the special pride Spaniards had for their national cuisine, a passion he realized was absent in Chile.
Mellado has been busy building that passion ever since—and not only among students. He recently resurrected Epopeya de las comidas y las bebidas de Chile (Epic Meals and Drinks of Chile), a culinary poetry book first published by Pablo de Rokha in 1960. The original version consisted of a 36-page epic poem dedicated to Chilean cuisine. For the new edition, Mellado compiled the recipes for every dish referred to in the book, laying the groundwork for a rediscovery of Chile’s national cuisine.
Mellado says he’s too busy to open his own restaurant. He has, in effect, become his country’s “food ambassador,” traveling to the U.S. and Europe to conduct seminars on Chilean cooking under the sponsorship of ProChile, part of Chile’s Trade Commission. “I want people to associate great food with Chile, just as they might with Italy or Mexico,” he says.
Waiter, bring us a plate.