South and Central American cuisine is taking our cities by storm. We asked four Australian chefs who specialise in this style of cooking to each nominate one of their favourite creations for our colourful fiesta.
By
Karen Fittall

12 Sep 2013 - 10:15 AM  UPDATED 13 Sep 2013 - 3:48 PM

Jason Jones, Mamasita
I had been on a few surfing trips to Mexico in my travels, but it wasn’t until my business partner mooted the idea of opening a Mexican restaurant in Melbourne’s CBD that I visited the country with fresh, hungry eyes.

Researching the menu that we’d eventually serve at Mamasita gave me the opportunity to really explore Mexican food, a cuisine that I had loved for a long time, but had never had the chance to sink my teeth into in a cooking sense. All of a sudden, I had an excuse to unearth old traditional recipes and pay closer attention to the details.

Growing up on a farm in Merimbula on the NSW far south coast, I made the decision to become a chef on the back of an increasing fascination with interesting foods (many of which we were growing ourselves), as well as delving into cookbooks – and once I realised it was a career I could travel the world with, it was a done deal!

I returned to Australia four years ago, after working in some amazing countries – including India, South Africa, and countries along the Mediterranean – and decided to open my own place. And now, we’ve just celebrated Mamasita’s second birthday.

I’d describe our food as ‘Australianised Mexican’. The flavours and recipes are all traditional; I’ve just cleaned the dishes up visually, adding a few touches here and there – like the salad I’ve used to accompany this quesadilla dish. That’s a very Australian touch; something to brighten things up a bit. As for the quesadilla itself, a zucchini-flower filling I enjoyed a few years ago on a trip to Mexico was the inspiration behind it – I’ve just given it a twist, using the salsa to cut through the cheese. The quesadilla itself is a classic Mexican dish and one that seems to have universal appeal. Mamasita, Level 1/11 Collins St, Melbourne, Vic, (03) 9650 3821, mamasita.com.au.

 

Iñigo Castillo, Boca
Two words sum up what we do best at Boca: chargrilled meat. Being an Argentinian grill, the food is rustic and honest, using beautiful cuts of meat to re-create traditional dishes and recipes – many of which have been passed down to Marcelo Berezowski, Boca’s owner, by his mother.

For me personally, Boca has been a unique opportunity. My family’s heritage is Spanish, though I was born in the Philippines, and I grew up eating a wide variety of food; an experience that eventually led me to train as a French continental chef more than 10 years ago. 

I joined the team at Boca, in Sydney’s Darlinghurst, in 2010 and quickly learned how to cook with coals. In doing so, it allowed me to appreciate the skill involved in cooking a piece of meat perfectly this way, and the importance of doing justice to the quality of produce we’re able to source. That’s what Argentinian food, and Boca, is all about.

I designed this roasted lamb dish with Marcelo after talking and reminiscing about the food that reminded him of his childhood in Argentina. After we’d decided on stuffed lamb, prunes were the obvious ingredient because they partner with the meat so well, while the salad was inspired by a technique made famous by Francis Mallmann, the quintessential Argentinian chef. He introduced the idea of taking vegetables with a high sugar content and burning them to create a charred, smoky flavour. It’s a taste that complements the lamb beautifully. Boca, 310 Liverpool St, Darlinghurst, NSW, (02) 9332 3373, boca.com.au.

 

Lilian Funes de Murga, Los Latinos
My husband Mario and I opened the doors of Los Latinos in Melbourne three years ago, a decision driven by my desire to cook and share the food that we’d grown up eating. We arrived in Australia together in 1987 as refugees from El Salvador, a country that although consumed by civil war at the time, had given me a fierce love of good, fresh, honest food – food I missed dearly once we left.

Both my mum and dad were wonderful cooks; Dad because his father had a restaurant in Mexico, and Mum because as an orphan, she had to learn how to cook out of necessity. They passed on their knowledge of using whatever simple, seasonal ingredients are available to create complex, beautiful flavours. In El Salvador, even a meal as basic as chicken and herbs cooked in the middle of a field can be turned into something gourmet.

So, Los Latinos is partly about satisfying my own need to cook and eat the food I love, but also about passing that love onto other people. Knowing that I might be able to give someone a new taste experience with each dish I cook is what motivates me to keep going and, in many ways, beef salpicón symbolises that ambition. It is a dish that can be served as anything from an entrée to a main, or even as tapas; it’s very, very tasty, but it has yet to take off here in Australia. I also love it for another reason – it’s a dish that reminds me of my childhood. Los Latinos, 128 Mitchell St, Melbourne, Vic, (03) 9318 5289, loslatinoscafe.com.au.

 

Omar Andrade, El Capo
My love of food evolved from Christmas. My parents moved to Australia from Ecuador in the 1970s, and because we were pretty alone as a family around Christmas time, Mum went to huge effort, spoiling us with food and gifts that she and Dad couldn’t really afford.

I started working in the hospitality industry in 2000 and although I was also cooking on the side, I didn’t consider it a career until last year when I opened El Capo in Sydney. It came after a few years of running Transient Diner, an ‘underground dining’ concept I started because I was bored with the fine-dining experiences that are typically available. I also wanted to give young chefs the chance to shine – something they’re unable to do in regimented restaurant kitchens. There were no licences and it was by invite only; we’d pop up all over the place – anywhere from hairdressers to mansions – so I’ve never really been one for trends. Then, the idea caught on, and too many people were starting their own underground venues, so I decided to change tack and, in a complete coincidence, found myself jumping head-first into the current trend of Latin food by opening El Capo.

Essentially, Latin culture is how I experience food. I’m an Australian first, which means I love a wide variety of food and embrace multiculturalism to dip in and out of cultures, but the finishing touches to my dishes are always Latin. As a family, our friends were mostly from Mexico and Colombia, and while I don’t promise to deliver authentic replications of dishes, my food is traced back to those flavours. My intention with El Capo is to fill people up with family-style food, while giving them an experience that’s informal and fun. Not only is this steak dish a good example of a typical Latin meal, but it also speaks eloquently about what we do at our restaurant. El Capo, 52 Waterloo St, Surry Hills, NSW, (02) 9699 2518, elcapo.com.au.

 

Photography by John Laurie. Styling by Simon Bajada.