Why you should care
Because if you’re eating only meat on your visit to Argentina, you’re missing Argentina.
I’m in a dark dining room, facing a bowl lit up by spotlight, and a waiter appears. He pours a clear broth over the centerpiece: a stack of soft crabmeat nestled into a bed of spindly sea greens, beneath a transparent gelatin film draped like a bride’s veil. It appears to be a perfectly plotted and positioned plate, until I notice two tiny black dots circling in the broth, marring the perfection. “Aha!” thinks the faux food critic inside me. As I scoop them up in a golden spoon and bring them closer to my imaginary monocle for an exacting inspection, I realize they’re the beady, minuscule eyes of a tiny, tiny shrimp. Well played, Chef Soledad Nardelli.
The shrimp is but a detail, an accent mark, in a thoughtful commotion of ingredients brought together to form the essentially Argentine worlds Nardelli presents in 12 courses as executive chef of the restaurant Chila, in the gentrified Puerto Madero neighborhood of Buenos Aires. The dining experience is a trip, and the woman who’s sent us on it is a spunky 36-year-old with a messy ponytail who was named a “Chef of the Future” in 2009 by the International Academy of Gastronomy. They were right: Since then she’s won major awards in Argentina, landed spots in international rankings and starred in her own TV show. Stir in a new radio show, toss in consulting gigs with esteemed restaurants and add a sprinkle of monthly VIP classes in an old mansion in the hip foodie neighborhood of Palermo, and you’ve got the recipe for the modern gastronomic Renaissance woman.
Nardelli is a key part of a “new generation of female chefs who are trailblazing what is still largely a male-dominated domain.”
Rebekah Pite, associate professor of history at Lafayette College
The most esteemed ranking of top chefs of Latin America, from Restaurant Magazine, features men at the helm of 85 percent of the top 50 restaurants. At No. 21, Nardelli is the third-highest-ranking solo female chef, and she was the first woman named “Chef of the Future,” a sign that while women have long done the majority of cooking at home, men’s relationship to it has tended to be more public and profitable. Historically in Argentina, explains Rebekah Pite, associate professor of history at Lafayette College, women have been labeled ecónomas — essentially, home economists instead of chefs — and Nardelli is a key part of a “new generation of female chefs who are trailblazing what is still largely a male-dominated domain.”
Nardelli’s strength? An insistence on using only Argentine products. Thanks to her TV show, she tours the country, bringing remote, small-batch products to the well-heeled Chila crowd, who pay upwards of $200 for multicourse, artful tasting menus. She loves this part of the job — meeting the producers — and it’s products like quinoa from the Bolivian border and manioc root from near Brazil that make her stand out in a city that seems to bleed red meat. File her under the global locavore movement in fine dining, which is still new to Argentina — and where Nardelli is pushing it forward.
But focusing exclusively on Argentine products is an expensive proposition, both in money and time. For instance, getting cauliflower from the small farmer in a village near Paraguay is complicated, to say the least, and sometimes ingredients arrive delayed, overripe or not at all. In these remote places, the culture of at-your-fingertips capitalism is muted, and producers often don’t feel much of a rush to ship products. It adds an unnecessary stress to the already stressful job of chef. “I have to push to make this happen,” Nardelli notes, folding the edges of her calendar.
Tonight, Nardelli is facing down the barrel of a full house at Chila. It’s a challenge she signed up for when she plunged into gastronomy, at a time when it barely existed in Argentina, when she dropped out of law school in a region that was still traditional. And growing up in a family of six, there weren’t the usual signs of a chef in the making. Her mom never cooked; her dad did only functionally for the Sunday pastas her Italian ancestors drove into generational habit. In fact, before she started culinary school at 18, Nardelli had never even grilled a chicken breast or fried an egg. But as she sat through legal classes, “something inside of me said ‘no,’” she recalls. In a wry twist of fate, she walked by Chila’s front door every day on her way to law school.
After gigs in France and Spain, she returned home. It was a reversal from the usual route for Argentine chefs, who hone their chops in Europe and stay there, opening fancy restaurants. But Nardelli applied for a job at Chila and is now in her 10th year there, a juxtaposition against her somewhat scattered personality and also the tendency of chefs to restaurant-climb, moving from one to another as they make a name for themselves. She stays put because she’s able to “grow my interests inside the restaurant, and make a team,” which, she says, is “the most important thing of all.”