Episode #41: Consuelo Poblete
Community organizer and chef of the restaurant El Abasto in Rancagua, Chile.
Consuelo Poblete is a community organizer and chef in O’Higgins, a province in Chile just below the capital of Santiago. She runs the restaurant El Abasto and has worked tirelessly to unite to restaurants, producers, and local officials to work together to help strengthen the campesino culture that surrounds her. I met her in person last month in Chile and it’s really special what she and the culinary community there are doing. They are taking the food and ingredients of the O’Higgins region and using it as a platform for social and economic development. It’s not easy. She’s helped launch countless projects, such as the O’Higgins restaurant association and Plataforma Con Boca. It’s not trendy and doesn’t appear on awards and rankings anywhere. It’s simply doing the hard work so that people are able to continue to live these incredible traditions and make delicious food from the products here. Amazing products. Cochayuyo, a type of kelp that I have written about recently. Cordero del Secano, a lamb tied to the very specific ecosystem there. Salt. Chacolí. Shellfish. Quinoa.
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On using gastronomy as a tool to help the campesino:
Nick: “I think regional cuisines in Latin America are fading everywhere. They're disappearing. They're in so much danger. And everything that connects them is. In a lot of cases, as much as we talk about food or how we love food, and we embrace regional ingredients, these the structures that hold these things in place are falling apart. When I saw you in Chile last month, seeing you and everyone you're working with come together, I thought that was really something special. It's something I haven't seen very often in Latin America, and I think it's really important what you're doing and I can't wait to talk to you more about it.”
Consuelo: “We are just understanding the power of gastronomy, that it’s not the main thing. It's just understanding that gastronomy is a tool to development. And I think when cooks, chefs and all the chain and all the ecosystem understand that, they understand they are part of something bigger. And they understand our heritage and our actives. The culture active as a potential touristic or potential tool of development to make a better life for campesinos. How do you say that word in English?”
Nick: “I guess you would say farmers, but I think it's broader. I think the translation would be farmers, but I think that's shorting the term. It's not enough, because it's a whole cultural identity. That's one of the things I wanted to talk about. So the campesino identity where you're from in the O'Higgins region is really important.?”
Consuelo: “I think that's the base of everybody that is now living in O'Higgins comes from a campesino somewhere, so that culture is a collective memory that comes to everybody that is there. It used to be left behind, like something we wanted to forget about, but now we understand that it's our real value. And there is a last generation of people doing real agricultural process that nobody else is going to be available to do if we don't do something now. If we don't rescue value and put it on the part of the chain, connecting with the consumer, connecting with restaurants and all the gastronomic ecosystem.”
Nick: “So why have people stopped being campesinos? Is it just because they're moving to cities and they don't want to live in the country? They don't want to do that work? Or has it been something that's, thought poorly upon? Or I don't know. What is it?”
Consuelo: “I think first of all, I think it's not profitable. That's the main one. It is not profitable. Nobody pretty much understands the value of the work behind a food or an ingredient. So that's what industrialization has been doing to consumers, to pull apart what we eat, and how that process goes, and who's in charge of all of that. And I think for the first time in a while with this new government, we are getting a possibility to put that where it deserves to be. An agricultural family, for the first time, has the possibility to be in the center of the dynamic.”
Nick: “Like a part of the movement. They're part of the discussion.”
Consuelo: “For the first time they are part of the discussion. And I think the first time they are the center of the new politics. So that's why I think we have a new opportunity to look back, to reconsider how we are connecting as consumers, as cooks, as part of the civilian organization. How can we take this as an active? I think that's a word it's gonna change now. It used to be a passive thing that lives around poverty and is really low income and in really bad situations. Now it has the possibility to live from the country again, and live with dignity. And I think that's a really important thing to understand.”
Nick: “That's a big goal, though. That's a lot of work. And that's amazing, that there's hope. Everything seems to be against the campesino, especially in Chile, where industrialization, especially in the food system, has been for decades a source of pride. That these things that have kind of hurt campesinos, and small farmers…it's when you hear about food in Chile. When it's exported, it's usually these very mass industrial things like blueberries and salmon and all these things that in the end have a negative impact. They might have some economic value of whatever sense they're really destroying things.”
Consuelo: “Those products have no cultural connection with the communities, so there is there is a Chile that shows up for the world in some way, but inside out it's completely different. And I think that has been like shocking for the people who come over to understand thart there is no gastronomy around cherries or plums or anything else.”
Nick: “Apples, salmon. Name everything everyone thinks is Chilean and isn't really Chilean. It's just some giant industrial export product.”
Consuelo: “Even within wine I think there has been a massive marketing work, but inside nothing happened with wine. All the consumption has been down because we don't feel part of that production.”
On making connections with consumers:
Consuelo: “I've been working on some projects we started a couple of years ago with Plataforma con Boca, which was a small attempt to make this connection with the gastronomy from the small producers and the restaurants. Using the restaurant as an ambassador of the territory. It is not just putting a plate on the table. It’s that they have a social responsibility. And they have to know that. And it's going to be good for the restaurant, and it's going to be good for the community that learns what their pantry is. To know who is behind those products and how they work. Because normally nobody knows what has happened with their food. Normally they don't care about and understand why it is important to know. But it’s something we're putting in our body every single day and we start to understand how deep food goes, not just feeding, but all of the cultural and economic and social dimensions. And consumers start to understand. It makes sense for them that they are also responsible with what they consume. So, if they do understand that they have a massive and a beautiful pantry, and they are able to buy and they are able to buy and eat what the territory produces, they feel part of our community as well. So that's what we are trying. We have been trying to do this for the last I think six, or seven years.”
On what’s happening in the O’Higgins Province:
Nick: “To me, [O’Higgins] is like the perfect idea of Chile. You know, it's not so far north, not so far south, but it's just this kind of center point, this place you think is Chile, but you never really saw it before because you don't see it in Santiago, you don't see it in the Atacama or Patagonia. It's beautiful. It's this wonderful culture that it’s hard to get in contact with I guess. It's hard to know about it or, or something.”
Consuelo: “I think it's hard because it's the first time that the territory values itself. For the first time the territory believes that it is special. So that's a very new way to understand it. I think it's like adolescence? They are like looking at themselves again, and taking a position. taking a profile and organizing what we are. And I think that's part of the identity. We want to work on what we're doing. And I think the situation that is happening now in O'Higgins…each region has the same possibility to do that.”
Nick: “I think it's an issue not just in Chile, but I think it's all over Latin America. Just regional identities being lost. And the richness of Latin American cuisine is in the regions. For me, it's in the regions. All these recipes that come from the landscape and the people that have lived and worked them for the last hundreds of years and 1000s of years. That's the richness for me, it's really special, but yes, it's being lost everywhere, everywhere you look. And I think the model of what you're doing could be replicated across Latin America.”
Consuelo: “I think the industry has had been doing the feeding job very well. But the quality, and the impact on the real work of that industry, it's just being focused on producing, and not having this contact or this knowledge. It's because we live in a rush that we miss the real thing that happens, but I think after the pandemic we have this new possibility to realize that anything could happen if we take care of our community. Even if we don't know them, but working to to have a better environment. And that's the only way we can live better. I think all the greediness has not served everybody. I think if we were talking 20 years ago, this probably was going to sound like a Quixote thing. Like a dream. But now we have those consumers that are aware and they are hungry to help. They're hungry to do good things, even if they can not do it with actions, they do it with their money. And that's important to understand, too.”
Nick: “Let's let's talk about some of these products from O’Higgins. When I was there, there were so many amazing things I tasted. You mentioned 10 ingredients that were pulled out originally, but it's way more than. Right? Like way more. You're nodding your head. There's way more. All over O'Higgins. You can just chart it down into a map and there are amazing things all over this place that people just generally fly by or drive through on the way south or going to a vineyard or something. So let's let's start with Cordero del Secano. What is this?”
Consuelo: “Well cordero del secano is a lamb with a black head. It’s a Suffolk breed. Why it is important is because for these communities there is no opportunity to have another kind of ranch or agriculture because there is no water. Water has been a real huge problem on the Secano. So they are they are a seasonal product that is born in July and they grow for four months. And then there is no more grass to eat.”
Nick: “So what you're saying is that it's a product, it's a ingredient that's very tailored to the specific region and the season. This lamb and the season is really connected to the grass.”
Consuelo: “Exactly. There is this really short season. They just drink milk and just eat that grass. It comes from the season. So there is no other way to survive. There is a real income for the campesino’s family to have a chance to survive because what they're doing now is trying to survive. So that's a product, I think, and it's a really good quality product because of their growing conditions. And we just started consuming a couple of years ago massively. Before that it has been always part of the recipes, but it hasn’t been legal like it is now.”
Nick: “So it's more specialized now? And there's a greater demand for it because of the work you're doing?”
Consuelo: “I think it is definitely not just me. I just came back to O’Higgins after I had my child, to come back to have mom's help and everything. I realized there was a movement that was happening, recognizing all the campesino labor by diploma, like a post degree for the for the campesino specializing in their own knowledge. So after that happened, that was a big project coming from the local government and Pabblo LaCosta, which is an amazing investigator. When I realized that I said, Okay, we have a goldmine here. We have tons of products. We have tons of people that are aware of what we have here. We have to put it all together and do a small industry of good things, right?”
Nick: “I think that's basically what I'm getting at, is that it's not just recognizing these products, it's creating this whole ecosystem of development around these products. It's one, collectively showcasing these products together. Two, valuing the work of the people doing them. Three, bringing tourism in to help and bring extra value to all of these things. And it's just the whole chain of things that all kind of come together and help one another and all kind of feed off each other and stabilize these products and strengthen their connections and everything about them.”
Consuelo: “Yeah, but a lot of them are not legalized. So each restaurant that decides to go through all this, it has to be very committed. It has to have this commitment, like vision and something coming from the heart that we want to do this and we're going to go through this so it's a very idealistic situation that you're trying to go through. But I think it's going to go well because we're close to Santiago, and because we have good chances to do it. Customers are really hungry for identity. They really hunger to be part of something. That's what we're building right now. A place, a house where everybody can be a part of it and have their own specific activity to contribute.”
On building regional cuisines:
Nick: “I think a lot of the issues I've seen with regional cuisine in the Americas…I think there are other people like you that have the same aspirations. But I think a lot of times they fail because they try to do it all by themselves. They don't work with the community, they don't work with other restaurants. It ends up being just one restaurant shouting into the wind, and they don't get very far.”
Consuelo: “Exactly, that's why I'm hear in Peru because I think we have to get in touch, because as Latin Americans, we have the same pain. The same history pretty much. So we cannot have a gastronomic strategy coming from País Vasco [Basque Country]. We have to make our own strategy. Even if we don't know how to do it, if we do it together it is going to be more accurate than somebody from overseas coming over and saying guys you have to do this. And that's what happens normally in the government. OK, we're gonna implement a strategy for this. Okay. Basque government or Spain, come over and do it. It doesn't work that way. We're not in that sentiment. For sure. One restaurant cannot work, cannot go against the industry, against governments, against anything. So that's why we have to be smart. And put it together, make an Association of Restaurants, an Association of Consumers, an Association of producers. And that's the only way we have to make this work.
Nick: “The collective of you figuring it out on your own, making mistakes, learning. I agree, I think that's the way things are going to change. That's the way things are going to get done. And it can be messy, and it can be really hard. And you probably don't get appreciated enough. But yeah, I think something important is going to come of this and I think that's incredible.”
Consuelo: “I think as well, people like you that see what is happening and I have to say, when a journalists or whenever someone overseas saysoh, let's take a look what's going on here, what the pantry is or how connected it is… Unfortunately, we depend on the media to make this happen. Anything that it doesn't say, it doesn't happen. So I think all the effort has to be told.”
On a cooking school in O’Higgins teaching regional cuisine:
Consuelo: “There are three gastronomy schools in O’Higgins and one of them coming from Jaime Jiménez, for the first time, decided to go local. You can understand how important that is.”
Nick: “It's an amazing thing because culinary schools, as great as they are, sometimes they can also be extremely destructive to regional cuisines. They can teach all the young students who have an interest in cuisine…they teach them sushi and you know, ceviche and Peruvian food and Japanese food and Italian food, but they forget about regional food. Then what ends up happening is all of the most the trained people, all of the people that have been trained in cooking are opening restaurants that are anything but local. Instead of taking these amazing things they have, and it can be really destructive. But I've seen it again and again, all over Latin America, this happening. Every regional, provincial capital, whatever, just a lot of sushi restaurants and pizza and Peruvian or whatever and local, regional cuisine is just forgotten. And that's the thing that should be the star of the school and to hear that a local school is teaching that… I think that's brilliant.”
Consuelo: “Yeah, and probably it is not based on cuisine, but it is based on the product. And I think that makes a lot of difference. Because it doesn't matter what what we miss. But what we're doing is taking care of those producers as well. So we make sure gastronomy is a tool. And I want to repeat that, because I'm an industrial designer, and I use gastronomy to make this small industry. So I'm very proud of what happened, because the National Institute of Kitchens decides to go local and to use the pantry of the territory to develop their knowledge… things are changing, and I'm happy about it. I have no idea, I have probably 20 years left, like working and with energy. I don't know if we're gonna make a change, but I live at least to see a small portion happening.”
Quotes from this interview have been gently edited for context and clarity.