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Ambassador Felipe Bulnes on Chilean Cuisine, Julia's Empanadas and Culinary Diplomacy

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Welcome back to Eater in the Embassy, where we ask the chefs behind DC's diplomatic receptions and events about what it's like working in an embassy kitchen and their favorite places to eat around the city. In this latest special edition, a twist: Felipe Bulnes, ambassador of Chile to the United States.
[Photo: Embassy of Chile]

Ambassador Felipe Bulnes has only been serving in his post at the Embassy of Chile for about three months, meaning he's barely had time to get to know the cuisine of his host city or even to miss the foods of his home country. Still, in a joint interview between Eater DC and WAMU 88.5's Metro Connection host Rebecca Sheir, Bulnes shares a little bit about typical Chilean cuisine, why he intends to pay a visit to drunk food favorite Julia's Empanadas and how food can play an important role in diplomacy.

What kind of food from home have you been missing since you arrived here?
Well, we have a wonderful array of fresh fruit in my country, in Chile. But thanks God, we are very good exporters so most of the fruit you can find it here in DC. So besides missing watermelon, which I like very much, and I would say cherries, but on a normal basis I was lucky enough to find all the produce you can buy in Chile. You in the US [have] the luck to share the same flavors we have in Chile.

What are the things that you have been able to find here that you are most excited about?
We are in a very global world in terms that it's not surprising if you go to Chile you are able to find many imports, products coming from all over the world. But here you would find all kinds of cheeses. You name it, you will find it. So I would say the amount of imported goods and also homemade or US products here is amazing. So you can choose whatever you like. If you want it and it exists, you will find it.

Can you tell me a little bit about Chilean cuisine, some of the national dishes and ingredients that are most popular and common?
I would say the main core is on one side seafood, we have wonderful seafood and fish. So no surprise you will find in many parts of Chile wonderful dishes made out of seafood and fishes. And also we have some different preparations made out of corn, made out of chicken, meats, some stews. One thing I should highlight is the olive oil, which is an extremely important industry that is growing at I would say close to three digits. It has been booming. And now water as well. We have water from glaciers, from rain.

Do you also have a chef who is based here in the embassy or at the residence?
Yeah, we have a chef, she works for the Chilean embassy on the residence side and when we have events she collaborates as well. So we have always a chance to go and try all the recipes that we miss from home.

And I am curious how you put together menus for diplomatic receptions.
Well, the idea to have a Chilean chef in the residence is because we understand food is another way to be effective as per diplomacy because you have to show a country in different ways. And, of course, through taste, through products, through recipes, through food, it's another window for people to get a sense of what Chile means. Every time we have a reception or an event, we put special attention to have wonderful Chilean food. Seafoods, fresh fruits, Chilean unique recipes, ethnic products like merquen, which is produced on the south part of Chile which is very unique and very tasty. So we are always trying to see Chile not only a serious country, a country that is determined to be developed by the end of this decade, but also we have some flavor that pays off the visit.

And do you get to make special requests for your favorite dishes?
I don't even know how to translate my favorite dishes. I would say I'm very addicted to seafoods. I think they're wonderful. We have also a very classic Chilean dish which is which is made out of corn and chicken and some egg and some olives. Onion. I am not the one who can spell and give all the details of the recipe, but trust me it's very good. Rack of lambs are very good as well and we have them from Patagonia side. That is something that if you go to a Chilean embassy you will find from time to time because it's very good. Always with olive oil. I'm obsessed with extra virgin olive oil.

Do you have a favorite brand?
I can't say that. (laughs) But as long as it says "Chilean extra virgin olive oil" that is what matters to me the most.

Have you been able to make it to any restaurants here in DC where you found some good Chilean cuisine?
There is a place called Julia's Empanadas. But it's not a restaurant. They sell some Chilean foods, mainly empanadas. But we don't have a restaurant in the proper sense of the word.

Have you eaten at Julia's Empanadas?
Not yet. I'm planning to do that. We celebrate the anniversary of the independence of the country [on the] 18th of September and I'm planning to get my good empanadas from Julia's store by then.

Are there any other restaurants in DC that have stood out to you?
Here in DC you have very good restaurants, at least to my taste. I would say that one of the restaurants that I think is very good as per Italian food is Cafe Milano. But I'm not trying to create a ranking here or whatever. I'm so new. I'm not in a position to say. Cafe Milano, also BLT [Steak] to have good meat. Occidental Grill as well. Also I think the view and the environment is very fun on the waterfront [at] Sequoia. The combination between the food and the sight you have, it's quite good. But maybe I'm missing all the best since I'm so new here.

Do you have some favorite stereotypical American comfort food dishes?
I like American cuisine. I had the chance to live in Boston, I would say 17 years ago, and I got really caught by the clam chowder soup. I like it very much. Also the soft-shell crabs. And there are different stews. Maybe I don't know the names. Meatloaf, I like it as well. But what I like the most is the quality of the products and how they are represented. I think American cuisine has sort of a full commitment with quality and presentation that works quite well in all kind of restaurants.

Do you ever do some cooking yourself?
I would say mainly the grill. I'm not that good [of a] cooker; I'm a great eater.

Are there any restaurants on your list to try or any areas in the suburbs you'd like to try?
I have a long list of places to visit. I need more time, but I hope by the end of the year I can comment on different restaurants here in DC because I really like to go and try food. It's part of my hobby and weekend time to have the chance.

And how would you say that DC compares to home in terms of our dining scene and the cuisine?
Well, of course, I don't have the full picture to make a comparison, but in Santiago mainly, you can find different kind of foods like French cuisine, American, international, you name it. But there's strong presence of South American food because of course they are our neighbors. But what is striking me the most is that the Chilean cuisine is getting a bigger space year after year. I think Chile has learned that we have a wonderful cuisine and is gaining space as time goes by.

Something we haven't covered is wine. I don't miss wine because here in the US you have mainly all the wines that we produce. I think there's no good food if you don't have Chilean wine on your side. And trust me, I have tried all kind of wines and I keep saying the same. So I know from my heart that I am giving you wonderful advice. You can combine them either with French, American, Chilean, you name the country cuisine.

RS: Here in America if you go out to a restaurant you'll find we're very noisy, we like our food to come right away, we eat very quickly, I'm generalizing here. But what is it like in Chile in terms of eating traditions?
I would say it's kind of the same. People want a good service and they are always either starving or in a hurry, they want the food right away. Like in the US, you want to have a good service. The restaurants tend to be noisy as well because people are enjoying so no surprise they express themselves. The only difference I would say is about time. I'm generalizing as well, but it wouldn't be rare that you go to have lunch on weekdays at 1:30 or 2 p.m. and to have dinner at 8:30 or 9 p.m. If you're talking about weekends, you have to adjust half an hour later.

RS: One of my favorite meals of the day is breakfast. What is a Chilean breakfast like?
Well I'm the worst person to be asking. Normally I don't eat breakfast. Just a glass of orange juice. So I'm trying to get used to the idea of having breakfast. But for Chile I would say some toast, bread, with jam. Scrambled eggs, could be. If you have time. Something just to start your day. Here in the US I know it could be the main meal of the day sometimes, at least compared to lunch. In Chile it's a light meal.

RS: What about Chilean desserts and sweets?
Of course we have tarts and apple pies and we'll have some German influence as well, strudel. Of course, French dessert as well you could find if you go to a store. We have also some cakes which are made out of cream and dulce de leche. Something that is always sort of fixed course would be fresh fruits, since we have such wonderful fresh fruits. I'm not trying to promote fresh fruits. It's just a fact.

RS: Is there one food that when you eat it it takes you right back to your childhood?
I would say mainly the corn dishes. We have different preparations. I didn't tell you all the combinations we have or all the different recipes we have because I was afraid to bore you, but humitas, which basically is made of corn and some basil. The smell of basil, I love it and the combination with corn, I like it very much. So if you ask me maybe that will trigger some memories.

RS: Do you do a lot of spicy food in Chile?
No, we tend to use chili, we call it aji But we are not a spicy food compared to what the Mexican does or Hindu food. We're very mild in terms of using spices. We have the merquen, which is a very unique spice. It's very popular in Chile and I think it's making its way to a foreign market because it's kind of hot but it's very unique in flavor. The natives that were in Chile before the Spaniards came, we still have a population of them and they had the merquen.

RS: And personally are you looking forward to the next few years of eating here in the United States?
You can trust that. I will do that on a daily basis, three or two, four times a day. I like food very much, as I said before. When I said that I was always asking for places to go it is because I understand that part of enjoying life is to have a good food with a good meal and also it's a way to know a country. That's the way we promote Chilean food as well as a way to show who we are. I apply the same principle when it comes to understanding the US and the way they live.

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