Chef Victoria Blamey Reconnects to Her Roots With Mena

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Daniel Krieger

Every time the chef Victoria Blamey opens a new restaurant, her mother makes the journey from her home in Santiago, Chile to New York City. She is adamant about keeping the streak alive, her daughter’s insistence that friends-and-family dinners are usually a mess be damned. But you can’t fault Victoria Araya for trekking over this time. At 42, after years working as a hired hand across Europe and Manhattan, her daughter has emerged from the pandemic with Mena, the first restaurant she has ever owned.

Besides, who else was going to hide four pounds of local hazelnuts in a suitcase and bring them all the way to Tribeca? Blamey has never needed them more: Mena’s mainspring is Chile. It is a complicated undertaking, not simply because the chef has spent the better part of the last two decades outside of the country where she was born, exploring styles ranging from American pub fare to high-wire modernism. “The cuisine doesn’t have the identity you associate with a place like Mexico or Peru yet,” she says, despite the fact that Chile’s 16 microclimates allow a variety of ingredients to thrive, in particular fruit, fish and seaweed.

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DANIEL KRIEGER

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DANIEL KRIEGER

Encouraged by the work of young Chilean chefs like Rodolfo Guzman of Boragó, who are committed to developing a cuisine with a sense of place, Blamey is eager to see where her own investigations lead. She studied history growing up, loved school. “But suddenly, I realized that I was cooking more than I was studying,” she recalls of her teenage years. “Reading became something I did on the side. Why am I making Christmas pudding until 4 in the morning?” With Pinochet’s reign barely in the rearview mirror, Chilean women were discouraged from most professional pursuits, including culinary careers. Blamey transferred to cooking school anyway. Her mom supported the decision. A young single mother who endured her share of disapproving glances (Chile did not legalize divorce until 2006), Araya worked as an executive for Nestlé for forty years. “Imagine being a 21-year-old woman at a company full of men in the 1980s,” Blamey says.

Time and again, her mother encouraged the young chef to keep going. In England, Australia, Spain, and Mexico, Blamey trained in kitchens that, according to her, were often emotionally draining and occasionally racist. After settling in New York City, she worked under such acclaimed figures as Paul Liebrandt at Corton and Matthew Lightner at Atera when their restaurants were at the center of the conversation about Manhattan dining. In 2017, as head chef of the historic speakeasy Chumley’s, Blamey earned two stars from New York Times critic Pete Wells, and then, in 2019, picked up Esquire’s Comeback of the Year accolade and an even more glowing three from Wells after she took over the kitchen at the famed Gotham Bar & Grill.

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DANIEL KRIEGER

While highly publicized, these last two tenures did not last. “Some experiences didn’t necessarily fit me like an Italian shoe,” Blamey says with a chuckle. In the press, she had no issue essentially telling Gotham’s many regulars that there was a new sheriff in town. She killed more than a few of their darlings. She clashed with management. “Of course, the attitude works against me, but overall, it doesn’t kill me,” Blamey explained to me at the time. “I am sure that if I were a guy, none of this would happen. People wouldn’t say, ‘Oh, she is so difficult.’ They would just think that I was the chef and that I meant business.”

For Blamey, who became one of the industry’s top free agents in the wake of Gotham’s dissolution in 2020 (the restaurant reopened last November with a new chef), there was one silver lining to the pandemic: she could finally take a pause. She tested out ideas during limited engagements at Fulgurances Laundromat, a tasting counter in Greenpoint that showcases emerging talents, and the plush Mayflower Inn and Spa in Connecticut. Most consequential of all was a summer residency at Dan Barber’s Blue Hill at Stone Barns. Tasked with developing not only a menu but an argument—and granted license to serve whatever the heck she wanted—Blamey returned to Chile to crack the books and find inspiration.

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DANIEL KRIEGER

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DANIEL KRIEGER

At the end of the run, she realized she wanted to stick with the idea.

Mena takes its name from Blamey’s great-aunt Filomena. The current menu features a pavlova that swaps in confit angel hair squash for the alcayota fruit she ate as a child—“Pure nostalgia”, the chef says of the dish. A take on the homey Chilean dumpling broth pantrucas calls on kohlrabi fermented in-house (the flavor chemist Arielle Johnson, who helped build Noma’s fermentation lab, is advising Blamey). There is a serving of potatoes, sourced from upstate and prepared with sauce au poivre. But based on dispatches on Instagram, the early favorite may be a dish of savoy cabbage that incorporates sea lettuce and vin jaune.

“I’m not trying to move away from anything I’ve done in the past,” Blamey says. “I just want the space to figure out how to make all of it more mine.”

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Source : Esquire