Culinary Adventure Trips: Meet the Man Behind the Meals
Q&A with Chef Cristián Vargas
Whether he’s at a fishing camp in Patagonia or on the beach of the Main Salmon River in Idaho, Chef Cristián Vargas aims to please with fresh ingredients and a Peruvian flare. And while he got his start at several high-end establishments, including Agua in Santiago, Chile—named by Condé Nast Traveler magazine as “one of the 50 best restaurants in the world—he now feels most at home cooking in the great outdoors. That’s why he’s one of OARS’ go-to chefs for our Wilderness Gourmet Trips. Straight off of a recent Fork, Cork & Paddle trip on the South Fork of the American River, we chatted with the man behind many of our culinary adventure trips…
When did you know you wanted to be a chef?
I was in law school. I told my dad I’m sorry, but here are the checks, I’d rather study something else. I told him I wanted to be a chef. At first he was kind of skeptical. But after I cooked him my first meal he said, “Cristian, why did you spend four years doing law? You should have done this before.”
You need to do what you really like. What I want to do and what I want to see are the faces of people eating my food. That’s my best pay.
Tell me a little bit more about your philosophy as a chef.
My philosophy is to go to the farmers market and…to cook whatever I’m in the mood for and the freshest [ingredients] that I can find. What I’m cooking right now is a lot of Peruvian food because I think Peru has some of the best cooking in the world. You can mix Peruvian with Asian, with Latin, with American.
What do you love most about OARS’ Gourmet Wilderness trips?
What I love the most is cooking on the most beautiful beaches that you can find along the river. When you get yourself cooking for all these people and they’re super excited and kind of enamored, that’s what gets me. That’s why I am here.
Tell me about your most recent gourmet trip on the American River.
It was amazing. The fun part was getting the produce. It was farm-to-table so I had to go to farmers markets. It was trying to get everything as fresh as could be and everything from the area. I also had Lava Cap Wines. I tasted each wine and had to do the menu.
Sounds like a tough job.
Yeah, it’s like you have a big box of beer or wine or cheeses to work with and yeah, it’s amazing. We’re working this year with Cypress Grove cheese company too and that cheese is amazing. I’m very lucky.
What did the menu look like for that trip?
I did agnolottie (like homemade pasta). I made saffron dough and stuffed it with lamb and mixed it with Cypress Grove goat cheese, as well. And we also had Camembert breaded with panko and deep fried with a blackberry jam as hors d’oeuvres. For the main course, I had grilled skirt steak, steamed asparagus, blue potatoes with rosemary and caramelized figs. I tried to do tiramisu with goat cheese—Truffle Tremor. And that turned out very well.
What types of foods have you served on other river trips?
I love ceviche. Halibut, maybe, with shrimp and scallops. My ceviche is Peruvian style so it has ginger, red onions, cilantro, a little bit of yellow chile or aji amarillo from Peru, and lime. That’s the first starter for any trip I do. When I put that on the table, it’s like, “Ahh, I’m here.”
Is it tough to cook gourmet meals in obscure locations like a beach in the middle of a river canyon?
You need to be able to improvise. You need to be prepared for the unknown. Go with the flow and have fun. That’s what I do. Sometimes you’re cooking, like when we were on the Snake River, getting finished with duck confit, and it started raining. So everybody was trying to put tarps over the kitchen and we were trying to cook like that. It was madness, but it made the dinner more unique. Everybody had an amazing time.
Speaking of the guests, what do you think surprises them most about OARS’ gourmet trips?
When you put that plate on the table, people just think, “Wow, on this river you made that.” People get so blown away the first night. And then so blown away the second night. And they think, “Can you top this?” And oh yeah, I can.