My South American Kitchen: Working from Home on the Other Side of the World
The counters are too short and our bakeware won’t fit in the oven. The first time we made stock, the steam condensed on the ceiling of the kitchen, causing it to rain inside until we realized what was happening. In a kitchen with no built-in ventilation, no insulation, miniature cabinets, and a tiny sink, we have learned to adapt our North American-style cooking to our South American kitchen.
So, what brought us here, to the other side of the world?
Just over a year ago, we made the decision to relocate our family to Chile to pursue our dream of writing a cookbook. My husband’s a chef and I’m a writer, which makes this the ideal project for us to collaborate on while we travel around the country. And travel is something we do a lot of, while performing research for our book. But it’s the moments in-between travel, when we are working at our house in Santiago, that we really get down to the business of cooking.
While there were several challenges we knew we might encounter, there were many more obstacles we didn’t expect.
Downsizing Our Stuff
In the United States, we were fortunate enough to have an expansive cabinet-filled kitchen. During our six years in our U.S. home, we amassed an impressive collection of culinary tools – from specialized bakeware to a variety of small appliances. Moving to Chile not only required us to downsize these things, but we also needed to leave much of our motor-powered equipment behind due to electric current differences. For like-minded home chefs, this may seem like a nightmare. However, with a bit of perspective, we turned this daunting task into an opportunity.
Most everything we left behind was donated to Goodwill or Habitat ReStore. Very few items we kept in storage for our eventual return. These choices made us feel better about the amount of stuff we weren’t taking with us. When choosing what to take, we went with the things we used the most – the things we could honestly say it would be hard to live without. And we consoled ourselves that if anything was very sorely missed, we could always buy it when we got settled.
Working at Home
After four months living in a variety of places—from a hotel, to my parents’ house, to another hotel, to my in-law’s apartment in Chile—you’d think that by the time we finally got our own place, we’d be desperate to unpack all our stuff. You’d be right, but that’s not what we did. Instead, we forced ourselves to evaluate our new space before unpacking all the kitchen goodies.
Why? Because we knew that the kitchen and the dining room would be the center of our operations and would require some careful thought prior to getting set-up. The Chilean house is different in a lot of ways from the American homes we were used to. Because our house would be doubling as our workplace, and we’d be spending A LOT of time in it, we wanted to make sure we maximized our opportunities and downsized any potential problems. 99% of the time, this meant compromise.
The kitchen has very little storage and no pantry. In the U.S. we were accustomed to hoarding food supplies like it’s the end of the world. In Chile that’s not the norm. So, rather than outfitting our house American-style, we adapted to the Chilean way of life. This means, storing only essentials, and visiting the market frequently. To provide extra storage for our kitchen tools and equipment, we had a local woodworker build us customized cabinets.
When doing dishes, my husband has to bend down which puts him in a head-butt situation with the wall cabinets. Not an ideal set-up. But one, apparently, that works for the shorter Chileans. When considering the tasks to be done in our kitchen, we’ve had to make some compromises. Because I’m shorter and doing the dishes won’t put out my back, I volunteer to do most of them. That’s right, you guessed it, no dishwasher. We also don’t have a garbage disposal so we need to be more mindful about what we’re dumping in the sink. This isn’t a bad thing, but I do miss my composter.
To combat the shorter counters, because after all my husband is the chef, we built a tall mobile island. Essentially, it’s a cutting block on wheels with two shelves for storage below. This allows us to comfortably cut and prep food – and also doubles as extra counter space when we need to spread out.
Our Easy Bake Oven
Yes, our oven (and the stovetop above) are unbelievably tiny. In fact, most of the bakeware we brought with us won’t even fit inside. Also, it’s incredibly slow to warm up and not very accurate. What does this mean for people who make their living cooking? Well, it means diligence and creativity, two things that aren’t bad for anyone to continue improving upon. We’ve had to repurpose casserole dishes and oven racks to serve other roles, and we’ve had to learn to start up the oven first thing in the morning and then monitor closely for ideal conditions. It’s a lot of work, but if the dish turns our right, it was worth it.
Working with What You’ve Got
Overall, adapting to these challenges has been a good experience. There are things that still nag us—like having to open windows when making stock, even in winter—but there are many more benefits such as learning to live flexibly. If anything, one of the most important things we’ve learned is that you don’t need a lot of stuff and you don’t need a fancy kitchen to make a good meal. And meals always bring us together.
About the author
Hillary Dodge is a freelance writer currently living in Chile with her husband and daughter while researching and writing a cookbook on Chilean home cooking. Follow her adventures online at www.gourmetfam.com.
For more about cooking, check out our vegetarian section to learn about zoodles and flavorful ingredients. For more about working at home, check out our work at home section, which includes tales from other travelers as well.