The township of Clyde (population just over 1000) is small but, if Chilean-born chef Paulina Corvalan has anything to do with it, it will soon be home to one of Central Otago’s leading dining destinations.

Corvalan first developed her passion for food when working in her grandmother’s farm kitchen in the south of Chile. “She was the best cook I have ever known. She made everything from scratch; nothing came out of a packet when I was little. There was always fresh bread and fresh milk in the morning.” A childhood spent helping make terrines, jams and preserves instilled in Corvalan a lifelong love of fresh, quality food. “For us, it was a luxury to eat good food every day,” Corvalan explained. “Everything else could wait.”

After studying at a technical college in Santiago (a decision no doubt influenced in part by the “brainwashing” she received at the hands of her grandmother) Corvalan moved to New Zealand in the early 2000s. Despite speaking no English, she was determined to make her way as a chef. After only three years she had worked her way from apprentice chef to senior chef at Arrowtown’s Saffron restaurant under the guidance of Peter Gawron, whom she lists as one of her greatest influences.

She spent one year as a sous-chef at Gibbston function venue The Winehouse and another year studying sustainable growing techniques. It was here that she attracted the attention of Minaret Station Luxury Lodge, an exclusive alpine experience, who offered her a job. It included one of New Zealand’s more interesting work commutes – a helicopter ride from Wanaka.

After her time at Minaret, she began working as a private chef around Queenstown and Central Otago before opening her own restaurant in August last year. “It was getting to the point I was getting more and more bookings and that is why I thought I actually would like to have my own restaurant,” she said. She now considers herself half Chilean, half Kiwi. “It was so easy 12 years ago to get a work permit being a chef,” she explained. “I just never left.”

Corvalan describes her kitchen as unique, vibrant and fun. “We’re busy with a smile,” she said. “We all work towards the same outcome – good, delicious food.” Corvalan draws inspiration from different cuisines from around the world – Spanish, Italian, Japanese are some of her favourites, all of which influence the menu at her restaurant. “I wanted to create a sharing-style of dining where people can share plates of food from New Zealand, Europe, South America, and some Asian.”

Corvalan is a fan of cooking with fire – “Crispy skins, full of flavour with a touch of smokiness from the fire roaring behind the meat”. Convenient, then, that the building which now houses Paulina’s previously housed a venue specialising in pizza, meaning a wood-fired pizza oven was already installed and ready to go.

Aside from working with the available seasonal ingredients, Corvalan doesn’t tend to follow trends. “I like to cook what I feel is good at the time.” The specials at Paulina’s often include dishes such as lomo saltado, a traditional Peruvian dish, and other meals that Corvalan grew up with. “My grandmother’s Spanish flan is one of my favourite things to eat ever, as long as I can remember. My customers love it too!”

While opening Paulina’s is her biggest accomplishment, Corvalan is not yet satisfied. “It is an ongoing project to get to where we want to be,” she said. “We want to build a reputation, and become one of Central Otago’s dining destinations.”