Chef Flavio Solórzano runs a tight ship. "In my kitchen," he says, "nobody has been stabbed."
The executive chef of Lima's El Señorío de Sulco, Solórzano recalls a time when he met a European chef in Chile "who treated his cooks like a bunch of uncultured savages," simply because they were South American.
"Since he ran one of the best restaurants in the country, nobody could say anything," Solórzano says. "One day, one of his cooks chased him down with a knife. He ended up in the hospital, needing blood transfusions and surgery. Some of those same Chileans he often discriminated against, ended up sharing their blood with him."
But Solórzano has that blood flowing through him already. His mother, Isabel Alvarez, became a food anthropologist and restaurant-owner almost by accident. A sociologist by profession, she worked for the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization, training peasants in rural areas of the country. In the midst of the political violence and economic crisis in 1980s Peru, she found herself jobless and decided to give the kitchen a shot, not knowing how it would turn out.
Cooking professionally was not an endeavor that many people were willing to venture into during those years, especially at an exclusively Peruvian food restaurant. Yet Isabel, with her mother, Julia, took the risk and opened up El Señorío de Sulco in 1986, with the purpose of recovering and preserving the culinary traditions of the different regions of Peru.
Solórzano joined his mother and grandmother eight years after it opened, when it moved from the El Surco district to Miraflores. He transformed its small, rustic atmosphere, into a more elegant one with personalized service.
"Those two women greatly influenced my choice of career, as well my culinary philosophy," says Solórzano. "My mother is the one who set the restaurant out to rescue the traditional Peruvian cuisine, and our clients know that; they say that we were the first ones, and we didn't stop; we have continued to innovate in the ways that we deliver these traditional dishes and flavors to our clients. That's why they keep coming."
Solórzano, like many Brooklyn-based vegans, is passionate about quinoa. Last year, he wrote Ayara: Madre Quinua—part cookbook, part history of quinoa and it's properties. Foreign demand for quinoa, however, has changed things in Peru. "It is a lot more expensive than it used to be, but as a protein source, it is still a lot cheaper than meat. We need to educate people that more than a carbohydrate, quinoa is a great source of protein."
In 2007, Solórzano and his mother were part of the group that founded APEGA, the Peruvian Gastronomy Association, which organizes Mistura, Latin America's biggest food festival. The first occurred in 2008, with about 30,000 visitors in total. This past September, there were about 30,000 international visitors alone.
"We didn't expect such growth—not at all," Solórzano says. "It's beautiful, how it has become a meeting point for Peruvians from all over the country, and that we can show the advances in our gastronomy to them and the world."
But Solórzano admits that, despite having access to beautiful and local ingredients, he can't quit fast food. "It's like a drug—the high fats, the refined carbs, the sugar," he says. "It's so delicious and addictive. Some people have a tendency to become addicted to it, like me, and others don't. I can control myself, because I want to have a better quality of life, but it requires a lot of discipline." It doesn't help that Lima happens to have the world's most fast food joints per capita.
Still, he's not an apologist for what fast food is doing to his country. "[Parents] need to evolve from that primitive thinking of 'the more I feed my kids [junk food], the happier they will be, and the more I'm showing them my love,'" Solórzano says. "No, you're creating a potential addict to foods that can kill. Learning how to feed our children should be as important as teaching them about good values, sexual education and the dangers of substance abuse."
Solórzano perhaps exemplifies one paradoxical aspect of Peruvian cuisine today: piecing together a coherent identity and history of Peru's traditional dishes and ingredients amid a sea of cheap, and often foreign, junk food. "In the evolution of Peruvian gastronomy, there's a first phase that has been completed," he says, "which is the identification of certain cooks, dishes, culinary regions, products, and preparations that needed to be recognized immediately."
The next step, he says, must be completed "at an academic level," in which Peruvian cuisine would be nearly elevated to a discipline, like French cuisine. "We have mostly books or TV shows, which are simply a collection of recipes," Solórzano notes. "If you search on the web for ceviche, you may get many results, not only from Peruvian but also US and other international sources, which use the Peruvian technique as their main reference." He's glad for the recognition, of course, but hopes to have Peru's wide and varied food cultured respected abroad in the same way that we do with Mexico's many regions, ingredients, and practices.
That's exactly where Mistura comes in. "I think Mistura plays an important role in promoting the consumption of healthy, traditional foods, but it shouldn't be it's main focus, or people will start thinking that we're from the health department!" he says. "Plus, Mistura shouldn't discourage consumption of the mouth-watering mondongo, or those pork dishes that are half meat, half fat. It's delicious. It's texture, it's flavor."