When people say there's a gastronomical boom in Peru, I say no, because it's always been like this. We just weren't advertising it.
First we had to convince ourselves, as Peruvians, that our cuisine is high-quality, and that we could present it to the world with pride. Many leaders have been taking our gastronomy abroad, which is huge, because the world can see what we have to offer. We're also getting invited to other countries, to display our culinary culture, our products, and our preparation methods.
I was born in Lambayeque, which is in the northwest of Peru. I come from a town of cooks; well, all of Peru is a town of cooks, really. We are born next to the pots, in between kitchens and feasts; nothing pretentious, all made with love.
Lambayeque has historic gastronomical origins. The first inhabitants of northern Peru were the Moches, a culture that was the culinary crib of the country. The Moches were also the ones who domesticated the Moschata duck species, so when the Spanish arrived, the duck was already domesticated. This is why the arroz con pato, rice with duck, is originally from the north of Peru.
The first restaurant that my family opened was in Chiclayo, the capital of Lambayeque, so I learned to cook with my mom and my grandparents. Then I went on to the university and to study cooking. Eventually, I came to Lima, because that's where you go to learn, evolve, and search for new opportunities.
For me, the most important aspect of cooking is the product. If I have fresh, high-quality ingredients, everything else is secondary; I may not even add salt. To give you an idea, I have a farm in northern Peru, where we grow our own products for the restaurants; like the vegetables, peppers, and rice. We also raise our own duck, cabrito, chicken and pig. Whatever we don't grow, such as onions, garlic, lime and potatoes, we get from the market, directly from the farmers, and we always strive to get the best product possible. Plus we only use fresh products from the day. If we run out, then that's it, there's no more. We don't do any pre-cooking, nor do we use frozen product.
In my kitchens at Fiesta and La Picanteria, I use a lot of ingredients, dishes, and cooking methods from the north. One of my favorite ingredients is a type of pumpkin from called loche. In all the trips I've taken around the world, especially through Central America, I've never found it. It has a very distinctive aroma and flavor, so people are always curious about it. I work the loche into stews, ceviches, and even in the anticuchos, you know, the cow heart skewers.
I also work with a lot of fresh fish. The Peruvian coast has anything you can think of, from lobster to grouper, to calamari, to jumbo shrimp. Other than the arroz con pato, our most popular dish is the grilled ceviche, an invention of mine.
Next year, hopefully, we'll open a cantina called La Canita al Aire, which means "having a little escapade." It will have food too, but the main focus will be the cocktails. Working with pisco, which is an emblematic product of Peru, is very important; we want to perfect it. Then there are other traditional products, like the chicha de jora, a kind of corn beer.
To work in a kitchen, you have to be completely crazy. In my last TV interview, I remember the reporter telling me there was possibly no other job as stressful as the TV channel. Then, I invited her to my kitchen; we took two days, because we first visited the Fiesta restaurant in Chiclayo, and then the one in Lima. This reporter ended up asking me how could we take so much pressure, so much work and stress.
As chefs, we're responsible for the future generation of cooks. We have to guide them, and teach them about our culinary history. We should avoid an attitude of triumphalism. They shouldn't think that we have the best cuisine in the world; that's not for us to say. It's up to those who try it. We also need to work with students, so that they continue to perfect our cuisine, improving the technique, and creating new flavors without disrupting the tradition. Plus, there's still a lot of undiscovered products. We have, for example, the whole Amazonian region that has been largely unexplored, but has so much potential. There are so many products that are just growing wild and have never been used. It's incredibly exciting.
As told to Leila Nilipour.