What started you cooking?
I always liked organizing, attending to needs, serving—those are all in my genes. I think that the act of caring for people has always pleased me, being a restaurateur in general, creating menus. I fell in love with cooking when I was in Switzerland at the Hotel School. They taught me in such a special and orderly way, and I couldn’t believe that studying cooking could be so formalized, reach that kind of academic level.
You went to study hotel management?
Yes, Peru was in a difficult period and that (training) didn’t exist here at the time; I had the good fortune to be able to go, and luckily I went. Food service was taught in a very attractive, special way. We were shown how to set the table, we were sent to get experience in restaurants, to get to know special places, and from then on I couldn’t wait to study gastronomy.
Let’s speak about the book you co-authored, Contemporary French Cooking.
It came to me all of a sudden to create a book for the Peruvian market, for Latin America. I was lucky to be joined by Christian Guillut, cooking instructor at Cordon Bleu in Paris, who also believed in this project. We began by traveling throughout France; we were treated in a very special way, we were received with much affection. Doors were opened to us when we arrived, and because this was a project for Peru, each chef even gave us 2 recipes for publication.
In your book chef Jean Pierre Vigatto expresses the opinion that “a restaurant should be a real place for the art of enjoyment where a splendid table setting is accompanied by an enchanting, refined, and relaxing atmosphere.”
Absolutely, service and ambience are very important, it’s almost like setting a scene in the theatre. Everything that surrounds you should be carefully thought out, appealing, special, beautiful, and the service is very important—it should be impeccable.
In your book many of the chefs who are interviewed give great importance to “the preservation of the natural, unalloyed flavors, without losing the intensity and fullness of flavor.” Do you think that Peruvian fusion prevents that from happening?
Sometimes fusion can produce confusing results. It is important how ingredients are used from the start; changes can be made if well executed. The proper control of technique in the hands of the chef is very important.
You also speak in the book of the “innovative attitude that preserves traditions, of precise techniques and of the truthful execution of (the chef's) creations and that a product be treated with authenticity.” Do you think that too much garnish on a plate diminishes authenticity?
Garnishes are necessary if they are part of the preparation, that is to say, if it complements the dish because it is going to improve the level of taste; decoration only to make a dish look prettier isn’t necessary. Esthetics are always important, but something can be very beautiful if presented in a simple, straightforward way. What is important is the technique that has been used and, above all, the flavor. Decorations should only be on a plate if they are part of the flavors of the dish: salt, pepper, or a sauce or other garnish.
Tell us about your endeavors at the University of Piura, what are you doing there?
We’re at the University of Piura campus which has been in Lima for about 6 years. I’m in the Service Management section which has two specialties: Food and Beverage, and Hotel Management. Within the Food and Beverage specialty we have gastronomy and there we have a workshop in which we are training students in the basic cooking techniques, international cooking, and in October/November we’ll start a “chef’s workshop” where chefs from around the country will conduct demonstrations.
That’s interesting. How does it work?
You only need to pay for the class you attend; they’re master classes. We’ll have Cristina Vallarino, Rafael Piqueras, Hervé, many chefs, and for Peruvian cooking we’ll have Lucho Echariri demonstrating Peruvian piqueos (appetizers). Each class is on its own day, and at the end we’ll have two classes about Christmas holiday food. We’re located in Miraflores, it’s easy to get to, open to the public. The sessions are 3 hours long, and we include a wine class, selecting wines.
It isn’t a professional career course?
No, this is a gourmet cycle. The career studies are Service Management, taken in two cycles, I & II: International Cooking, and Peruvian Cooking. They are designed for someone who wants to create a business, and who will specialize in Gastronomy (Food & Beverage) or in Hotel Management. After 2 or 3 years in the career studies you begin to specialize.
It isn’t a school for chefs?
No, it is the only university that deals with the Administration of services. It is about management and supervision.
With your knowledge of international cooking, how does the world regard Peruvian cooking?
I think we’re well recognized in Latin America, and we’re also well-known in the United States. We Latin Americans are recognized and we have very good products. I think we still haven’t reached other countries of the world with equal effect, with the same impact that we’re beginning to have in Spain. We need to become known in France, England, Italy which are stricter in their hierarchies. The North American (market) is very special, it has very good restaurants, it has accepted us, particularly our ceviches, seafood and shellfish dishes. We need to do a bit more research; we haven’t yet reached the highest level.
There’s room to grow?
The good news is that we’re on a good path, but we need to learn more, to standardize recipes, to organize and define ourselves. For example, our parents’ recipes are good, but what is the best weight (quantity of ingredient to use), etc.?
Do you have a favorite restaurant or bistro in France where you lived?
Well, there are so many…I say many because I was there for so many years and the money I earned was invested in going to restaurants. In France I like the pastry shop Ladurée, the classic bistros, and some well-known places with wonderful dishes like La Coupole. In any little town you find tiny restaurants like L’Evangelique that for 10 or 15 euros you eat marvelously. There are tiny restaurants where the food is marvelous.
And do you have a favorite place here in Peru?
Well, if you’re speaking of gourmet cuisine, I really like the flavors of Hervé. I like how Martinez is cooking and I like his surrounding enticements, the surprise, the spark that he provides; I like it very much. I really like fish and shellfish, I like El Mercado, Francesco, Rafael is also good, there are many…
What expectations do you think young people should have if they think a cooking career is going to be easy?
The thing is young people don't realize that this career demands great sacrifice. Here they have the good fortune to finish studying in good schools with the title of chef. In Europe, even in 2008 when I went there to work, in order to become a chef you need to have gone through various stations where you wash and clean, and you have to have skills in various styles and levels of responsibility. The demands are fierce, it is stressful, you really need to love it because it demands a huge sacrifice. Many see the supervisory part and think, oh I'll start a restarant and that's it...the real career is totally different.
Maybe the title of chef shouldn't be awarded so quickly; could there be a lesser title?
That's right. In Europe you begin as a kitchen assistant and you keep rising from there, and you also have to know how to lead.
There are so many television programs...
Yes, for example in "Hell's Kitchen" you see what really goes on in restaurants, it's the way it is. You'll encounter people with that attitude: very strict, very perfectionist. Once the meal service is over, the tension lowers and you are again friends with your colleagues.
Now that you are in another area, food production on the academic side, do you see yourself working in a chef's restaurant?
I feel at ease (in my job) here in Peru. Not long ago in France I worked in a Michelin 3 star restaurant whose chef creates diet cooking, serving light gourmet food. He's had it for over 30 years. He has 2 restaurants, and I was in charge of the smaller of the two. That's where I met my husband.
And what does your husband do?
He's the Food and Beverage Manager of the Hotel Los Delfines. We've been here for one year and he's very content. He's adjusted to Peru well. Besides, we're happy at home. We've arrived at a good moment because unfortunately the restaurant business in Europe is going through a bad time; it's sad to see such exceptional people having a hard time.