How did you begin your career in gastronomy?
Actually I began studying hotel management. I liked the subject of the service industry and I studied hotel management for one year in the US ; then I finished my studies here at Montemar and among my courses was a class on cooking, and that is how I began getting interested, because it was what spoke to me the most.
I kept on cooking; I cooked for friends and one day I said to myself: I'm going to make a career of this. I made up my mind and went to the Cordon Bleu school in Paris to specialize in cooking.
How would you define what you are doing here, in this restaurant that is so well known and practices a high level of cooking and that caters to tourists? Is it novoandino cooking?
No, we call it new Peruvian cooking or contemporary Peruvian cooking, which is pretty much what we prepare here at La Huaca; we have something for everyone. The tourist comes to try Peruvian food as it really is.
When a tourist comes here I don't want to offer too many fusion dishes that don't truly represent the authentic traditional dishes because it is interesting for tourists to know the real thing first. On our menu we have a selection of traditional dishes, and we also have dishes that have been “interpreted” like the Causitas (a terrine-like dish of pureed potatoes layered with other ingredients), the Chicharrón (crackling) of guinea pig with fried plantain medallions. You can try a little of everything and we also offer dishes that don't need to be spicy-hot, but we do use Peruvian ingredients in almost all our menu items.
For example, we offer a corvina (a Peruvian sea bass) encrusted with red quinoa that we get from Cusco , served with a sauté of asparagus and artichokes.
Does red quinoa really exist?
Yes, red as well as black. And I'm told that there is pink one in Cusco that I don't know.
How do you find out about these ingredients?
I really don't travel as much as I would like. I am contacted (by purveyors) and I also get together with my colleagues to talk. You read, you stay informed, you go to some food fair, you see something and try it. Many times foods are brought here to the restaurant, to offer us new things.
I thought that there was jealousy among chefs and that no one spoke about discoveries.
No! Many of us talk among ourselves, we are very good friends.
Is there solidarity among you?
On occasions I've lacked an ingredient I need, so I call my colleagues and I say “Hey, I need such and such ingredient” and immediately someone gets it for me.
Yes, there are those who tell you “I've gotten you a kilo of something…I'll send it to you.”
Have you had tourists or Peruvians reject a dish or an ingredient?
Normally they don't say “I don't like it.”
What is the most popular dish?
The Lomo Saltado (sautéed steak) is what we sell the most, we have it among the recommended classic dishes.
I tell you, among foreigners, not the North Americans, but the Brasilians, the French, they really like Ceviche, the canchita (toasted kernel corn), the Causa they love, and La Leche de Tigre (literally, tiger's milk—a spicy seafood sauce) they think is delicious.
And then dishes like artichoke tartare with hearts of palm because North Americans like that kind of fresh dish, vegetarian, light. They are used to going to (Peruvian) restaurants and finding everything very hot and overpowering. Finding simple dishes like that is more attuned to what they like. For example a Solterito (a cold vegetable salad) of quinoa, with the three quinoas, so they think they're eating Peruvian but it isn't so heavy.
Are Europeans much more adventurous than Americans?
Yes, much more.
How did you conceive the menu at La Huaca?
I've been at the restaurant for six years, and it had already existed for a year and a half before I came here. The menu already had a base, a direction. I've been refining the dishes a bit, but there were already some on the menu that the public requests, so they are still there, I don't remove them, but I can keep on changing them a bit, refining them. There are some delicious humitas (a kind of corn tamale) that we make here and I'll never take them off the menu.
What new dishes do you have now?
A month ago I changed the menu. I've added crispy scallops with a balsamic reduction and a jam we make with sachatomate (a tomato-like jungle fruit) and ají pepper; a salad with smoked piquillo peppers that come from the north; a salmon dish with a yellow ají curry, a fried rice, and a chita (a local fish) sautéed with gingered rice, and braised beef ribs with polenta, and also pork in a peanut crust served over carapulcra (a dry potato and rice dish) with a chocolaty sauce.
I change the menu every four months, I don't change everything but I add new things according to the season. Right now we have menestrón (a hearty winter soup) and raviolis of osso bucco.
In the summer we had lighter things: ceviche, trout raviolis. The menu changes according to the climate, the season, although here in Peru we don't have any problem because you can get everything all year long, but on the dessert menu we have seasonal fruit and that changes accordingly.
In June, when potatoes are harvested, we have all the tubers; then I try to add more garnishes to those ingredients.
You participate in international forums. How well accepted is Peruvian cuisine? What do we need to do to increase the awareness of Peruvian food?
I think it is rare that someone in the food world would not be aware of Peruvian food, or better yet, hadn't even heard of it. In the US newspapers and magazines you already read about Peruvian food. Peru has made a great effort with food fairs abroad, advancing its case, and we're all very enthusiastic and proud of this effort. Not everyone is going to think Peruvian food is the best in the world, but it's true that it already ranks among one of the great cuisines. We have everything to make it happen. It is becoming well recognized. Gastón (Acurio)'s book has just won a prize; that sort of thing also helps.
Is the economic crisis making itself felt?
Fortunately here at the restaurant things are OK. We notice it in corporate events, which are fewer or smaller.
I know there have been many foreign tourists who have cancelled.
About Mistura 2009. You are on the organizing committee. Is it going to be great?
The name was changed so that the fair would have its own identity. I am a member of the Peruvian Association of Gastronomy (the fair organizers) and we all try to help where we can.
There is a hired event management company, but help is needed in all areas. I work on the food market, we're a group that analyzes the subject of the food market, how we think it should be, who needs to be contacted, and with the help of the event mangers we aim to meet our objectives.
Last year there were some mistakes, now it is going to be 2 or 3 times larger, the fair will be one day longer.
You are one of the few well-known women chefs. Where are the women? It is because it is too enslaving?
There are more women, and it is enslaving when you begin. I need to be available, but I have someone who works with me so now I'm able to allocate my time better.
There are many graduating classes from the cooking schools that are available. Before, people used to join the kitchen staff starting out washing plates and gradually got promoted. Now there are young people from the schools who are prepared. And those who like it stay and advance.
Talking about wine, which Peruvian wines do you like?
I like the labels Tabernero, Tacama, and Picasso. Now you can find some very good wines. I'm not an expert, I've taken courses in enology, but I don't analyze wines much, I drink what I like.
For dessert, I personally prefer pisco to sweet wine.