How would you define Peruvian cuisine now?
New Peruvian cuisine is always an evolution. We're always bringing new flavors in. The new chefs are training overseas and going back to Peru with new techniques. A friend of mine just opened a restaurant. He trained with El Bulli and he brought Peru molecular cuisine. And I have other friends who are doing Amazon cuisine.
What defines Amazon cuisine?
From the Amazon River. Freshwater fish, tumbo (it's a citrus similar to passion fruit), kind of a tamal technique. The food is prepared by wrapping in leaves found in the jungle: banana leaves, palm. And they also eat snakes.
It's a white meat. It is very, very good.
Is that something you grew up eating?
No, I'm not from that region. But when you travel to the mountain region, it's something you are used to.
Are the regions still differentiated by their cuisines?
There are three major regions: coast, mountain, and jungle. Every region has a different cuisine. Of course now there's a little globalization in my own country. But the one thing that is the same is that women buy what they will cook that day. You're not going to buy frozen stuff for your house.
Is it usually women cooking or the men?
The woman cooks for the family but the men cook or professional reasons. In the Latino culture, more women cook. The mother teaches the daughter to cook. It's kind of mandatory before you get into marriage.
Not in America!
Things are changing in Peru as well. It's kind of from the '60s and '70s. Now when I go to Peru and I talk to my girlfriends, they don't know how to cook.
Generally speaking, how do American chefs ruin traditional Peruvian cuisine? Can you quickly tell if the chef isn't Peruvian?
Oh yeah, big time. But when I was working in D.C., for example, we had to make the cuisine less traditional. Like the lomo saltado, it was too spicy. There's a little twist. Like we serve just one protein and one carb together, but Peruvians like rice and fries, potatoes and yucca.
We mix proteins and carbs. In a Peruvian restaurant, they'll give you the lomo saltado with the fries on it. The potatoes will soak up the flavor.
So are you not serving traditional style?
It's traditional food, but with an emphasis on New Peruvian cuisine. We serve smaller portions.
How much smaller?
The truck drivers in Peru only eat once so they try to eat as much as possible in one meal. Like, if you order lomo saltado on the road, it's like two pounds of steak and fries. Ceviche? Two kilos of fish.
Is that how you eat at home?
Fruits and vegetables. I drink, in the morning, my fruit blend: papaya, acai, pineapple, orange, mango, grapes, and bee pollen. And I love celery and carrots in my juice, too.
What's the one cuisine you have never attempted?
Maybe Arab cuisine. There's not much information about it, but it's very healthy. But there's no fusion with anything. What are they going to serve? A kabob with French fries?
What's the one ingredient you hate cooking with?
Curry. I don't like how it smells. It's one of those flavors that your food will taste like curry. There's no balance.
Who's the most famous person you ever cooked for?
Al Gore. And I've also cooked for Michael Jordan, Anthony Bourdain for the TV show, Mario Batali, and a lot of senators.
How would you describe Peru?
Culinary-wise it has the most potential for food exportation. Culturally it's very interesting. We have white, black, Asians Europeans, the right blend of people. You can go to a African-Peruvian restaurant. Slavery is still very organized. In South Lima, there's a ranch were all these Africans have their own food, they have a hotel.
What's the biggest downside to the country?
The money is not distributed fairly. There's not a lot of poor people, but there should be more equal opportunity for everybody.
Why did you leave?
Nobody was talking about food. We were living in tough times because of the [Shining] Path terrorist group and MRTA. No tourists were going to Peru. Nobody was going out to eat because you couldn't be out after 10 p.m. because they didn't want to explode with the bombs. In the nineties everything changed. Peru's tourism was growing. In South America now, when you come out of culinary school everybody is getting a secure job.
So many Peruvian restaurants are opening all around, new hotels. Cusco, the city closest to Machu Picchu, we call it "exotic dancer" because people throw their money to that city. It's got its own type of cuisine called Nuevo Andeano. It's French mixed with Andean cuisine. High-end techniques.
Do you have a big Peruvian diner contingent at El Gran Inka?
Only five to 10 percent of our customers are Peruvian.
Where do you go in Miami for traditional Peruvian food?
I cook myself.
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If you had friends in town?
I'd bring them here.
Tomorrow we'll share his recipes for an avocado reina and the pisco sour.