La Bodeguita Del Medio is an institution of Cuban food and drinks. Since it opened in la Havana in 1950 has been recognised as the “home of the mojito”, and now has restaurants in the most important cities in the world, such as Prague, Macedonia, Miami, San Francisco, London, Berlin, Beirut and Mexico City. Recently, its Sydney restaurant was launched with Peruvian Danny Parreno as executive chef, and in a few weeks has become a huge success.
Dishes like tiradito de vieiras, codillo de cerdo con naranja, and empanadas de conejo con pebre show the influence that Danny and Nelson Burgos, the Chilean head chef, have on the menu. In an environment that perfectly recreates the bohemian vibe of old Havana, surrounded by wood, dark brown leather, photos and Latin music, Danny told me about his previous experience and his work in La Bodeguita.
I know you were in Slip Inn before coming to work here.
Yes, I was there basically helping out, I had just arrived from Miami, I was working there, in no particular restaurant, but when I arrived in Sydney obviously I quickly found myself a workplace, which was Slip Inn.
Always trying to organise Latin things I made that Peruvian festival called The Pescador Platter. It was a success, we had about 250 people that night and it was really good, everything obviously with seafood. We had a show with big octopus cooking them on the barbecue with anticuchos chilli and all of that, everything based on Latin things, on Peruvian things. Then I went to work to Prague with people of this same business, with this same company for 2 months, I came back to Australia and basically straight here with them. I got this job practically from that festival, the owners were to that restaurant and said “this is the kind of food that we need, this is the kind of vibe that we want”.
How does it work? Because the Bodeguitas in other parts of the world have different menus…
To explain what I do: what I work with is fusion, I don’t mess around too much, what I do is to incorporate indigenous ingredients because obviously being Peruvian I use a lot of Peruvian things, but keeping the Cuban identity. What I do in the kitchen is more focused in flavour, presentation obviously is very important in what we do but I like to combine a lot and understand the flavours. I am very conscious of the ingredients that we use in a dish, in how we will do it and how it will sound, how it will be described in the menu.
How many years have you been outside of Peru?
I left when I was 15, but before that I lived 3 year in Venezuela, also in Colombia, my father worked as a musician, so since I was a kid I was always travelling, I was in Chile, traveled around South America, Central America. I was in Miami recently, my mother has lived in Miami for many years. I always go to Miami, I have just arrived from there, I was around 2 years there, in Canada, Toronto, Cuba. I’ve worked in French restaurants, I’ve worked with Michael Lambie, who worked with Marco Pierre White, I’ve worked with Achatz, with all those people who have been a big influence in what I do.
And in Australia?
Living in Melbourne I was in Taxi, Upper And Lower House, that also belongs to Michael Lambie, then I worked for The Supper Club that is also a good restaurant, I worked as executive chef in Waterfront in Melbourne, with seafood. In all of those restaurants I’ve worked with key people, obviously learning a lot from them.
I’ve been working in kitchens since I was 17. I haven’t had the opportunity of working overseas in many restaurants that I would have liked to but my work is based on research and learning.
Do you go back to Peru once in a while?
I was in Peru in 2003, I’ll go back this year. When I just arrived there I had a baby girl so we couldn’t travel too much, we stayed in Lima, but this time we’ll travel around and eat, because I know that things have changed there so much food-wise. It’s incredible and that’s what I love, and Peruvian food obviously is delicious.
Do you use any Peruvian ingredients?
Many, obviously ají amarillo, ají panca, huacatay. To get huacatay, because the only way of getting it here was in jars, I went to see some horticulturists and they told me that here is considered a weed but it grows, then they showed me where to look for it, in the Blue Mountains, and I have a friend who gets me some branches and I show them to the guys in the kitchen. I keep some jars just in case because sometimes it’s not in season. And I have friends who grow ají amarillo and they give me some. I buy Peruvian ingredients in Tierras Latinas in Fairfield. The head chef is Chilean and he brings aachiote, pebre, Chilean ají, merkén, and we combine the ingredients.
Every element that we add to the dishes has to work, even the parsley or the coriander that is added in the end.
What we want to do with Latin fusion in Australia is similar to what Longrain did with Thai and Asian food, they made it as close as possible to traditional food but more modern in a way that the customers can understand it, and that definitely works.
About the guys in the kitchen, are they all Latin American?
Just one, Nelson, a Chilean, he has a lot of determination in promoting Latin American food, he worked in French restaurants, in top quality restaurants during his career, and I have worked with him for many years. Being Chilean he understands Latin American food. Then we have a pastry chef who is a Brazilian girl, who won a prize in Le Cordon Bleu and has been working in patisserie for a long time. Key people in the kitchen are Latin American because they have to understand the cuisine, but the rest are Australians and one from Estonia.
Can you see a future for Peruvian cuisine in Australia or for Latin American food as a whole?
I think that Peruvian cuisine can definitely work. I think that if it did, it would be in Melbourne first because people there like things that are unique, many people there understand food, they’re alternative, they like to try different things. I think that something like a peña from Lima would work, without being too traditional. I can imagine that there are Peruvian restaurants in Lima that could bring here what is not available yet. The only drawback is that obviously the products, the ingredients are not very accessible, which I think is the key. Especially with food, the freshest, the better. But the concept is what could be Peruvian, with a bit of fusion.
I think that we have arrived to the climax of Asian cuisine and there has to be something different, especially with Peruvian food that is so similar to Thai food because it has the same fresh elements like lemons, limes, chillies, rice. Obviously I thank Peruvian chefs in Australia who are doing what they can to contribute.