Two Peruvian restaurants made the list

This year The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list includes 2 Peruvian restaurants: Central (#15) and Astrid y Gastón (#18). I’ve had the privilege of eating in both restaurants; they are both in my list of memorable dining experiences.

Paiche amazone

Paiche amazone from Central

Gastón Acurio, owner of Astrid y Gastón (which is now under the lead of Diego Muñoz), posted on his Facebook page a very cool message when he heard the news. He stresses the fact that Perú, a developing country, has managed to produce two top-20 winners, while France, Italy, Japan, etc. have only one restaurant in that range. He also mentions that the highest climber prize (the restaurant that has gone up the most) was won last year by Astrid y Gastón and this year by Central.

Gastón Acurio is successful not only because he is incredibly smart, a fantastic cook and has a charming personality, but because he’s not lazy. He knows that staying at the top requires non-stop hard work and he encourages the Latin American restaurant community to keep growing by improving continuously with passion and commitment. Finally, he congratulates the three Spanish restaurants in the top-10, as well as Mauro Collagreco (Argentinian chef working in an award-winning French restaurant), Alex Atala (from D.O.M., Brazil) and Enrique Olvera (from Pujol, Mexico).

Central
Calle Santa Isabel 376
Miraflores, Lima, Perú
+511 242 8515
www.centralrestaurante.com.pe

Astrid y Gastón
Avenida Paz Soldán 290
San Isidro, Lima 27, Perú
+51 1242 4422
www.astridygaston.com

World Chef Showcase 2011, day 2, program 6

Sunday morning. A full day of eating and drinking (went to a birthday party after the World Chef Showcase) left me physically bloated but mentally hungry for more.

I arrived a bit late for the morning session, Neil Perry from Rockpool and other restaurants in the country was already showing a video of the dry aging process of the beef he sells. There was a fire on stage that looked promising. Neil talked about sustainability, about knowing where your food comes from (hint: you can’t do that by buying mass-produced meat at a supermarket), and the importance of eating a balanced diet. He cooked rib-eye steaks on the bone on the grill. The smell was hypnotizing.

Neil Perry

Neil Perry

Dry aged beef is dense and intense, with a complexity of flavour that comes from fermentation. Its texture is chewy, tender and flavourful at the same time, and it cooks quicker because it has less moisture.

While the steaks cooked Neil started working on the tasting plate. He made hand-pounded pesto, for which he suggests never to toast the pine nuts to avoid their flavour to dominate the basil’s. He also said using a mortar and pestle as opposed as a food processor doesn’t burn the basil and lets it release its essential oils. The pesto was served with grilled baby octopus, salad leaves, cherry tomatoes and olives. I founded the dish a bit too salty but the pesto was brilliant.

Wood-fire grilled baby octopus with olives and hand-pounded pesto

Wood-fire grilled baby octopus with olives and hand-pounded pesto

Neil chopped the steaks on stage and passed them to the public. Even when it wasn’t a big enough piece to fully appreciate, it was indeed tasty.

Neil Perry: Rib-eye steak

Rib-eye steak

During morning tea we were offered the same morsels and drinks as the previous day. I made my way to the book signing area to get my copy of Blood, Bones & Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton signed. Matt Moran and Neil Perry were signing books too, too bad I’m not a big fan of cookbooks.

Matt Moran signing books

Matt Moran signing books

Neil Perry signing books

Neil Perry signing books

Next on stage was Francis Mallmann, for me a well-known Argentinian chef because of his TV show in elgourmet.com, which was not surprisingly my favourite cable channel back home. He’s all about cooking in nature, particularly in Patagonia, a cold Southern region in his country. Even when he looks like a mad scientist with his red-rimmed glasses, unstyled gray hair around his bald head and white chef’s coat, he is against “modern” cooking techniques (foams, etc). Mallmann hates marinades and thinks meat, salt and fire is everything you need for a perfect meal. I’ve heard him a million times but couldn’t help to agree, once again, with his thoughts about cooking: “cooking is a mix of tenderness and brutality”, “cooking is not an art, it’s a craft that you learn by doing hundreds and thousands of times”, “cooking is a silent language”.

Francis Mallmann

Francis Mallmann

Mallmann is all about rustic food. His first dish was potato dominoes, square potato slices arranged domino-style, bathed in butter and roasted in the oven. They went around for people to see, touch and taste. Then he cooked a whole roasted pumpkin (in the oven but he normally uses ashes) with goat’s cheese, mint and rocket. He wasn’t shy on using his hands to break and mix the ingredients. The pumpkin was passed around for a taste, too, what it lacked in presentation it had in flavour. He also prepared a dessert with orange slices stabbed with rosemary, heavily sprinkled with sugar and burnt (sugar side down), served with cream.

Oranges with rosemary

Oranges with rosemary, before burning them

His main dish was a boneless rib eye with chimichurri. He cooked one on stage but not to his liking (low temp & slow) because of time restrictions. The steaks we were served were perfectly cooked, tender, extremely flavourful, and simple. I’d have liked a bit more of chimichurri, but maybe it’s just me. Mallmann ranted a bit about how chimichurri was overdone without respecting its basic structure (hopefully that won’t happen in Sydney now that Argentinian food is becoming popular).

Rib eye with chimichurri

Rib eye with chimichurri

During the morning we also had author Diana Kennedy talking about food in Mexico, the country where she has lived most of her life.

We had just had two amazing tastings with the masters of cooking on fire, our bodies and clothes were smelling like BBQ, and it was lunch time. Lucky us! The buffet was similar to the one the day before, with slight changes. Salads were changed from Caesar and pumpkin to pasta and Waldorf. The main protein dish was not chorizo anymore, but lamb chops and Cajun-spiced salmon. The chops were the highlight of the day, the salmon could have used a bit more seasoning and a little less cooking.

Pasta salad

Pasta salad

Waldorf salad

Waldorf salad

Cheeses

Cheeses

Lamb chops

Lamb chops

Fruits

Fruits

I had lunch as fast as I could (without choking) and went to line up for Gastón Acurio‘s appearance. There were already a bunch of people queuing, including a party of VIPs who got one of the tables closest to the stage. I hadn’t seen so many Peruvians together in Sydney since the elections. Diego Muñoz (Bilson’s) and Diego Alcántara, the chef’s helpers for the day, entered the room first. As soon as Gastón arrived, people started getting photos taken with him. It may seem ridiculous but most Peruvians have a huge respect for him because of everything he’s done for our cuisine; he’s more a hero than a celebrity.

Gastón started with a video with images of my country’s culture, from music to food, from street vendors to fine dining restaurants, while he talked about the pillars of current Peruvian cuisine: biodiversity, cultural diversity, social commitment, and sustainability. He explained how food became the thing that allowed social classes to come together, and how now we’re the country with more cooking students in South America.

Gaston Acurio

Gastón Acurio

Gaston Acurio

Gastón Acurio

Then the magic started. Gastón’s first dish was a cebiche del amor (love cebiche), with fish, oysters, sea urchin, prawns, squid, and scallops. For the leche de tigre (tiger’s milk, traditionally the “juice” that is left from previous cebiches) he used lime juice, Peruvian chillies (rocoto and ají limo), celery stalk, garlic, coriander, ginger, fish trimmings and salt. Leche de tigre is believed to be an aphrodisiac, especially when powered by such a variety of seafood, hence the name of the dish. The cebiche was great. A bit sweeter and far less spicy than typical Peruvian cebiches but exquisite. I could hear the spoons banging against the plates all over the room. And not only Peruvians were delighted, an Aussie couple at my table who hadn’t eaten cebiche before loved it.

Cebiche del Amor

Cebiche del amor

The next dish was a hot cebiche. It was inspired in an ancient way of cooking marinated seafood on hot stones, only that he did it on a stovetop grill. The meat of choice was crayfish, which was marinated with leche de tigre (sans ginger and plus ají amarillo) and cooked on a corn husk. We didn’t get to try this one but was passed around the tables for a quick look.

Crayfish "a la piedra"

Crayfish “a la piedra”

The third cebiche married Peruvian and Australian ingredients, as as way to celebrate the similarities between the two countries in spite of being so far apart. The local ingredients included green mussels, mulloway, green papaya, strawberries, grapes and asparagus. The Peruvian touch was leche de tigre with rocoto, ají amarillo, ají limon, coriander and red onion.

Unfortunately, none of Gastón’s cookbooks were on sale at the event. However, he was signing programs. I found it a bit lame but got mine signed nonetheless, and had my photo taken with him.

Gaston and I

Gaston and I

Afternoon tea nibbles included cookies, which I think were from Baroque. Didn’t touch them.

Afternoon tea cookies

Afternoon tea cookies

Next on stage were Ricardo Zárate from Mo-chica and Picca restaurants in Los Angeles and Alex Atala from DOM in Sao Paulo. Their mission was to talk about the impact of food in Latin America’s social, cultural and environmental development. Although I realise it must have been hard for native English speakers to understand everything they said, I think the message was clear: things are changing and chefs are responsible for leading this movement.

Alex Atala and Ricardo Zarate

Alex Atala and Ricardo Zárate

And once again we had a sweet end of the program. Willie Harcourt-Cooze (I confess I had no idea who he was, because I don’t watch TV anymore), owner of a cacao farm in Venezuela, made a really passionate celebration of chocolate.

Willie Harcoute-Cooze

Willie Harcoute-Cooze

While cooking on stage he explained us the characteristics of the different varieties that given to each table in a sampling plate. First we tried cacao nibs, which hit the tongue with a burnt flavour that ended with a hint of chocolate taste.

Chocolate tasting plate

Chocolate tasting plate

Then we tried a very intense 100% chocolate, recommended for savoury dishes. Willy used it to make cacao and olive bread, which was sent to the tables. The olive flavour (from whole green olives and oil) dominated the taste of the bread. The chocolate actually didn’t make it taste it like dessert, but gave it a nutty flavour. A few fennel seeds on top gave it a nice contrast.

Cacao and olive bread

Cacao and olive bread

Willie made a classic chocolate mousse, for which he had already prepared the crust: tempered bitter chocolate painted on a piece of baking paper lined on a cake tin. For the filling he used the Indonesian 69 present in our sampling plates, a delicious chocolate with acidity notes and citrusy flavour. For the crust he used the Madagascan 71, which had a little bit of acidity but was much fruitier and sweeter than the Indonesian. I missed the explanation on the last chocolate from the sampling plate (if there was any), and I didn’t enjoy it as much as the previous ones. It had a fungusy, earthy flavour. Willie topped a finished chocolate mousse with berries and we were handed mini versions of it, along with a glass of Brown Brothers Cienna wine, defined by the winery representative as “summer berries in a glass”. The mousse was good, although not the best I’ve had in my life. I couldn’t stay for the Q&A session but really enjoyed both programs.

Chocolate mousse

Chocolate mousse

World Chef Showcase 2011, day 1, program 3

October’s here! For me it’s one of the best months of the year; my birthday used to be my sole reason until I arrived to Sydney and discovered the Crave Festival, a month-long celebration of food. Last year I missed the World Chef Showcase but this year I bought tickets as soon as I saw Gastón Acurio‘s face in the ad. With the cooking demos and talks grouped in 6 programs for the two days it was hard to choose which one to attend. For Saturday I went with program 3, featuring Alex Atala from DOM, the Brazilian restaurant ranked 7 in S Pellegrino’s list, and David Lebovitz, one of my favourite food bloggers.

The event took place in the Hilton Hotel. Three ballrooms were set up with big round tables where the audience sat to watch the action on stage and enjoy the tastings. Morning and afternoon tea were also included, as well as lunch on both days if you bought the full weekend package. We also received a festival’s canvas bag with the Crave program, the World Chef Showcase program, a few magazines, brochures, notepad and pen, and a bottle of beer.

Magazines & other freebies

Beer, water

Saturday started with a very nervous Martin Benn from Sepia, Sydney. In a way it was good to see a weakness in a great chef from an outstanding restaurant, it just makes you realise that he’s as human as everybody else. Martin showed us a video about a night in Sepia. Because of the complexity of his dishes, he relied on videos to explain the process of making the dishes he presented. The first one was umami times X, featuring a dashi (broth) with kombu, katsuobushi (which he shaved on the spot in a special shaver that went through the audience so that we could appreciate its aroma), and jamón. What went in the dashi was a square sheet of cuttlefish silk, cuttlefish being one of his favourite ingredients. They basically make a mousseline with cuttlefish and egg white in the Thermomix, pass it through a drum sieve, put it in a square bag and roll it flat. Some sheets are painted black with cuttlefish ink. The dish was sent to the tables for tasting, and it was amazing. The broth was absolutely delicious and the cuttlefish silk was perfect, with the texture of a wonton noodle cooked al dente in fatty broth. The dish was rounded off by fish roe for a bit of crunchiness.

Cuttlefish silk

Cuttlefish silk

Another video showed us the process for making Japanese stones, a dessert that isn’t in the menu yet because it’s very time-consuming. It was born when they accidentally dropped chocolate mousse in liquid nitrogen. They use three fillings: chocolate mousse, cherry sorbet and coconut custard, which are frozen in liquid nitrogen and covered in melted cacao butter mixed with ashes that soon solidifies and acquires a glossy finish that looks like, guess what, stones. A few more elements are added to the plate to resemble water and sand.

Martin Benn

Martin Benn

We had a break for morning tea thanks to the event’s sponsors. There were alpaca and silverbeet empanadas, which I didn’t try but judging from the speed they disappeared were very good. Brown Brothers had wine tastings, Nespresso provided much-needed coffee, S Pellegrino had a number of fizzy drinks and Chambord had two barmen preparing a couple of cocktails. Lan was giving away chocotejas if you entered a game (I didn’t), and finally there was the Dymocks stand and the book signing area. Plenty to go through during the short break.

Alpaca & silverbeet empanadas

Alpaca & silverbeet empanadas

Chambord stand

Chambord stand

Tejas from Lan

Chocotejas from Lan

There was a slight change in the program after the break. Tony Bilson and Benedict Beauge took the stage to talk about the status of French and Australian cuisine. Bilson’s said that Australian cuisine is changing according to the evolution of the wine market, which is going from mass-produced to expensive and exclusive. Beauge defined French cuisine as an attitude towards food as opposed to certain ingredients or techniques. Bilson talked about food flavour profile changing to match the growing consumption of wine.

Tony Bilson and Benedict Beauge

Tony Bilson and Benedict Beauge

Next on stage was Alex Atala from DOM, Brasil. He struggled a bit with the language but managed to paint a very touching and inspiring picture of what the Amazonas region is, and how his restaurant is contributing to its growth from a cultural and social perspective. He stressed the use of local ingredients and the respect to the environment, from which the human being is an important piece that shouldn’t be forgotten. “Luxury is not in fancy ingredients, but in our hands”, he said, and proved it with his simply-built dishes. He demonstrated a dish made with manioc (cassava) flour resembling cous cous and a dessert that kids would hate (with dark chocolate, curry powder, salt, rocket, Brazil nut cake, chilli oil, and Jack Daniels ice cream).

Alex Atala

Alex Atala

Finally he cooked the dish we got to taste: brioche-crumbed oysters with marinated tapioca hot oysters. He said his inspiration for this dish was a challenge to make hot oysters taste as good as fresh, cold ones, and I reckon he nailed it. He finished his presentation with a video of Amazonas.

Brioche-crumbed oysters with marinated tapioca

Brioche-crumbed oysters with marinated tapioca

Lunch was served in one of the hotel’s restaurants, buffet style. There were salads, dressings, sandwiches, chorizo, mini burgers, roasted vegetables, cheeses, breads, fruits, etc., and more Brown Brothers wine at every table. Lots of options that made it easy to eat reasonably clean.

Caesar salad

Caesar salad

Sandwiches

Sandwiches

Chorizo

Chorizo

Mini burgers

Mini burgers

Fruits

Fruits

David Lebovitz was having lunch with a food blogger and I took a photo of him holding his empty plate with a stuffed look in his face. Kinda summarises these few days of eating he’s had in Sydney.

David Lebovitz after lunch

David Lebovitz after lunch

The afternoon session started with Argentinian chef Mauro Colagreco from Mirazur, France. He struggled with his English, too, so spoke half of the time in French. Not to worry, everybody got his message. His restaurant’s highlight is the use of fresh produced they grow, for example 43 varieties of tomatoes. He used a few different types in his demo. The first preparation, which we got to sample, was a tomato martini, made with tomato water (puréed tomatoes, sifted overnight), and gelatine, and topped with flowers and herbs. The flavour was intense but I didn’t like it, I’m not saying it wasn’t good, but I usually don’t like things involving cold puréed tomatoes.

Mauro Colagreco

Mauro Colagreco

Tomato martini

Tomato martini

Mauro also made a beautiful tomato and avocado salad (again, using different kinds of tomatoes) and a dessert.

Afternoon tea featured macarons by Baroque Patisserie. Now, I’ve said it before: I don’t find macarons that special and I avoid eating sugar but that was my chance of trying their famous macarons for free. I think they were well made but nothing I’d want to eat again.

Macarons from Baroque

Macarons from Baroque

Another local chef hit the stage, this time Mark Best from Marque, Sydney. I absolutely loved the first dish he presented, even when we didn’t get to try it. He used a Japanese slicing machine to make celeriac pappardelle. Genious. The creamy sauce was made with chicken stock, a fine purée from the celeriac trimmings, Dijon mustard, mustard seeds, French butter and chopped chives. He added a heavily reduced veal stock, cooked black truffle, mustard flowers, shaved black truffle and a Parmesan tuile.

Mark Best

Mark Best

Then he cooked a pigeon Peking duck-style, steaming it, painting it with gastrique and deep-frying it until golden. The weird part came in the rest of the dish, with the use of pickled green strawberries, green raspberries, green blueberries, pepperberries and mulberries. I wonder how that tasted. For dessert he introduced the “tomberries”, tomatoes in a strawberry syrup made by cooking the berries with sugar in a bag at low temperature for 40-50 minutes. The dessert also featured vanilla grown in Penrith and crème fraiche made as a by-product of the butter they make at the restaurant, and it was delicious.

Tomberry with chocolate jelly and vanilla

Tomberry with chocolate jelly and vanilla

Finally former Chez Panisse’s pastry chef and food blogger David Lebovitz hit the stage. I’ve been following his blog for a few years and I must say he’s even funnier when he talks.

David Lebovitz

David Lebovitz

He made his chocolate idiot cake, named “orbit” cake in his book, with candied peanuts and salted butter caramel sauce. Coming from David I knew I had to forget about the sugar, dairy and legumes (at least it was grain-free) and at least taste it. I almost licked the plate clean. The cake was paired with a Brown Brothers dessert wine, a fantastic end of day one’s program.

Chocolate orbit cake with candied peanuts and salted butter caramel sauce

Chocolate orbit cake with candied peanuts and salted butter caramel sauce

Coca Peruvian Cuisine – take one: Sangre Nueva

When someone asks me or my Peruvian friends where to find good Peruvian food in Sydney we often reply “come to my house”. Not that we have great cooking skills but, seriously, until a short while ago, there were no better options around. Luckily, that is slowly changing, as talented Peruvian chefs are starting to showcase what our country has to offer.

Peru has exceptional cuisine, and people around the world acknowledge it, but is a pity that Australia is so far away nobody knows about it. That’s what made a bunch of friends: Diego Muñoz (Bilson’s), Martín Arrisueño (Awaba), Diana Manrique and Marco Amprimo (aSukar Patisserie) plan a Peruvian dinner in our independence month.

The idea as a whole was born under the name Coca Peruvian Cuisine, showing respect for the coca leaf, which has been a faithful companion for the Andean people for thousands of years. This particular dinner, titled Sangre Nueva (new blood), the first of hopefully many to come, took place in Balmoral Beach’s Awaba restaurant.

I shared a table with my Peruvian friend Beto and his friends Ron and Sharon. They seemed pleased to have locals explaining them the contents of the dishes, although I must admit we got over-excited at times. A well-prepared pisco sour (our national drink made with pisco, lime juice, egg whites, syrup and a dash of bitters) got us ready for what was about to come.

Pisco sour

Pisco sour

Forget about bread dipped in olive oil, our dinner started the proper way: with boiled new potatoes with ocopa (sauce made with chilli, queso fresco, milk, huacatay, peanuts and vanilla biscuits), rocoto-stuffed olives and yuca (cassava) chips with huancaína (sauce made with chilli, queso fresco, milk and soda crackers). A small saucer with rocoto (very hot red chilli, similar in shape to capsicum) sauce kept us company throughout the night, as in most Peruvian tables.

New potatoes with ocopa sauce, rocoto-stuffed olives, cassava chips with huancaína sauce

New potatoes with ocopa sauce, rocoto-stuffed olives, cassava chips with huancaína sauce

The first course blew our minds. For Beto and me, it was hands-down the highlight of the night. Blue swimmer crab parihuela (a thick seafood soup) served in an espresso cup and a cold crab salad served in a spoon next to it. Visually pleasing, yes, but it wasn’t until we tried both components that we had our expectations surpassed. We found crunchy bits in the soup and it wasn’t until Marco mentioned the dish had quinoa that I realised it was the same toasted quinoa I had eaten in the prawn course at Bilson’s. It was a very welcomed unorthodox addition to the dish. I’m usually the first to say that Peruvian food tastes better in Peru but honestly this was one of the best parihuelas I’ve ever had.

Blue swimmer crab parihuela

Blue swimmer crab parihuela, matched with 2010 Oliver’s Taranga Fiano, McClaren Vale SA

The next course was a tiradito (seafood cut sashimi-style, usually served with lime juice and chilli sauce) featuring Australian sea produce: super fresh calamari, fish, scallops and oysters. The sweet potato that often complements the dish was present in a puréed version, forming a long strip across the plate. The fresh taste of coriander was also there, as well as a mild yellow chilli sauce, and a slightly excessive amount of ginger. I liked the dish but prefer it more “creole”, that is, with more lime and chilli, and no ginger.

Australian sea tiradito

Australian sea tiradito, matched with 2010 Cherubino Riesling, Great Southern WA

Continuing with the seafood theme we were served a Crystal Bay prawn causa (mashed potatoes mixed with lime juice and chilli, and served usually layered with seafood or chicken, mayonnaise, avocado, etc). The causa was very nice, it went very well with the silky avocado cream on the bottom of the plate and the ultra fresh prawn. The foreigners liked it, but for me a bit more of lime juice and chilli in the causa would have been better.

Crystal Bay prawn causa

Crystal Bay prawn causa, matched with 2010 Clonakilla ‘Nouveau’ Viognier, Canberra NSW

The beef dish was the one that received better comments from the non Peruvians in the table: Black Angus oxtail papa rellena (potato mash stuffed with a beef filling, shaped into a rugby ball and deep-fried), served with solterito (broad bean, onion, olive, rocoto and queso fresco salad). This time the almighty all-purpose filling wasn’t made with minced beef, but very cleverly with melt-in-your-mouth oxtail. The beef was extremely flavourful (the dish as a whole was) and it certainly left a lot of people craving for seconds. We did have a confused waitress bringing seconds to our table but were honest enough to say we already had that dish.

Solterito & Black Angus oxtail papa rellena

Black Angus oxtail papa rellena, matched with 2008 Greenstone Rosso di Colbo Sangiovese, Heathcote VIC

Arroz con pato (rice cooked with coriander and served with duck) is one of my top Peruvian dishes and this one didn’t disappoint. The seasoning was spot-on, the duck was perfectly cooked in its two presentations (medium-rare on top of the rice and well done below the salsa criolla (onion, coriander, chilli and lime juice salad). If I was given a chance to ask for a minor adjustment, it would be the rice. They used basmati, which lends to grains that don’t stick together, but for this dish I prefer a slightly overcooked, almost soupy medium-grain rice.

Grimaud arroz con pato

Grimaud arroz con pato, matched with 2009 Coates Touriga Nacional, Langhorne Creek, SA

The savoury journey had ended and the sweetness was about to hit us. Diana did an amazing job with the lúcuma tres leches (sponge cake soaked in condensed milk, evaporated milk and cream, plus the fruit lúcuma in this case) by lowering down the sweetness and adding a thin layer of dark chocolate on top.

Lúcuma 3 leches

Lúcuma 3 leches, matched with 2010 Scarborough Late Harvest Semillon, Hunter Valley NSW

Dinner came to an end with coffee and petit fours: maná (a sweet similar to marzipan sans almond meal), alfajores (cornflour biscuits with caramel in the middle) and chocolate truffles, all of them excellent. Our only complain was that coffee was served with chilled milk, quite unusual and a bit upsetting for our already overloaded stomachs. Other than that, the food and matching wines were simply brilliant. Looking forward to take two.

Alfajores, truffles, maná

Alfajores, truffles, maná

Coca Peruvian Cuisine: Coffee

Coffee

Coca Peruvian Cuisine
www.cocaperuviancuisine.com

Interview with Danny Parreno (La Bodeguita Del Medio)

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.

La Bodeguita Del Medio

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.

La Bodeguita Del Medio

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.

Danny Parreno, executive chef

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.

La Bodeguita Del Medio

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.

Danny Parreno, executive chef

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.

Kitchen

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.

Interview with Diego Muñoz (Bilson’s)

Last week I met Peruvian Chef Diego Muñoz in Bilson’s, the restaurant where he was once sous chef and has welcomed back as chef de cuisine. I published an article based on that interview in the Peruvian gastronomy portal La Yema Del Gusto.

After about forty minutes of interesting conversation, I was ready to go but Diego told me I could hang out in the kitchen to watch a bit of action while the first customers of the night arrived. I stayed, of course.

Diego Muñoz

The kitchen is small for what I had imagined, especially considering that they bake their own bread, and make their own butter and chocolates. Meaning that Jean-Charles, the French chef patissier has a lot of work to do!

Chef patissier Jean-Charles Sommer

I stayed there trying to bother as little as possible (hard with a big backpack and trying to take decent photos). I watched an apprentice deep fry and dish up the fishchips (fish & chips-flavoured ribbons served in a cone of “newspaper”). Then Diego helped her dish up a dish with different kinds of garlic (it was the first time I saw Japanese black garlic) and then he showed his team a new dish that involved seafood and avocado powder. Great stuff.

Plating garlic dish

Diego giving instructions to staff

Diego showing how to plate new dish

Plating new dish

Plating new dish

Here’s the translation for those who can’t read Spanish :)

Peruvian Diego Muñoz returns to exclusive kitchen in Sydney

At age 34 and with excellent references in his resume (Relais & Château’s Girasol restaurant, Silversea Cruise’s Silver Wind restaurant and El Bulli in Spain), chef Diego Muñoz from Lima has returned to Bilson’s after two years working in Perú.

Bilson’s, owned by chef and restaurateur Tony Bilson, known as the godfather of Australian cuisine, is ranked among the top restaurants in the country. It was awarded three hats in the famous Sydney Morning Herald’s Good Food Guide in years 2007, 2008 and 2009. Diego worked as a sous chef in the restaurant in 2006/7 and 2008/9 and came back this February to lead the kitchen.

In only three months of work Diego has re-structured the menu; the restaurant no longer offers dishes a la carte, but only degustation menus: two omnivore, two vegetarian, both with a 10-dish “Grande” version and a 7-dish “Petite” version. On top of that, this month a 15-dish super menu was launched, which summarizes the best of the other four, costs $280, and has caused controversy in the media and the web.

Maybe one of the biggest challenges for the chef has been to transform Bilson’s cuisine, which had a strong classic French influence. “We’re trying to do a cuisine that’s more modern, more oriented to the product and much lighter, more fun, a little bit more surprising, too”, he said. The response has been mixed, on one hand some old customers have been shocked, but a big share of the market, customers -mainly young- searching for new experiences, are delighted.

His kitchen team is also very young and multicultural. A few Australians, a French, a Korean and a Nepalese are the pieces of this machinery that Diego leads aiming for excellence.

Bilson’s menus are dynamic because they adapt to produce seasonality and reveal the chef’s strong preference for Australian seafood. There are no Peruvian ingredients in the menus yet but that’s not a definite “no” for Diego. For him the world is so globalized that barriers are disappearing also in the kitchen; now, for example, quinoa is everywhere and is no longer a product that people necessarily know as “typically Peruvian”.

Passionate about the topic of Peruvian natural resources, Diego had the opportunity of being part of Mistura 2009 and 2010, as well as to sow potatoes with the farmers in Urubamba, at 4000 metres above sea level, “a magic moment”, according to him. “Our true richness is the renewable products like corn, potatoes, chilies, the sea, those that if we knew how to exploit them, would be Perú’s richness, with the cooks as soldiers”. He also emphasized the importance of standardising the naming of produce and of giving cooking graduates the opportunity to practice in professional kitchens. “There is still a lot to do, that’s why I’m dying to be there and be part of it.”

Regarding that, Diego said he was willing to come back to Perú next year to start investigating and open a restaurant suited to the market and based on exploration.

The original article can be found here.