Postcard From Peru
I’ve been in Lima for about two weeks. This was my starting point for a bit of South American travel, but after I booked the flight my mother told me her friend’s friend’s friend’s son owns a restaurant here, and I might be able to do a little stage. I was most interested, but didn’t think it would actually work out, or at most they would invite me to have lunch and show me around the kitchen. So I didn’t get my hopes up, and I also didn’t bring my knives or any appropriate kitchen clothing. But then, on my layover in Bogotá the head chef texted and said to show up at 9am the next day for my first shift. OKAY!
Very jet lagged and without getting my bearings at all I awkwardly knocked on the kitchen door the next morning and introduced myself. A group of guys said oh yeah hi, they told us about you – we thought you were a boy? Em, no. And then, do you have kitchen clothes or knives with you? Also, no. Damnit. But yeah sure, come on in. Then they started giving me jobs, and I stuck around all day, wondering how long they would put up with me for. At the end of they day they were like see you tomorrow? So I went back, and now it looks like I’ll be doing about a month total, which I am delighted about.
The restaurant is called Siete and it opened last year. They recently won the Summum prize for best newcomer – well deserved. I’ll write more on it later when I can do it properly. As the intern I try to be helpful and unobtrusive, so I haven’t snapped any food pics yet. But in a nutshell – delicious food that appeals to appetite rather than adhering to a particular style. I love it! It’s kind of Mediterranean, Asian where it works, definitely Peruvian. Nice food from all over the place that works together. Seamlessly balanced flavours, colours, and textures. Sea urchins in dashi butter. Avocado salad with fresh fish and Korean Hot bean sauce. Ceviche, of course. Incredible pasta. Fresh fresh seafood. A Reuben, cos why not. One of my favourite dishes is the carrot soup – so simple but so well made. They also make the world’s best cheesecake, achieved by adding the merest hint of Roquefort. Beyond the food itself I like the simplicity and lack of ego. They don’t bang on about methods, ingredients and philosophy. When it comes to dining, less talking and more eating, I say.
Siete is in a neighbourhood called Barranco. Historically the most upmarket, fashionable neighbourhood in Lima was Miraflores. Predictably, people and businesses started getting priced out and many have started moving south, to the grungy little sister. Despite being home to some of the planet’s best restaurants Barranco has maintained a laid back vibe. It’s winter in Lima right now, and it’s very grey, not unlike a slightly warmer Dublin, but with funner colour combos.
When it comes to food, Lima where it’s at. Peru itself is massively biodiverse and culturally diverse, meaning that there is a plethora of amazing ingredients and people who aren’t afraid to try new things. Did you know, not only is Peru the home of the potato but they grow over 3,500 varieties? This is the one place on earth where the Irish chef in the kitchen doesn’t get made fun of for loving spuds. Lima is home to two of the world’s top ten restaurants. Central, in Barranco – featured on Netflix’s Chef’s Table, Season 3 ,Virgilio Martinez – and Maido in Miraflores. To give you an idea, here’s a tiramisu I had one day in a place called Pan, Sal, Aire when I went for a casual bite to eat with some of the guys after work. Standards are high.
There’s a place right next to Siete called Isolina that is one of Latin America’s top 50 restaurants. I went and had an incredible papa rellena, which is basically the Peruvian version of arancini, but made with potatoes instead of rice and filled with beef stew. The flavours of home, but better!
I’ve been getting breakfast fairly regularly in La Panetteria. I don’t know if you have come across Felicity Cloake’s travel memoir One More Croissant for the Road, in which she cycles and eats her way across France? If not, don’t bother. Amazing how I could find a book that covered so many topics of interest to me so vapid. I abandoned it halfway through, but one thing that stuck in my head was how she scored every croissant she ate out of ten. I started doing it this summer in France, and didn’t come across anything that went above a generous seven. But the pastries here are off the charts, and I’ve sampled them all. Perfectly baked, so crisp that shards break off when you bite into them, giving way to a soft, chewy centre. They are buttery and rich without crossing over into greasiness. That’s a fine line. Tens across the board!
Peruvian food is hard to pin down, which is part of its appeal. One thing I have noticed is a fondness for offcuts. We eat them at home too, but in a different way, often in a fine-dining context where the chef is making a big nose to tail statement. It’s more commonplace here. On my first day Marco the head chef was giving me tastes of the dishes, one of which was pasta with sweetbreads and some sort of paté. Oh that’s delicious I said, what is it? Brains. My kitchen buddy Cesar told me that slavery was a big thing here in the past and historically the slaves were given the less desirable cuts of meat, but they responded by being like well actually fuck you guys we like brains.
A note on language. I speak Spanish from having lived in Spain previously. I used to speak it pretty well, but I left over five years ago and it’s fair to say I’m rusty. When I was in Mexico earlier this year I loved speaking Spanish again, and while I knew it was not perfect I was okay with that. But, had I known I would be in at the linguistic deep end here I would have revised more. Kitchens are busy, fast paced and full of background noise. And they have different words for things here. And everyone is from everywhere! The accents! The slang! On the whole, I feel I’m doing well but there are definitely moments where I don’t fully get what’s going on and I just lean into being the smiley, if ditzy, Irish girl. Thankfully people are nice about it. They might just feel sorry for me, but either way I’ll take it.
So that’s a snippet of my time in Lima so far. Check in again for updates on ceviche, spuds and Spanish!