One month into Lima, one month into my stage in Siete. I had initially agreed to stay for a month but I felt like I was just getting started so I spoke to the chefs and now will be staying another month. In life, when eating, cooking, talking, accessorising, it’s important to know when you’re done, and I knew I wasn’t.
It’s worthwhile to recognise things that I need to feel good at work. Beyond the food itself, the main draw for me in Siete is the structure. Before the summer I left a job where there was very little in terms of structure. There were hardly any recipes to follow, everyone just freestyled. Initially I liked the idea, thinking it would bring freedom and creativity. Guess what – busy, high volume kitchens ain’t the place for winging it! Freestyling all too often felt like muddling through. It lead to disagreements between chefs, food of highly inconsistent standards and all round fatigue. So I am really loving the order and formality of Siete. As Monica Geller once said – Rules are good! Rules help control the fun!
One job I’ve been doing is cleaning crabs for crab fettuccine. With a big heavy knife, you crack the shell and extract the meat, leaving it as in tact as possible. It doesn’t require much skill, but every once in a while you get a ‘bad crab.’ The meat is fine, but the shell is extra hard so you have to really whack it, and the meat clings to it so the only way to get it out is shred it. Usually about 1 in 5 crabs is bad. Or so I thought until, one day, I was given a batch to clean as quickly as possible before service and the boss (the big boss – the owner) came to work next to me and I got going and every crab was bad. EVERY CRAB!!! Let me tell you, whacking rock hard shells with a machete is not a task you can struggle with discreetly. I thought I would never get out of that batch of crabs. I would rather have had crabs than endure what I did. I struggled through for ages with a red face, racing heart, made worse by the growing pile of shitty, shredded meat piling up next to me. Thankfully the boss said nothing. Maybe he was more concerned about the intern having the motor skills of a 3 year old and some form of a panic disorder than annoyed about unshapely fish?
I’m gonna take a moment to talk about onions. Peruvians are very good with them! If you think raw onion and feel that acrid sting in your mouth, think again. Wash them under copious amounts of running water and they lose the burn but retain a refreshing crunch. They are a favoured garnish in Siete and many other places. Below is the Szechuan Tortilla – an omelette served with crispy deep fried white fish coated in a Szechuan sauce and topped with our friend. The hydrating crunchiness perfectly offsets the richness of the fried fish and heavy sauce.
I spend lots of time prepping sweetbreads, (below, left). They’re fried in butter and served in a burnt apple sauce. One of my fave dishes is the asado de tira (right). These are slow cooked short ribs, falling off the bone served in a deep rich tomato, gochujang gravy. I’m not massively into meat, but when I do I like it to be so well cooked you barely need to chew it. Think pulled pork, and this asado de tira.
My Spanish is coming along. I am enjoying it, but it’s a challenge. I feel like there’s more to language than the words themselves. There’s the culture behind it, which really does go some way in shaping us as people. Spanish speakers are more direct than we are. There is one rather, em, portly chef in the kitchen who everyone refers to as Gordo (fatty). So much so, that I didn’t even know his name and was forced into calling him Gordo myself one day. I told my friend Cesar I felt awkward about it and he was all – why? My friends call me El Negro, we’re just descriptive people. You just have to embrace it, which I do. It still tickles me when people order a Reuben (rrrrrreuben!) and when all the guys in the kitchen call each other Papi – siiii Papi!
Have you ever seen the Steve Martin film The Jerk? He plays a poor black child from rural Mississippi who moves to the big city, feeling like a fish out of water to hilarious effect. In one scene he phones home to his parents and says no I don’t have a job yet but don’t worry because my friend Patty says she’s gonna give me a blow job real soon. When I have an especially ditzy moment I think of that scene, hoping that my linguistic naivety is not quite so bad.
There are not many dishes that the Peruvians can legitimately claim to have invented, but they are masters at spotting what works and running with it. Take gelato – some of the best of my life has been here in Lima. Blu is a well known shop that Siete use as a supplier. I thought they had to be the best there was, until I discovered Crem Dela Crem in Barranco. Beyond having nailed a perfectly silky smooth texture they have interesting without being pretentious flavours. Bananas Foster. Apple Pie. They even do peanut butter and jelly ice cream with chunks of crunchy toast.
So there we go. Check in again to hear about my progress in Siete, Spanish and Lima life in general!