Chris Yong-García: It’s been almost 13 years since you left Peru, and now you’re here in New York, cooking Peruvian food, living with your wife away from Lima, away from your city. Did you ever imagine your life like this? Did you ever plan to be here in New York?
Emmanuel Piqueras: No, it was never in my plans. But at some level New York can be in any cook’s plans. It’s one of those gastronomical cities that brings together all types of cuisines. I arrived in this country in the same way migrating birds arrive where the food is. It was work-related, but it was always tied to Peruvian cuisine.
CYG: Why did you leave Lima, couldn’t you have stayed and worked there too?
EP: I left Lima and headed towards Spain because I wanted to work somewhere else. I wanted to learn from a different cuisine. That was deliberate and planned, but my coming to the United States was more by chance. It was because of a job offer.
CYG: But you stayed. You like it here?
EP: I like it, I feel like I can do more for Peruvian cuisine here than over there.
CYG: How exactly did you come to collaborate with Fare Start, an organization that helps men and women on the street find careers in cooking?
EP: I was in Seattle when I started working with them. At first I recruited people from the streets, people of all ages. I took them off the streets so they could find a craft and a way to give their lives some meaning. We offered a year-long training in cooking. Chefs from the city—volunteers like myself—taught there and also took turns fundraising from our suppliers. I’ve done a lot of social work for several organizations.
CYG: Runs in the family, right?
EP: Yes, having a social conscience is something I inherited from my parents.
CYG: Matter of fact, in 2010 your mother Susana Villarán became the first woman to be elected Mayor of Lima, a historic event. How much has she influenced your life?
EP: I wouldn’t say my mother so much, but rather my parents, my whole family actually. Helping others out is a way to give back a little of what I’ve received. It keeps the chain going.
CYG: How is your mom in the kitchen?
EP: She’s good! She prepares an amazing olive rice with scallops, botija olives and peppers. When we were young she used to make pasta with béchamel sauce and chicken. She’s a really good cook.
CYG: In 2005 Epicurious Magazine named you ambassador for novo Andean cuisine in the US; Food and Wine Magazine nominated you as one of the best young chefs; and they also published an important article about you. And in 2005 “Andina” was elected the best restaurant of the year in Oregon, a kitchen you headed at the time. Did you expect the novo Andean style to be this successful in the U.S.?
EP: Not at all. I was in Lima working as a chef for a catering company, trying to get used to my new life there after being in Spain and working for Juan Mari Arzak for more than 2 years. And all of a sudden I get a call from the U.S., from the restaurant “Andina”. They knew of me as Cucho La Rosa’s student, and as Bernardo Roca Rey’s disciple. They called me as a consultant for the opening of the first novo-andean cuisine restaurant outside of Peru.
CYG: So the idea came from them?
EP: That’s right. It was a process for me. When I opened the restaurant, I couldn’t really speak the language, nor had I ever been a chef in a restaurant. I had been a sous chef, I had done everything, But this was the first time I was in charge of the whole kitchen. I never thought it would be such a hit. It wasn’t easy either! I put in a lot of work that year, 90-hour weeks.
CYG: The people that went to the restaurant, were they already acquainted with Peruvian cuisine, or do you think it was the first time they were trying Peruvian food?
EP: The media helped us out a lot. It was something new on the scene, contemporary Andean cuisine, with a cook that comes from “Arzak” a three Michelin star restaurant in Spain! It was an interesting story. I was just trying to improve each day, because the menu I opened with was a disaster, I almost broke down in tears on opening night. The food was bad. I couldn’t communicate with people. I even went online to look for a plane ticket back home, but then I said, “No, Emmanuel! Have some balls! You’ve pulled it off before. Not as a chef, but you’ve overcome difficult challenges...” And I screwed my head back on and learned the language. I never went to school, but I grabbed dictionaries and I asked around, and I started to control my kitchen, my costs, and I started hiring Latin American cooks.
CYG: And those cooks were Peruvian?
EP: 2004 was the year that the restaurant took off, 6 months after opening night. I hired a cook from Mexico City. He had cooked in this city for 25 years with great chefs, and together we gave the menu a boost. He was very technical, but knew nothing about Peruvian food. He helped me get organized. We were lucky too because we started the project just at the right time, and the media liked it. We actually made the top 60 U.S. restaurants list.
CYG: What was the main dish, or the one that was the key to all this success?
EP: Pachamanca, which is different types of meats cooked in a big clay pot, and served in small individual clay pots. It was a spectacular dish. Even the gringos took pictures as it was being served.
CYG: Juan Mari Arzak, the pioneer of the New Basque cuisine in Spain, says that you’re one of the best chefs he’s had the pleasure to work with. Did you get the chance to prepare any special dishes in the 2 years you worked for him? How was your encounter with him?
EP: Not for the teacher alone, but we had groups that made food for the whole staff. There were about 60 workers. Lunch time was a lot of fun because the head cooks would prepare meals for us, and then at dinner time we would cook for them. I made causa, tiradito, arroz chaufa and many other Peruvian dishes.
A week after I arrived I had my interview with Master Arsak. He said: “Manu (that’s how they called me, because Emmanuel was too long) where do you come from?”I had arrived with a letter from Bernardo Roca Rey, president of the Peruvian Academy of Gastronomy and a novo andean trail-blazer. He said: “Shit! You know the next culinary fusion is Peruvian! And you know what dishes would be really easy to disseminate and export for you guys? ceviche and causa, those are two solid dishes!” So he told me he would accept me in his restaurant if I was willing to be an apprentice, like a graduate degree in cooking. He said: “Forget everything you’ve ever done before! You are going to learn from scratch here. Cooking here is not a profession. That’s an illusion, and if you don’t get that, you can’t work here. We don’t want workers. We want magicians. Are you willing to work a whole year for me for free? It won’t cost you anything!” And I said yes, I’m willing.
Elena Arzak and Juan Mari Arzak called me the second year to sign the golden book, which was where the cooks that were most commited to the restaurant signed their names. Juan Mari said, “I want you to work for me”. So I stayed another year, and at the beginning of the third year I told him: “Teacher, I have to get married, and I am going back to Peru.” He told me that his restaurant would always be my home, and that I could come back anytime.
CYG: Arzak once said in an interview that to be in the culinary avant-garde one must think like a child. You have a mischievous boy look. How mischievous are you? How mischievous are you in the kitchen when you prepare and invent dishes?
EP: I think that one should always break the adult routine a little, in order to do crazy stuff or to stop thinking like we usually think. I like that way of looking at it. A child can do magical things.
CYG: Speaking of mischief, you once told me about some variations you made to the famous Peruvian duck dish, arroz con pato.
EP: Duck is the meat I like most. Rice with duck is a dish I’ve prepare ever since I had the chance to manage my own kitchen. I’ve made three variations on that dish.
CYG: Which variation could you share with us, so we can make it at home and get to know more about your delicious cooking?
EP: Here it is...
CYG: Peruvian food is growing quickly on both the east and west coasts. Here in New York there’s a real boom. The Peruvian president has just given awards to the best Peruvian restaurants around the world. Panca and Pio Pio are among them. Do you believe food is how we Peruvians are currently affirming our identity, and at the same time creating an exquisite and sophisticated image for the rest of the world?
EP: Yes, I think our food is making the whole world wonder about us. The food is as good as it’s always been, but the dissemination and presentation have gotten better. Not only are the dishes becoming known, but also the ingredients. Like, for example, Americans who eat healthy know about and eat quinoa.
CYG: Last year Mistura, Lima’s international gastronomical fair, broke its own attendance record: more than 200,000 thousand people made it out to this famous event. What did you think about this massive public event, and tell us about your presentation there?
EP: The fair was impressive. My presentation was on the second day, and it basically touched on the adaptation of ingredients and labor in Peruvian cuisine abroad. After having four different processes in four Peruvian food restaurants over the last 9 years, I talked about how my group adapts non-Peruvian ingredients, and also how we adapt the labor to make sure that non Peruvian cooks cook the Peruvian way.
CYG: What was more difficult?
EP: Both. They’re still both difficult.
CYG: If you invited people to your place who had never tried Peruvian food, what would you make?
EP: I would make a home-cooked meal, like a chicken casserole, or a liver “Seco” stew— which is a family classic—or a chicken “Aguadito” soup. These are all noble dishes, family recipes that can feed up to 8 or 12 people, so nobody has to fight over the food.
CYG: And the last question, we know that you’re a huge surfing enthusiast. What are the waves like here in New York? Do you miss the waves back in Lima?
EP: Of course I miss Lima, but I’ve been away for so long. In many ways, I’ve been lucky, because my work has always been close to the ocean. In San Sebastian, in Portland, Oregon, there are really good waves, in Seattle too. The water is really cold! But I don’t surf as much as when I lived in Peru, my work is so time-consuming. Here in New York I’ve enjoyed some really good waves, but I haven’t made it out to the beach in months. Surfing is still a part of my life. I always go back to it,.I’ve got my stuff ready in case anyone gets me going. I’m there!
Photos by Jorge Ochoa.