Victoriano Lopez: The New Yorker

InterviewChris Yong-GarciaComment

Gastón Acurio is the chef and owner of restaurants in twelve countries around the world, and is known as the Ambassador of Peruvian Cuisine. His restaurants include: Astrid&Gastón, Tanta, La Mar Cebicheria Peruana, Chicha, Panchita and Madam Tusan. In addition to his restaurants, Gastón has been instrumental in creating a culinary school in Perú’s capital city that offers education to underprivileged students and job placement following graduation.

Chef Victoriano was born into a humble family in the Andes, and at age 18 he went to Lima to work for an uncle as a street vendor. Victoriano landed a job at Astrid&Gastón, where Gastón discovered and developed Victoriano’s talents in the kitchen. Victoriano has held many positions in Gastón’s various restaurant kitchens, and has become his most trusted partner, overseeing the openings of new restaurants around the world. In addition to Gastón’s restaurants, Victoriano has trained in the kitchens of top restaurants, including Cellar de Can Roca, Mugaritz, and Arzak.

Chris Yong-Garcia: The restaurants you’ve opened are in cities like Madrid, Caracas, San Francisco, Santa Fe, Quito, Bogotá, Panama, Santiago de Chile in addition to several others in Lima. How does that young man who left his hometown of Chavin-Ancash in search of his fortune in Lima, the capital of Peru, and is now in New York the capital of the world, feel about that journey today?

Victoriano Lopez: 17, 18, 19, 20 years have gone by since then… To begin with, in 1995, Gaston Acurio gave me the opportunity to work for him; but I never imagined that I would travel so much, or go to any of the countries you’ve just mentioned --much less that I would manage a restaurant in New York. It didn’t even cross my mind…I have always liked to learn and to teach. That is the key to success--what I have learned from Gaston and what I can teach to others; Gaston dreams of having restaurants around the world and we all share that same idea. It’s a way for us to be able to showcase our culture to the whole world through our food.

Look, I’m proud of my family, my parents and of myself for having been able to take advantage of the opportunities I’ve been given. And, well, here I am --with humbleness, here I am...

CY: Humility is one of your traits; but discipline is too, right?

VL: That’s right, discipline is very important, and not only in the kitchen. Discipline is important in all areas. If there’s no discipline, if there’s no humility, if there’s no dedication, there’s no future.

You make it by doing things, by respecting, by teaching, liking, loving the people around you. There are different cultures, different people everywhere, in every city  –and you meet all different kinds of people from all over. In this kitchen I have cooks from all over the world, Mexicans, Peruvians, Katy who is here, next to me, is my American cevichera…

CY: And is Katy learning Spanish? Or are you learning English?

VL: Katy learns more Spanish than I learn English… It’s because of people like her, who are interested in cooking our food, that the work becomes so much easier. Just because you know how to cook, to do things well, doesn’t mean you can do things alone. The team is important.

CY: You brought cooks from Peru, right?

VL: Yes, I do have Peruvians here. I work with some young cooks like Cesar Bellido, a young man who has a lot of talent, and is here learning from me.  I’m sure he’ll have his own restaurant one day, or he’ll manage one of Gaston’s restaurants. His work is very good.

CY: Besides your training with Gaston Acurio, you’ve also worked in other great restaurant kitchens around the world, like Arzak’s, Cellar de Can Roca’s, Mugaritz’s. What did you gain from working for those great chefs?

VL: I gained a lot from my experiences with Arzak, Mugaritz and Cellar, because they’ve reached the place where they are because Spanish cuisine has reached a higher level. This makes me reflect on where we are.  First, we have to cultivate and love what we have, and then do what they do. We have to value our own products, our work; we need to love ourselves; that’s what I learned.

I have met great famous chefs like Joan, Andoni, Juan Mari—they’re so humble and they communicate a sense of calmness. What I’ve learned from them is not to let it all go to my head just because I know more. On the contrary, I need to teach what I know. I saw a different kind of discipline in those 3 restaurants.  And you realize that if you want to cook, you have to make a lot of sacrifices. You have to be dedicated and disciplined, you have to take care of the customers, spoil them; you have to stay on top of the products that arrive from our various suppliers, and make sure they’re good; you have to take care of your cooks, and make sure they’re happy. I’ve seen how they treat their people well, their discipline, their philosophy about what they want to do, what they want in their restaurants –it’s not only about having good food, it’s also about making the whole experience memorable. That’s what I’ve learned; and so it’s what we want to do in this kitchen, in this restaurant. We want to make sure everyone here is happy: that the cooks are happy, and that the customers are happy.

CY: When you were there, did you make Peruvian food for them? 

VL: They all loved Peruvian food. For example, Andoni would say that his passion and happiness was to eat Peruvian food.  This restaurant hasn’t even been open 6 months yet, and all the famous chefs have already eaten here.  To have the privilege of cooking for Andoni, for Ferran Adria, Michelle Bras or Mario Batali --they’ve all been here—and or them to say “this food tastes so good” --well, that gives me strength --it makes the whole team feel strong!

CY: In 2009, you had the opportunity to cook for Queen Beatrice of Holland. You cooked for over 600 guests at a ceremony honoring Peruvian cuisine.  What menu did you choose to prepare for our friends from Holland? 

VL: We made ceviches, causas, aji de gallina, anticuchos, lomo saltado… We prepared a menu that may seem impossible to make for that number of people; but we tried our best and people were very happy.

CY: You brought some ingredients directly from Peru, right?

VL: Absolutely. And that’s the work we all need to do, all of us as cooks and exporters in order to open more restaurants. Because, in Holland, you can’t find Peruvian products. It’s not like here in NY, where you can find many things. Down the line, we also need to improve the quality, and make sure that what we export gets to its destination in good shape. For example, we have to make sure that the aji amarillo, or the rocoto, or the aji limo arrive in good shape. You can’t make ceviche with frozen aji limo. It has to be fresh.

CY: You’ve always gone with Gaston Acurio to open restaurants in different cities. You’ve opened them, set them up and left people in charge, and then gone back to Lima. This is the first time you have stayed as a permanent Executive Chef in a city as tough and challenging as New York. How do you feel about it?

VL: For starters, it’s a privilege for me to be here. As I said earlier, I never thought I would manage a restaurant in New York. I think all chefs dream of being in a city like this one.  Everyone asks me why Gaston has chosen me for this restaurant. I don’t know the answer…

Still, with the exception of Madrid, of all the cities where I’ve opened a restaurant, this is definitely the most demanding one for food. Because all the different cultures are here --and they demand so much of you. In San Francisco, people were demanding, but here in New York, people are super demanding!

CY: It is never the same challenge, is it?

VL: That’s right. Each country has a different culture. Some don’t have the cultural habit of eating “aji” or cilantro. Some don’t like the cilantro aroma. For example, in Spain, they don’t eat cilantro, so if we want to make arroz con pato, arroz con pollo, seco de cordero, it’s complicated. The same goes for Bogotá and Caracas. They don’t eat spicy food. So I had to explain to them that Peruvian food is spicy. We don’t have to make it so spicy, but Peruvian food has to have onions, garlic, aji, and cilantro: without them, there is no Peruvian food.

CY: Who are your toughest critics? the Peruvian clientele or the food experts?

VL:  Fellow Peruvians are critical, but they do it to help us improve. All criticism that helps us to improve is welcome. Thanks to our fellow Peruvians we can keep getting better.

CY: You’ve become one more immigrant in New York. How do you feel? Have you enjoyed the city at all? Have you had any time to do that? 

VL: Very little. I’ve been very busy with work, but now that my family is arriving, I’ll be able to do more, go out more, do some sightseeing with them.

CY: Is your family moving to New York?

VL: Yes. I’ve been given the opportunity to work here and I believe this isn’t only a good opportunity for me, but also and especially for my children –because they’ll have a chance to get to see and learn from other cultures; which I didn’t have. I think they’ll be able to benefit even more than me –because I’ve already done this, and I’m doing it; and I want to them to have this new experience.

CY: If you had to pick one dish from La Mar’s menu, for an important guest who has never tasted Peruvian food, what would it be?

VL: Ceviche Limeño. I love that dish.

Photos by Coco Martin, Noah Fecks.