My cousins growing up in the States sure loved their hamburgers and fries, and I, growing up in Lima, Peru, did too, but I preferred, and still do, a good lomo saltado. The Chinese brought the stir fry (saltado) style of cooking to Peru over a hundred years ago, and it became an early example of Peruvian fusion when the local cooks added aji (hot peppers), cilantro and French fries. In the best lomo saltados, each piece of beef is browned but stays pink in the middle for maximum flavor. One of the best lomo saltados in New York can be found at Panca, a Peruvian restaurant in the West Village. I make a mean lomo saltado, which I learned to cook from Rosa, my Peruvian mother-in-law. Everybody speaks highly of it and my daughter hardly likes anybody else's, but I've always felt I was missing something. Why was Panca's so much better? Obviously, the cook.
One day I met with chef Ezequiel Valencia to find out the secret, but when he told me where he was from in Peru, I got caught up in the path that brought him to Panca and momentarily forgot my mission. He was born at the foot of the Huascaran, Peru's tallest mountain, in the town of Yungay, where terrible tragedy struck in 1970. An earthquake caused a debris avalanche, full of snow, mud and rocks, which buried Yungay and killed all but around 100 of its 20,000 residents. At the time, Ezequiel's family lived outside of the town and were unharmed. The town was rebuilt as Yungay Nuevo and his family moved there. When he was born in 1974, his father ran off with another woman. He grew up working on the family's chacra, a small farm, and helping his mother in the kitchen.
At 14 he made the decision to move down to the big city, Lima, to work with his brother at La Carreta, a popular steakhouse. He washed dishes and later became a kitchen assistant. It was rough because his first language was Quechua. He didn't speak Spanish. "I didn't even know the word for plate." Two years later he got a job as a cook at a French restaurant and a few years after that he worked for Lima's premier caterer, Marisa Giulfo.
In 2008 the ambassador of the Peruvian Mission to the UN called him over to the table of a Giulfo family restaurant and asked, "Who cooked this?" He started shaking and wondered what he had done wrong. "This is great food," the ambassador said. "I want you to cook for me. In New York." He cooked in the ambassador's residence and at events with the world's presidents and diplomats. He stayed on to cook for two more ambassadors, but the fourth one came with his own cook and Ezequiel was out of a job.
By then Gaston Acurio, Peru's most famous culinary presence to the world, had opened La Mar on Madison Avenue and hired Ezequiel. A year later, however, La Mar closed. Why? I asked. "Some say the rent was too high." Probably true. I went there. The food was great, perhaps too stylized for my taste, but the real crime was that the portions were too small (a very unPeruvian thing to do) and the prices too high.
Out of a job again, but not for long. That's when the owner of Panca, Richard Wu, well aware of Ezequiel's abilities as a chef, brought him to work at Panca. I hadn't heard about this but I did notice that all the dishes I liked at Panca had gotten even better, even more heavenly. The ceviches. The aji de gallina. The jalea mixta. The . . .
"Oh, yeah," I said remembering my quest. "So what's the secret of your lomo saltado?" He pondered a few seconds. "Well, in addition to timing and experience in cooking, It's the wok. You seal and brown the beef pieces and then you lean the wok over and let it flame up, which smokes the meat and adds flavor." Of course! The wok! I had seen them do that at restaurants in Peru, sometimes even adding pisco for more firepower. The lomo saltado is Chinese inspired so it makes sense to do it in a wok. If you're lucky, you'll try it from Ezequiel's wok. He's come a long way to make it for you.