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A Conversation With Peruvian Chef Rafael Piqueras

Rafael Piqueras
Geeta Bansal

Rafael Piqueras is a talented young Peruvian chef/owner of the popular Maras restaurant in the ritzy Westin Hotel & Convention Center in Lima, who seems to have slipped under the radar internationally. Piqueras is one of the top chefs of Peru and well-recognized and appreciated in the region. The Westin, built with an investment of $130,000,000, chose Piqueras who was the first Latin chef to be invited to the Madrid Fusion in 2004, for their ultra-modern luxe restaurant. Maras is named after a pink salt from the Sacred Valley in Peru and according to Piqueras it adds a special flavor to his food.

This handsome young chef who at one time contemplated an acting career has a very impressive training background that took him all over the world before heading back home to open his own venture. The 30-story Westin is located in the San Isidro business district of Lima with easy access to other parts of the city and Maras is situated at the ground level off the lobby and also accessible from the street. Piqueras trained in many illustrious kitchens like El Cellar de Can Roca in Girona, Spain from where Chef Joan Roca sent him to train with Ferran Adria at El Bulli at the time the world’s best restaurant. So it is no surprise that his food displays a lot of modern and molecular techniques. He has interesting stories about the time he travelled to work at Antica Osteria del Teatro in the town of Piacenza in the Emilia-Romagna region of northern Italy from Cortina changing ten trains to get to his new job on time.

Piqueras early training began at what is now known as the Cordon Bleu in Lima but he credits chef Joan Roca as having influenced his culinary style the most. His food is sophisticated, superbly executed and his plates veer on the minimalist side. The degustation menu best displays the range and expertise of his gastronomic proposal. You will taste powders of fig or olive oil, emulsions of fruits from the jungle, Peruvian foie gras with pineapple, and many other unusual combinations. The bustling dining room of Maras and the outdoor terrace is filled with well-heeled Limoans and foodie tourists from around the world. Piqueras is a sociable man as I discovered at a Paella and Cava party on his terrace one night. He is well liked by his peers but his world revolves around his wife and daughter Atlanta whose pictures he shares with great pride. In the present competitive food culture of Lima where there are many other contenders he is one to watch.

Questions for chef Piqueras:

Who inspired you to enter the kitchen professionally?
While growing up I saw a man proudly running the kitchen in my grandmother’s house, which in those days was considered a woman's job. He did everything from buying the food, cooking and then serving it and his dishes though simple had amazing flavors. I try to reproduce them in my cooking. Then later in my youth I saw Gaston Acurio elevating the profession in our society and that was inspiring.

So is memory a resource for creating food?
Absolutely, I remember how the cook in my childhood prepared dishes so many different with the yellow aji. He controlled everything and you could not touch anything without his permission. The image of him in the kitchen and the taste and flavor of his food inspires me to this day.

I remember maybe 20 years ago we had a cholera outbreak in Peru and he started preparing a chicken ceviche that had an exceptional taste. The food was creative and well-presented and served.

You went to culinary school, so how important is that for a cook?
Nowadays, yes it is though I don't think that just going to school can make you a better chef I think you need to travel and train in kitchens away from home and experience that in as many countries as you can.

What qualities are essential for a cook?
Attitude, passion, and the basis of techniques which schools sometimes provide. I test people entering my kitchen with two dishes ceviche and Lomo Saltado. The influence of these folk dishes is strong in our cuisine here and then when I test them I know their capability.

Who are people in the culinary world that you keep in touch with?
Here in Peru, Toshiro Konishi, who knows the history of Peruvian food and has his own traditional way of working. Toshiro knows more about fish than anyone else and he has taught me a lot. Gaston Acurio, Edgar Nunez from Mexico, and many more.

I am so busy with work and family that I don't get much time to socialize beyond my own circle. My wife is a physician and we have a small girl so the balance is hard now between personal and work obligations.

What age bracket are your clients from?
At lunch we have a business crowd and at night as you can see it is a very hip and social crowd. During times like Semana Santa we have a lot of families. We have older customers who enjoy the molecular dishes and ask for those.

What is an upcoming food trend according to you?
I think we are returning to traditional foods and though I use all these molecular techniques etc. I think I am getting influenced by Asian food especially Korean. According to me Korean cuisine as I experienced at the Shangri-La in Colombo recently is exquisite. Peruvians love spice and kimchee in Korean food is something I like too.

Any interesting locale outside of Peru that you have traveled to or wish to travel to?
I have been everywhere and have seen many places in Italy and Spain but I like New York maybe because I went there as an 18 year old to visit my mother and had an opportunity to eat at many nice restaurants when here in Peru 18 years ago we did not have such restaurants. Between school and starting my stage in Italy and I went to Paris with my father for the first time and ate at many amazing restaurants. Later I went to Germany where I visited with a wealthy family exposing me to another life; imagine a private house with French and Italian chefs in the kitchen!

What is your favorite cuisine?
I love to go to Sushi bars by myself.

Why do you think Sushi is most chefs favorite food after work?
I think the flavors and technique and in my case one of the best sushi chefs is my friend.

Have you been to Japan?
No, but I really want to visit Asia, especially Japan, Thailand, and Korea. I am waiting to go with Toshiro Konishi to be able to visit the kitchens of restaurants in Japan.

Eat at Jiro Sushi too?
Of course! I was fascinated by the movie about him. In every kitchen in the world, Japanese, Spanish, French you will see a Japanese chef in the kitchen. Their plates are always so precise and perfect. I saw Martin at El Bulli make a very precise salad with tomato gelatin and twenty other ingredients over and over but exactly the same. The one Japanese guy could do it better than the boss. Japanese chefs work very hard and long hours and do very meticulous work.

When did you first go to Spain?
When I was living in a small town in Italy for school I visited a friend in Barcelona and I decided after school this is where I have to be and found my first stage with Chef Romera.

While there I went to visit Joan Roca and asked for a stage there and so I went to train with him. During that time with another cook from Pierre Gagnaire who was also training there I visited and ate at restaurants of all kinds not only the Michelin restaurants. I also worked with Martin Berasetgui for a month right before opening Maras. I was seated next to him at a couple of dinners at a food event and we became friends and he invited me to come work in his kitchen. He is a very helpful and generous person.

What are your memories of the time with Joan Roca?
He is a parental figure with qualities of both a mother and father and is a very complete being. To be a chef you need not only be able to cook but manage people and he excels at that. For me he is an example of a chef who manages work and family very well and is the main reason for El Cellar de Can Roca to be at the top. Once I was working in the kitchen on starters and he came in and asked why I had put something in a particular spot and I said because I need it there. At the end of the service he explained very patiently why it should be in a different spot and I understood his logic. He took time every week to explain to the team what dishes we were doing and why. It was a very nice experience for me.

You have worked and trained in many different cuisines. Is your food influenced by other cultures?
My cuisine is influenced by many cuisines since after training and working in Peru I went to culinary training for foreigners in Italy and worked in kitchens there before going to Spain and then coming back to work in Lima . I also worked at the Ritz in Madrid and when I was invited to the Madrid Fusion Festival i made a special dinner. I cooked for people like Ferran Adria and Gaston and that time I introduced a lot of Peruvian ingredients that no one had ever heard about, 50 kilos of new and different things. I was only 26 at that time and I was cooking in front of these chefs and everyone was watching me. It was quite an experience.

What was the most popular dish that night?
I did a martini of ceviche with aji's that got a lot of praise.

What is your favorite fish?
It’s tuna, and I love to eat it sitting at the counter in a sushi bar. Here we do tuna with an avocado ice cream and sushi rice made like a togarashi. Toshiro has not tried it yet and he might not like deconstructed sushi!

Once Toshiro and I were in Girona and after eating at all the big name restaurants serving molecular cuisine we went to a traditional restaurant called El Mar where the owner offered only five things on the menu. The wife was cooking and Toshiro loved the food and applauded the wife especially the rice dish with sea food that I will never forget myself.

Any dish that is very popular with diners?
I do a tuna sashimi with quinoa, passion fruit and olive oil I freeze with liquid nitrogen but it is not on the menu we only do it when people request it.

Where does your inspiration come from?
From travel and tasting, experience, next month I am going to the jungle where I disconnect with everything and get refreshed. There you taste new things and other than that I love the sea.

What is your philosophy about food?
When I arrived from Spain I wanted to change all the textures of things at that time you would not see an avocado ice cream on a menu you might see a tiradito. I do not limit myself to Peruvian ingredients but I am open to any good product from elsewhere. I do Peruvian food and am returning to basics on my a la carte menu. My tasting menu has more technical dishes. I was recently in Canada and tasted the best pork and foie there so I am constantly learning about products and taste. I visited a Chinese restaurant where I had crispy duck, foie with ginger, mango pickles, and pancakes to roll it in and I was blown away.

Any favorite product?
It changes all the time; like all chefs I get obsessed with certain products like one phase with tuna, then duck and after tasting that pork in Canada it's pork right now. We have a traditional pork sandwich served usually at breakfast and I am experimenting with other ways of preparing it. So my interested are always changing.