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Taste of Peru DC-Chef Spotlight: Darwin Santa Maria

Taste and see why Peruvian cuisine is so good!
Taste and see why Peruvian cuisine is so good!Photo by Adam Berry/Getty Images

The excitement and fervor in Chef Darwin Santa Maria’s voice is undeniable. His zest for the culinary arts, micro brewing, and mostly his Peruvian culture is nothing short of contagious.

Examiner: How long have you been cooking?

Darwin: I went to culinary school; Johnson and Wales College of Culinary Arts and graduated in 1997. I basically grew up in the restaurant business, my parents had a restaurant back in Peru—a little farm to table restaurant. We grew everything from herbs to proteins on our 400 acre farm.

Examiner: Where does your passion for cooking derive from?

Darwin: I was always in the kitchen helping my mother and grandmother since I was about seven or eight years old. I have a brother and sister and I’m the only one who caught the cooking bug! I moved to the states when I was 13 years old, the first thing you do is miss your heritage. We came here with nothing, and started from zero, my mom and three kids—the only thing we had to look forward to was a good home cooked meal.

Examiner: Give us some background about your culinary journey that got you where you are today.

Darwin: When I first came to this country, I was a little ashamed of my culture, not because of where I was from, but because I thought in order to be a chef you really need to master your skills of French Cuisine. When I went to culinary school, I was a little lost trying to figure out what direction I wanted to go. I graduated school and went to be a chef right away at an American Bistro, we cooked dishes like meatloaf and chicken pot pie—authentic American cuisine. It was about 1999, so at that point, any chance that I got I would bring home ingredients from Peru and store them in the back of the freezer. Any chance I was able to cook for myself, the owners, or special guests I would use my Peruvian flavors.

One day this lady came into the restaurant and ordered a pot pie—with chicken pot pie you have to cook the whole chicken. Well, she found a bone in her chicken pot pie and almost choked to death. I went in and apologized to her and told her it was my responsibility. I didn’t know what else to do, she called me every word in the dictionary, and I felt so bad. So a few weeks later, I saw her walk into the dining room from the open kitchen and I told the manager to please take away their menus once they were seated; I wanted to make something special for them—I felt so bad. So I went back into the kitchen and started making my Peruvian dishes, I ended up making about six courses. I asked the manager how everything was going, and he informed me they wanted to talk to me. They ended up loving everything, everyone was going crazy and encouraging me to put these items on the menu. That gave me the confidence to step out on my own and start my own restaurant.

Examiner: Your latest venture, Darwin’s on 4th is a superstar! Tell us more about that.

Darwin: My first restaurant was opened in 2002; it was a small seven seat restaurant called Selva Grill Western Cuisine (selva means “jungle” in Peruvian) which was Peruvian and Amazonian flavored cuisine. In 2005 we moved to a bigger location in downtown Sarasota and continued to develop new recipes. In 2010 I sold my partner shares because my wife and I wanted to move back to Peru and start our family. We went back, but I think I had something else to do back in the states. I love my country, but I thought of how my mom gave everything up just for us to have a better life and I knew I had unfinished business back in America. It almost took me leaving everything here and going back to my own country to realize, you know what? I can do it, I can do this and I can start again! With the help and support of my team, we were able to open up Darwin’s on 4th Peruvian Gastro BrewPub; it took us two and a half years to complete.

Examiner: What are you looking forward to the most about Taste of Peru DC?

Darwin: I’m really excited to show the Peruvian culture. There is going to be a lot of great chefs showcasing their food. Usually in bigger cities, they choose chefs from other bigger cities like New York; I am just proud that they chose me and see that we are doing something unique with our foods and our craft beers. We make craft beers with flavors that people don’t even think would be in a beer. I’m really excited to show people what we are doing and our goals, projects and history in this small town of Sarasota with the vision of going nationally with our distribution and creating more Peruvian brewpubs.

Examiner: Well, we all know what an amazing chef and business man you are, tell us about some of your other hobbies and passions.

Darwin: I’m a biker, so riding motorcycles, going to the gym, and sports. At this point in my career, since I have my three beautiful kids, I try to spend as much time with them and work towards leaving a legacy.

Darwin is an amazing example of finding inspiration from within and staying committed to goals. It truly doesn’t matter where you are from, what school you did or did not attend. No dream can come to fruition without passion, and Darwin certainly has that!