In our latest installment of conversations with Irish and international chefs, F&W writer Élodie Noël chats to Pía León. The Peruvian chef shares her memories of food and the dishes that are important to her.
Co-owner of Central, in Lima, Peru, Pía has recently stepped into the spotlight, after years working behind the scenes with her husband Virgilio Martínez, the founder and public face of the restaurant. Famous for its 18-course menu which explores every altitude of Peru, from the shores of the Pacific Ocean to the heights of the Andes, Central recently won Best Restaurant in South America and 6th place overall at the World’s 50 Best. We talked to the 32-year-old Peruvian chef, who opened her first solo-restaurant Kjolle last summer, to learn more about the dishes and flavours that have marked her life.
What is your first memory of taste?
I don’t remember a precise dish, but I remember eating potatoes from a very young age. They were cooked the most simple way, roasted in the oven or boiled, with some salt and butter, nothing more.
What is the plate that made you want to be a chef?
In my house, I was always cooking. My mother always loved to cook and the whole family enjoyed it. I remember at the age of 6 or 7, being in the kitchen and making desserts. When I started making desserts, I thought, yes, I want to be a chef! It was traditional Peruvian desserts, for example, arroz con leche (rice pudding, below), pie de limón (lemon tart), that we used to cook when we got back from school.
READ MORE: My Life in Plates: Kwanghi Chan
What is the dish that could make you cry?
I love ceviche, of course, and when you try a Peruvian dish in another part of the world, it’s very emotional. Last month, we were in Singapore for the World’s 50 Best ceremony. We have a friend over there who has a restaurant and we had ceviche there. It was the first time we had this dish in this part of the world and it was a very special feeling. In Peru, you can find some amazing corn in Cusco, in the Andes. I really love corn and cheese, it is a famous traditional food, it’s very simple but really amazing.
What is the dish you don’t understand?
I don’t like what we call mondongo (tripe). It’s not really about the flavour, it’s the texture, I just can’t do it! (laughs)
What is the dish you wish you had created?
In Peru we have a very traditional way to cook, not only meat but also tubers and vegetables, that we call pachamanca, it’s a way to cook under the ground. We make a big hole, we place hot stones in the hole and then the meat on top, and we cover with more hot stones. This is a great technique because you have to be very precise with timing. It’s about the ceremony happening around the cooking, it’s about showing your respect to earth, using the local products. This process comes from the Andes and I think it’s the most amazing technique. It has been done in Peru for centuries.
What is the dish you are the most proud of?
In Kjolle, we have a tart made from all the tubers of the Andes, potato, olluco, oca. It’s called Mil Tubérculos, we mix all the tubers that we get from Cusco. Usually it’s a big surprise because if you say tart, people imagine a dessert, something sweet, but it’s not. It’s really colourful, with a lot of different textures; you have the soft cream, some of the vegetables are raw so it’s a little crunchy and then you have a touch of sweetness. I think it’s a really nice plate, which uses the great tubers of Peru.
What is the dish you can’t admit you love?
It’s not a dish really but I have some ingredients that I mix… People can’t believe it but I love ketchup! (laughs) I mix it with rice and avocado; I love it. Also, I like scrambled eggs, but I don’t know why, I like to add sugar to it! It’s almost like a dessert, I’ve been doing it since I was a child.
What is the dish you could eat every day for the rest of your life?
It would be corn on the cob. With some salt, butter and chilli.
What is the dish that reminds you of your mum?
There are some desserts, the arroz con leche and the pie de limón. There is also a dish that doesn’t have a name, but it’s a mix of chicken, spinach, peppers, it was our Sunday food. My mum is a very good cook. My family really enjoys to eat, every Sunday we get together for lunch. For example, my sister makes the salad, I make the meat, we share food and we love it. My twin sister cooks really well. Up until now, I always go to my mum and ask her for some tips.
What is the last dish you had?
I don’t really have breakfast (it’s 9am in Peru), I just drink some cacao with milk. Yesterday it was Sunday, we had a big lunch, I had a piece of steak with some spinach and cream so I just had fruits last night. I usually do eat lunch and dinner.
What is the dish you’d make for the person you love?
For Virgilio, I’d make something that I know he loves: some raw fish, with salt and olive oil, and a big salad with all the vegetables I can find. He loves simple food. For my son (Cristóbal, 3 years old), I’d make locro, it’s his favourite dish. It’s a stew with pumpkin, potatoes, corn, huacatay (a Peruvian herb) it’s also my favourite dish, it’s delicious.
What is your death row dish?
My God! It’s so hard to choose! I’d probably have some locro, with white rice and corn as a side, then for dessert just watermelon.
How does the cooking work at home when both parents are chefs?
When we cook at home, we don’t complicate things. We look at what we have in the fridge and we divide the work. Virgilio makes the salad and maybe some fish, and I make the side. We enjoy it, we don’t have the time pressure. On Sunday, the restaurants are closed so we have time to eat together. During the week, my son arrives from school at 12pm, we go home - which is upstairs from the restaurant, and we have lunch together with him. Before Central moved to its new location, it was the same, we used to live right next to it. Living at the restaurant is a great way to spend more time with him, he is always here.
What is the next dish you have in mind?
Last week I was trying to work with some crab from the North of Peru. I was thinking of mixing the shellfish with Amazonian fruits. I want to make a stew, with some acidity brought by the fruits and some herbs from the Andes. I’m hoping to have it on the menu soon.
Author: Élodie Noël
Élodie is a French journalist who relocated to Dublin about three years ago. She immediately fell in love with the island and its amazing food and has been writing about it on her blog Lemon Lipstick.