Emmanuel Piqueras is one of those people you can’t help but like. With a constant smile on his face and friendly demeanour, he quickly takes his food talk in the direction of sustainability and nutrition, and I’m immediately drawn to it.
The first time I ate at his restaurant was for my friend Sandro’s birthday one year ago. That night I focused on the Pisco Sours and piqueos (shared appetizers), and made an early exit, so that experience didn’t leave a very clear impression in my mind of the food and the story behind Panca, Emmanuel’s restaurant in the West Village.
It wasn’t until I went back 2 weeks ago while my mom was visiting in town, that I got a real taste of the food and soul that Panca shares with its visitors. Emmanuel was waiting for us with his signature smile and a few healthy dishes ready for us to enjoy. He sat with us in a corner table by the window, poured me a shot of the cold quinoa vodka he uses to prepare his famous quinoa sours, and we spent the next hour getting our taste buds excited, and talking about saving the world.
It’s no surprise that Emmanuel has strong opinions about the ethical implications behind his profession. After all, he comes from political royalty in Peru (his mother is currently the mayor of Lima), and was taught very strong social values from an early age. In fact, it was this upbringing that indirectly guided his steps towards a life in the kitchen, as his family didn’t believe in the luxury of having a live-in housekeeper, like most of their friends at the time did. Unlike most of the kids he knew, Emmanuel and his siblings were trained to be self-sufficient by helping in the kitchen at nights, and that’s where the first magical sparks between him and the craft of preparing food lit up.
His first professional steps were in the world of marketing and advertising, but he had no real passion for these jobs and was doing them just to fit in with everyone else’s expectations. Deep down he was a creative spirit who loved the arts, and eventually he decided that cooking was the creative outlet he wanted to use to make a living. After training with some of the best local chefs, like his mentor, Cucho La Rosa, he moved to the US in the hopes of spreading the word about Peruvian cuisine. His first venture was a restaurant called Andina in Portland, Oregon, and after that came Mixtura, in Seattle, and Limon in San Francisco. In 2008, this chef who is also a passionate surfer, fearlessly surfed the waves of the financial crisis, and opened Panca in New York City. He clearly is good with extreme sports, because 4 years later, Panca is standing strong as ever.
I had told Emmanuel a few days before our visit that I was a vegetarian and was interested in trying the vegetarian and vegan options of his mainly traditional Peruvian menu. After all, if there’s a place in the world where you’re going to find vegetarian or vegan clients, it’s in New York’s West Village. I knew Emmanuel was the right person to approach on this subject, as we had already talked about his interest in nutrition and a healthy lifestyle. As it turned out, Panca is a lot more than it may seem at first glance. Emmanuel uses as many organic and local ingredients as possible (a bit tricky when what you’re cooking is Peruvian food); he doesn’t use concentrates or preserved ingredients, and tries to do everything from scratch. His kitchen respects the ecosystem by using only fresh seasonal fish, and makes all kinds of healthy dishes to suit special diets.
Emmanuel is also trying to get more involved in the education of the new generations of chefs in Peru, by attending summits and giving lectures on sustainability, especially when they are related to fish and seafood, the most affected part of our food chain. He believes the industry is shifting towards a modern cook who is concerned with the environment and nutrition, and tries to set the example with his work. His long term goal, he shares with enthusiasm, is to open an integral wellness center.
But let’s talk about the food. What we found in front of us was a traditional Papa a la Huancaina, a vegan quinoa tabbouleh made with the vegetables of the day, and a vegetarian and vegan quinotto (quinoa-risotto). I thought the days when I was able to eat several plates of food in one go were long gone, but this day I proved myself wrong. I devoured the Papa a la Huancaina out of instinct (I’m Peruvian, I can’t help it), and the tabbouleh was perfectly al dente and bursting with the flavors and colors of the mixed vegetables.
But what I loved the most about this experience (other than enjoying the lovely food and conversation), was the discovery my mom and I made by trying the vegetarian and vegan mushroom and asparagus quinottos side by side. They were the same dish, but one had milk and cream in its preparation, and the other got its taste and texture from a mixture of fried and pureed leeks. By trying one after the other, we could really feel how they were both equally tasty, and if anything, the vegan version was better because it felt so much lighter and easier to digest. It made me realize, perhaps for the first time, that vegans may really be up to something good and fulfilling.
The food in Panca is simple and true to the original preparations; obviously prepared with a lot of care, but at the same time giving a homey feeling that doesn’t feel overly sophisticated or pretentious. It’s warm and laid back, like the place itself and the people who work there. If you like Peruvian food, if you’re a conscious eater and consumer, or if you have a special diet, this is a place to check out. See you there.