He is the right hand of one of the most important chefs in our continent: Gastón Acurio. One could even say that the recent success of the latter, and of Peruvian food in general, has been in part thanks to the creative flow between these 2 cooks and long time friends. But Victoriano López is a humble man. He welcomes us in La Mar Cebicheria, at 11 Madison Avenue, (one of the most exlusive locations for a restaurant in NYC), with a wide and generous smile.
Between laughter and a few interruptions from customers who act more like fans, approaching him to have a picture taken with him, Victoriano tells us that moving to NYC has not been easy. Language has been a barrier for him, and he misses his wife and 3 kids, who are still in Lima. They came to visit for Christmas and New Years, but as he says, short visits and phone conversations are never enough. Still, this family man cannot complain. He is the head chef at one of the most talked about new restaurants in the Big Apple, something he could’ve never dreamt of, growing up in the Andes.
We learn quickly that Victoriano was born in Huaraz, a small town in Northern Peru, the son of poor farmers. Like most Andean kids, he learned to cook by helping his mother in the kitchen, without access to electricity or running water. “We had an almost vegetarian diet. We ate potatoes, corn, quinoa… Mostly carbohydrates. In special occasions we would kill a guinea pig and eat it to celebrate. But eating meat was a treat, not an everyday thing.”
It wasn’t until 1989, that trying to escape terrorism outbreaks in the region by the Maoist group, the Shining Path, he moved away from his land, looking for work in farms outside of Lima. Eventually, he graduated to the capital, where he started selling salchipapas (sausage and French fries) in the streets with his uncle.
“We used to buy lunch at a very cheap place where the quality of the food was always irregular. Some days were good, some not so good, some simply bad. I was tired of this, so one day I told my uncle we should start buying fresh ingredients from the market and cooking lunch at home, splitting the cost. Eating like this was so much better than eating out. That is how I learned to make many typical dishes, without anyone teaching me. I just used common sense and intuition to guess what was needed to prepare each dish.”
Victoriano then moved on to work at the diner of a mining company, with yet another uncle. They had to cook for up to 3000 people every day. Can you imagine making a cebiche for all those hungry mouths? He remembers, amused, that on his first day there his uncle, who was his boss, told him: “from the door out, I’m your uncle. From the door in, I don’t know you.” His first job there was to chop onions and carrots, peel potatoes, and shell peas. This whole system was quite new to him, and taught him how things work in a larger kitchen, and all the discipline and coordination it entails. Three months later, he was preparing 350 pounds of rice a day, with his eyes closed.
His next step was Saint Tropez. Not the beach town, but a French restaurant that was in vogue in Lima at the time. He had heard that cooks in the nicer parts of town earned more money, so he ventured there, starting out as the coffee maker of this prestigious place. With perseverance and a touch of fearlessness that hasn’t left him, he made his way to the kitchen. This is where he learned, for 4 long years, how to make classical French dishes, sauces and demiglaces. At 24, Victoriano was newly married, already a father, and living in a rented room. He was learning and doing what he loved, but needed to look for better opportunities, so he enrolled in a 3-month cooking course with one of Lima’s best teachers, Gloria Hinostroza. This was his first formal training. He also started handing out CV’s.
One Tuesday morning (he seems to remember on which days and times all the important events in his life happened), he was walking past Astrid y Gastón, and asked the valet parking guy if he could talk to the chef.
“I had seen Gastón Acurio’s TV show and I knew he had opened a restaurant. The ingredients he used on the show were incredible for the time, when those things couldn’t be found in Lima very easily.”
When Acurio finally came out, several hours later, López introduced himself, and said he was a big fan and always wrote down the recipes from his TV show. He was hired as an intern in August, and by December he was working in the kitchen of another of Acurio’s restaurants: Bohemia Café. A few years later, with much more experience under his belt, he was transferred to Astrid y Gastón again, and started helping out in catering events.
“People were always satisfied with my cooking, and Gastón was very happy about this, because I was respresenting him and his brand. We became closer, and he started giving me more responsibility, and trusting me more. I started working with him directly on his new TV show, and in his books. He started throwing out ideas, and my job became to develop them and make them a reality. He would then come and try my creations, and give his opinion. We worked as a creative team.”
We can see how Victoriano is used to cooking for TV and photoshoots. In 10 seconds, while talking to us, laughing, and posing for our camera, he creates a beautiful dish which seems to take the least possible effort to do. He has certainly mastered his craft. However, his biggest challenges are yet to come. At La Mar, he has found that people are crazy about cebiche, lomo saltado, and anticuchos made of cow’s heart. But there are dishes such as causa or aji de gallina, which every Peruvian raves about but many New Yorkers don’t seem to get. At least not yet. Victoriano thinks people here look for more varied textures, temperatures and heights. It’s yet to be seen if the simplicty, history and soul behind our dishes pierces through the culinary hearts of the upscale New York diners.
In the meantime, Victoriano will keep doing what he knows best: working hard in the kitchen. And in his free time he will walk around this fast and crazy city that he now loves, and study English with Rosetta Stone, repeating words and phrases every night.
If you ever thought achieving great things in life, and making your wildest dreams a reality wasn’t possible, think again.