He sat across from me in a Starbucks in Miraflores, Lima, filled with energy, and dreams. Let me call him Maik (Mike in English). Twenty-four years old, he had just come to Lima with passion and hope.
Maik already had a semester of culinary school, in Trujillo where he had been living, as well as experience working in a restaurant. Now he wanted to finish his culinary training and eventually open his own business, his own restaurant.
His idea of a chef was someone with enormous skill but someone who could also toss his implements and the food with skill, almost like a juggler. The masculine power and skill of performance visibly filled him with desire, almost as if he were talking about leaving behind those marking you and scoring an elegant goal in the World Cup.
This skill, along with owning a place where people came to eat gave him something to work toward. It would not be easy. In Trujillo he found out how hard it was to go to school, work, be active in a congregation, and have to pay rent. With the mudslides and floods that hit the city, his juggling collapsed and now he found himself in Lima, starting over, working occasionally in fixing cell phones with his brother in law and staying in their house.
Cooking has become a dream for many Peruvian young men. Star chefs like Gastón Acurio, who people even tried to force into running for national president, and Virgilio Martinez get attention and show these youths from humble backgrounds that there is hope, a future, and a dream of becoming.
That idea of cooking and culinary training as a vehicle for social mobility and social integration is one that Gastón Acurio has widely promoted. It has caught fire and burns in the hearts of many a young man in working class, or poorer neighborhoods.
I first met Maik when visiting Cusco. He was seventeen then and sold watercolors and other paintings in the street, especially around the Plaza if he could avoid the police running him and others out while confiscating their stock of paintings they had bought as well as their leather portfolios. Besides telling everyone he was Pablo Picasso and did the paintings, he had a charm and a grace for sensing his client and selling to them.
Maik had come to Cusco as a boy from a rural, Quechua speaking community to try to make a life in the city since he and his family saw no future for him there.
I asked him about his parents and community. Maik said it was freezing there these days. He started reminiscing about taking heavy bags of fresh harvested potatoes up to high, flat places where the frost is heavy, to let them freeze. The next day they would come back and collect them to make cachichuño, frozen potatoes as they are also called. He also remembered taking other potatoes to freeze and thaw over and over. They would turn black and become chuño. freeze dried potatoes.
Maik’s voice was filled with warmth and even a bit of loss. I asked him why he did not go back to his community to take up farming the land and being with his parents. A smile illuminated his eyes and pulled the corners of his mouth for a minute.
Then he closed it down and said, “No, my place is in the city. I have to make something of myself.”