After a hard day of work, his brow showing a faint shine from nerves, Chef Alberto Coraza Taco set the first of his plates on a white lace cloth in a restaurant that will soon open, called El Ají Panca. This was the iron test. Although very young, he had designed the menu of creole dishes to fit both the desires of the restaurant’s owners and his own exacting requirements. This evening, a few invited guests would get to try his efforts and give him feedback.
Though only twenty years old, Chef Coraza has excellent credentials–training at Lima’s Le Cordon Bleu (the demanding Peruvian branch of the famous French school of the same name) and work at outstanding restaurants including La Mar and Tragaluz in the Peruvian capital.
After a demanding summer season at the Asia resort where Tragaluz is located, Alberto decided to strike out for more adventures. As a result he came to Cuzco, where is parents are from, to look for work. As luck would have it, he found an ad from Carlos Zuñiga Fernandez and Marith Ibarra Olivera, who were looking for a chef for a restaurant they wished to open, and he left a phone message.
Carlos is from Lima and Marith from Cuzco. A couple in their thirties they wanted to open a place where they would enjoy eating. Though Cuzco increasingly has a diverse and quality set of restaurants, Carlos and Marith argue its offerings of creole cuisine are very limited and they missed what they could so easily find on the coast. So, they decided to go for it and open a creole restaurant. But first they needed a skilled chef.
Carlos relates that he was determined to find a chef skilled in Lima’s version of creole. An amazing set of people answered his ad, people who had a depth of training and experience in Peru and in other countries. But Carlos was not satisfied.
Then he listened to Alberto’s message in his thick Lima accent in which he relayed his credentials. The accent caught Carlos and the experience convinced him Alberto was the one, even before he met him. Now after working with him to set up the restaurant and design its menu, as well as having him cook many classic dishes Marith and Carlos are sold on this young Chef.
Alberto has an easy smile and laugh, but behind them is a commitment to cooking well.
His first dish that Thrusday evening was the classic lomo saltado, part of the Peruvian canon. There are many versions of this dish, most of them mediocre. After dramatically flaming his frypan to get everything cooked to perfection, Alberto laid the dish on the table. He separated the french fried potatoes and the rice in different dishes from the saucy saute to keep things distinct.
Not only was his dish beautiful and fragrant, with the tomatoes firm but cooked and the meat just at the right point where it revealed the maximum of flavor, but the guts of the dish were the fond, the broth that Alberto had preprepared. It picked up the flavors of his fry pan and to it was added a splash of soy sauce and Chinese black vinegar. The first taste of his rich sauce called forth amazement from everyone. It was so good.
While we slowly ate and discussed the dish, Alberto returned to the kitchen to cook the next of his dishes from the menu.
“My mother was my first cooking teacher” he said. “From the time I was very little, I just liked to be in the kitchen. While my father and male cousins were off doing their things, I wanted to be in the kitchen. My mother and my aunts welcomed me because they always needed someone to help peel potatoes or slice onions.”
Alberto carried that determination forward to when he graduated from high school and entered the famous Cordon Bleu.
“I went there wanting to cook, but at first they did not let us cook. They made us cut and chop ingredients until we did it perfectly.”
Chef Coraza relates that when he started at the school he went and bought himself several pounds of onions. At home, outside of school time, he diced and diced until he got it perfect, despite red eyes and hands from so many onions.
This is the determination and hard work that Alberto carried throughout his training and work at other restaurants.
His next dish was a duck and rice, arroz con pato, in which duck is slowly cooked in a cilantro broth. The duck was falling-away-from-the-bones tender and delicious.
Surprisingly it was not easy to find duck in Cuzco, though they have now found a supplier. For that day, though Carlos, Marith, and Alberto traveled to the town of Lucre to buy duck. They found one and had it slaughtered and plucked. Though it could have been tough, it was a flavortful delight.
Though good, the duck was not the best part of the dish. That was the sauce prepared from cooking the duck and cilantro. Somehow Chef Coraza drew a depth that, while not loosing the herbal complexity of the stewed cilantro, was layered and rich. It had a surprising meetiness which, when combined with his rice, that had every grain perfect–neither over nor under cooked (something very difficult at Cuzco’s high altitude)– and the duck made a combination where you ate a mouthful and just sighed. It was so good.
This was the theme that carried throughout the evening. Every ingredient was perfectly cooked and Chef Alberto’s flavors were unusually rich and deep.
Chef Coraza continued with a gnocchi in ají de gallina sauce with a lomo saltado served on top. The flavors melded in a surprising synchrony. But despite how good it all was, the tenderness of his gnocchis has stayed with me. Often gnocchis can be dense and starchy, but these were light and almost airy. In them, one could see the careful technique that Chef Coraza had learned at Le Cordon Bleu. They alone are worth a visit to El Ají Panca once it opens later this week.
Perhaps the crown of the evening of dishes was a duck ceviche, an unusual creole dish with duck served in a lime-based sauce (hence the “ceviche”) on top of cooked yuca, a tuber closely related to the manioc from which tapioca comes.
Though Alberto discussed with Carlos how they would have to bring golden yuca from Lima, even Carlos was amazed at the gentle texture Chef Coraza somehow brought from the local yuca that is normally starchy and very firm. These were rich, soft, and seemed to melt in the mouth with the rich sauce of duck broth and lime.
Chef Coraza prepared many other dishes including an amazing seco de malaya, a beef stew, served over a tacutacu, a base of rice and beans. The seco was to die for though they plan on obtaining goat to make the proper seco de cabrito. He also made a wonderful carapulcra (a dish of freeze-dried, reconstituted potatoes in a sauce with pork), and an aji de gallina that, like the lomo saltado, is a classic. These are seven of the ten dishes he plans as the key to his menu.
In all cases Chef Coraza, who in his Chicago Bulls hoodie seems more likely to be bouncing with hip hop in his ear than running a fine kitchen, produced a dish that was true to the creole code and yet somehow created an unusually rich flavor combination that kept all of us wanting more.
The work of remodeling, painting, buying a stove and oven, as well as lining up suppliers is done. Chef Alberto Coraza’s dishes are tested and ready to go. El Ají Panca is about to open its doors and, if what we tried on that Thursday evening is any measure, it will surely delight Cuzco’s public.
Though not in Cuzco’s colonial core, El Aji Panca is a short taxi ride away and will be worth going to. This is a young, engaging chef with lots of promise. Carlos and Marith are sure to have found a success.
El Ají Panca,
Address: Ttio, La Florida L2, At the Third Bus Stop (paradero)