Chocolate-Covered Coca Leaves, Box Lunches, and an Enterprising Young Chef

Cuzco is becoming a magnet for young chefs. One of those is Darwin Estrada Cutiri who heads up the kitchen at the Casa del Fray Bartolomé Hotel. A native of Cuzco who trained in Lima, not only does Chef Estrada, or Darwin as his impish eyes and youth seem to require he be called, manage the hotel’s food, he also is an entrepreneur with dreams.

On the rooftop patio of the home his parents built on Cuzco´s slopes, Chef Darwin opens a paper package containing one of his creations and lays it on the table with pride. “These are coca leaves, softened to make them easily digestible, and then covered in dark chocolate and popped kiwicha grains.”

The chocolate leaves were beautiful, though Darwin emphasized their artisanal rustic-ness. His model is to both use Andean products in creative ways and to be ecologically conscious.

Chocolate Covered Coca Leaves
Chocolate Covered Coca Leaves

From the roof, one looks out at the expanse of modern Cuzco, with its half a million people nestled in a relatively narrow valley between two rows of large hills (mountains any where else.) At its northern end the snow-clad monster Ausangate stares back at us.

I lifted the leaf and looked at its rich dark chocolate with a rough surface from the popped kiwicha, an Andean grain of the amaranth family. It really was attractive and came with two companions making the perfect number for a k’intu of coca, three leaves held high, to blow on to share them with the earth or mountains as if a prayer.

A Coca Leaf with Only Half the Chocolate
A Coca Leaf with Only Half the Chocolate

With Ausangate staring at us it seemed like I should lift them in respect and recognition to the high mountain, who many locals consider a God and call “Apu” or Lord.

Darwin chuckled but also said this was the tradition that he wanted to share with locals and outsiders so they would appreciate Cuzco’s past and present more.

His plans are to make a line of fine, local chocolates with Andean ingredients. There is very fine chocolate in the area as well as many other ingredients for fillings. He hope to offer the line soon in hotels, at the airport, and in fine stores throughout Cuzco.

For the time being, Chef Darwin includes the chocolate covered coca leaves in the box lunches that are the focus of his catering business for the time being. He has contracts with several large agencies to provide box lunches for their outings, especially the long ones to the lowlands, at the same time local people will order his lunches for their outings with their families.

Chef Estrada with a Lunch Box
Chef Estrada with a Lunch Box

“The box lunches are large. They are meant to cover two meals, if needed.”

Darwin prepares a sandwich of local ham and cheese from nearby Puno, as well as a grilled chicken breast accompanied by quinoa and vegetables. Ripe, local fruit along with hard candy drops made from coca round out the lunch.

Unfortunately, at the time of our visit, a local family came and picked up their lunches for an day-long outing, so we were not able to photograph all that goes into the lunches.

Called “Valerie’s Catering,” the business is named after Darwin’s two year old daughter who this day was suffering from a cold. Though she seemed to want to stay in bed, the business is growing keeping Darwin and his wife keep busy as they negotiate between care for their daughter, their business, and his hotel job. They are a family with dreams and work hard to reach them.

Valerie's Catering Logo
Valerie’s Catering Logo

But that is not new. Darwin’s parents joined us on the roof-top patio as Darwin talked about his past.

I asked him how he came to be interested in cooking.

Darwin said that since his father worked as a stone mason (making stones in the Inca fashion for restoration effort) as well as carving handicrafts in slate that his mother sold along with hand-crafted dolls during the long days of vendors waiting for tourists, Darwin and his two brothers were alone a lot. They had to prepare their own food.

Darwin and his older brother Jair joke back and forth as to who cooked the best.

Darwin's Mother with Her Handicrafts
Darwin’s Mother with Her Handicrafts

At an early age Darwin began to help with the family business. He learned to carve stone and to sell handicrafts. In fact he funded with his sales his studies at a private high school that he chose, because of his desires for advance.

When he graduated at the age of sixteen he left for Lima, the capital of Peru and its largest city, following the path of his extended family and hordes of other peruvians who have made the city swell. Darwin says he went to Lima “to rest.”

While there, he stayed with an Aunt and obtained a job working at a supermarket while deciding his future. His parents wanted him to obtain a higher education. They had worked hard to build a home and provide a base for their children and wanted them to become obtain a college education and enter the professions.

When Darwin decided to enter the the Santa Angela Escuela de Gastronomía, Turismo y Hotelería on teh Avenida Aviación in suburban San Borja, to formally study cooking, his mother cried.

Darwin's Father with His Scultures
Darwin’s Father with His Scultures

With a smile that barely concealed her pride in her son who is now a chef in an important local institution, Elsa Roxana Cutire, Darwin’s mother, said she was so upset when she heard he had decided to study gastronomy. “I wanted him to become a professional and I was so worried.”

Darwin’s aunt spoke with her and reassured her that cooking was taking off as a respectable profession, with the efforts of people like Gastón Acurio, and the growth of fine restaurants in Lima and elsewhere. She said there was now a demand for institute trained chefs. With these words she calmed her sister and the whole family came together to pay the cost of his culinary training.

When he graduated, Darwin tells, with characteristic self-deprecating irony, he came to Cuzco to visit his family and rest. But he had barely gotten here and was offered a job in Urubamba in the sacred valley. From there he competed for the job at the Casa del Fray Bartolomé and was surprised and pleased when he won the competition and the job. He now has seven years in charge of their kitchen.

This is the story that many hope for, to rise from hard-working but humble circumstances and become a respected chef. Darwin has lived it. But he still has dreams and they are big.

If you take a tour with one of the established operators you may receive one of his box lunches. If his chocolates are any proof you are in for a treat.


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