Chefs Victor Albisu, Mike Isabella and Spike Mendelsohn were recently invited by CARE, a humanitarian organization fighting global poverty, to travel throughout Peru to see CARE’s efforts to reduce hunger and malnutrition in the country. The four-day journey, which took them from a rural farming area in the Andes to the bright lights of Lima, had a profound impact on all the chefs.
Here, a photo tour of their experience and what each chef took away from it.
Quinoa Farms in the Andes
The young chefs, each touring with CARE for the first time, traveled to the Andes, where they visited a quinoa farm and spoke to farmers about how they are reenergizing cultivation of this native, protein-rich grain whose popularity throughout the world has recently soared. With CARE’s help, farmers in Peruvian mountain communities are growing a more nutrient-rich quinoa.
Joining Forces to Fight Malnutrition
They visited a native potato farm in Ayacucho and according to the chefs, it was an example of how CARE has taught local farmers to band together to find alternative farming methods. By utilizing their collective resources, the farmers now provide a steady supply of the long-ignored native potatoes to locals as well as Peru's finest restaurants. As a result, local incomes have increased and malnutrition has waned.
Back to the Roots
“The experience in totality has been incredible for us,” said Victor Albisu (far right). “To see the food, where it comes from, where it grows and how it makes a trajectory to the plate has been intense.”
Albisu, whose mother is from Lima, said that he now understands the struggle of getting Peruvian food to where it had to be.
“In the few days I was there, every individual that we met was an inspiration. They fought through disinterest in their products or crop but they would not stop. It is really what success should be,” he said.
Things Fall in to Place
“The great thing I saw is that this type of farming can really boost their economy,” said Chef Spike Mendelsohn (pictured), who owns Good Stuff Eatery, We, The Pizza, and Béarnaise in Washington D.C. “They can improve their hospitals, their education system, even the foundations of their homes.”
A Big Step with a Little Animal
They also met a 56-year old rural woman, Marciana Canchari Enciso, who with a small loan of $100 from CARE, started raising guinea pigs. Guinea pig is a traditional Peruvian dish and high-protein meat. Enciso, as well as several other local women, was able to provide the guinea pigs, which can fight anemia, as a stable source of food to feed her family. Enciso and the other women have been so successful that they now generate income by selling their guinea pigs wholesale to local restaurants.
With a Little Help
“It’s incredible what [Marciana Canchari Enciso] has done with just $100,” said Chef Isabella, seen here with a plate of freshly fried guinea pig. “It makes you think about how far just a little bit of help can go.”
Farm to Chef to Table
According to the chefs, the farm to table movement seems more organic in Peru than in the United States.
“Everyone there is connected. From farmer to chef to customer,” Albisu said. “There is a warmth and connection that everyone feels. I don’t see the same here. I think it is growing and I think we are striving for that, but it comes naturally to them.”
Here, Chef Spike Mendelsohn grinds local ingredients with nature’s molcajete as a Peruvian chef looks on.
Collaborating with the Peruvian Cordon Bleu
The trio also visited a market where they sampled local ingredients and worked with Le Cordon Bleu culinary instructors to prepare Peruvian dishes at the school in Lima. Here, Chef Mike Isabella samples freshly made juice prepared by a market vendor.
Eating their way through Lima
The trip to Peru would not have been complete without sampling the finest authentic Latin American cuisine. While in Lima, the chefs dined on a 20-course tasting menu at Astrid & Gastón, run by Peruvian chef Gastón Acurio and his wife. The restaurant, hailed as one of the best restaurants in Latin America, utilized many of the same products that the chefs ate in the countryside.
Isabella said his most inspiring dish was a scallop ceviche roasted with garlic, butter, chiles and lime, and served in the shell. He said he plans to rework this dish and improvise it for all his Washington restaurants, which include Bandolero, Kapnos and Graffiato.
“There are a lot of little things I will take from the food and rework into my menus,” he said.
Albisu said the traditional ceviches he sampled would influence his menu at Del Campo, but admitted he wouldn’t veer too far from the South American grill style for which he is best known. That doesn’t, however, mean the trip's experience did not profoundly affect him.
“It breathed life into all of me. I’ve worked a long time as a chef and with the Peruvian culture, and you don’t expect to be inspired like this,” he said. “But at every corner and every angle I looked, I felt inspiration.”