Arturo Melendez about Peruvian Cuisine
Hailing from the town of Trujillo in the north of Peru, Chef Arturo has had a love for cooking from a young age. From aged five he could always be found in the kitchen – the heart of the action in any Peruvian home. He would spend his days with his Grandmother, helping her pick coriander or basil leaves and watching her as she ground fresh aji amarillo Peruvian chillis into a traditional paste with a flat stone mortar.
Fascinated with the art of cooking, Arturo began exploring further, self-teaching the basics under his Grandmother’s close eye. At the age of 18 Arturo enrolled at D’Gallia, Lima’s renowned culinary school, to learn the foundations and techniques needed to become a serious chef.
With a passion for the complexities and multiculturalism of Peruvian cuisine, Arturo was eager to bring the country’s unique recipes, flavours and culture to the rest of the world. He packed his bags and left Peru for South Africa, where he opened the countries first Peruvian restaurant. Enriched by bringing his love for his cuisine to new audiences, he carried the message of soulful cooking to Hong Kong where he helped to launch the city’s first restaurant of its kind: Chicha.
At TokyoLima, Arturo brings his own interpretation of Nikkei in a causal way. He respects the traditional techniques and history behind each recipe, adding his own personal flair for food that is approachable and utterly delicious.
We have met him for an interview.
Today you are Executive Chef of Hongkong’s hot culinary hot spots, the South American and Japanese cuisine restaurant TokyoLima; with lots of different international experience before. Where does your passion for cooking comes from?
Well, I grew up in a traditional Peruvian family, from the north of Peru, Trujillo. Family matters are always important and the family reunion always revolved around food. My Grand Mother and my Aunties were all great cooks, seeing how they cook; the love and passion around it, just blows my mind. The smell of the onions and the delicious ceviche, the aroma of the garlic when they doing sofrito, the coriander and basil, the fresh aroma of the chilis, this is what made me decide after I finish my high school to be a Chef, and my inspiration always comes from memories of my family and childhood.
You are from Trujillo, the second largest city in Peru. Peru and Peru’s kitchen are kind of hyped internationally. What is the reason for it?
In the last past 10 years, Peru and Peruvian Cuisine has been recognised around the word with a great acceptance, I think that this is because our way of cooking and our flavours can easy melt in any type of cuisine. A clear example of this is Nikkei cuisine (Peruvian Japanese).
You have been trained to become a chef at the Instituto Gastronómico DGallia in Lima. Have you been trained mainly in South American kitchen?
My kitchen training was focused on the professional kitchen techniques, and also in different Peruvian cuisines (from the north to the south) and yes I had instruction in different South American cuisine.
Early at your chef career you left Peru and worked as Head Chef at Keenwa a Peruvian Restaurant in Cape Town, South Africa. Even the Keenwa was a Peruvian Restaurant, could you learn something from the South African kitchen?
Cape Town was my first international experience, this was the moment that I understood that not many people know about Peruvian cuisine. It was a great experience to introduce my roots, but also what I learned there was incredible, the flavours and the way they use the spices and vegetables, the different type of meats, this experience has helped to develop my own style of cuisine.
In 2012 you worked the first time in Hongkong as Head Chef for a Peruvian restaurant. Are the expectations on Peruvian kitchen different in Hongkong?
In 2012, not many people in Hong Kong knew about Peruvian Cuisine. In the beginning, we were confused with Mexican cuisine, and our flavours were too intense for the city. I learned to refine the milder flavours in my cuisine without losing my essence. Tt was not easy introduce our style of cuisine, but what mattered at that point was that even if the guests couldn’t understand the cuisine, they enjoyed eating it.
In Singapore you worked as Signature Chef de Cuisine for the luxury “the patina capitol Singapore”. How did the time in Singapore inspired you as a chef/ have you been influenced from some Asian cooking?
Unfortunately, The Patina Capitol Singapore didn’t open at that time, so I was based in the office for almost a year. I never regret that time because I was able to do my own research and try the gorgeous food in Singapore, which surprisingly has a lot of influence for different Asian countries, I must say that every country I have been to has taught me a lot and also brought me inspiration.
Since 2016 you are working as Executive Chef at the TokyoLima. Some people describe it as “South American and Japanese cuisine restaurant” and some as “Peruvian and Japanese cuisine restaurant”. How would you describe it best?
TokyoLima project started in July 2018, but at that time I was in Singapore and the challenge was to open the First Nikkei restaurant in Hong Kong. Nikkei is a cuisine with more than 30 years in Peru, is based on Japanese technique with Peruvian ingredients. So since I’m more Peruvian than Japanese I decided to build the menu at TokyoLima as a Nikkei restaurant with more Peruvian technique and flavour using Japanese Ingredients. So let’s say it’s the other way around than you will find in Peruvian Nikkei Cuisine.
Does the Peruvian kitchen fusion kitchen suits best with the Japanese kitchen and if so way?
The fact that Japanese cuisine is based on quality of products, fresh and intense flavours, and the fact that Peruvian cuisine itself is focused on the same parameters, quality of products, fresh ingredients and intense flavours, helps these two cuisines combine in harmony and create the amazing Nikkei Cuisine.
Are there other country kitchens which suits for Peruvian fusion kitchen?
Absolutely, before Japanese arrive to Peru we have an extensive list of other cuisine that have the same end as Japanese, for example Spanish cuisine combined with our local cuisine at that time created a Creole Cuisine, other example is Chinese, that fusion resulted in Chifa. Also, as Peruvians we have our way of how to make Italian cuisine. And for me was so interesting that some dishes like ceviche with some coconut milk makes the feeling that you’re eating Thai Food.
Why does especially the Peruvian kitchen is mostly connected to fusion Asian kitchen, and not the Columbian, Bolivian, Chilean… kitchen?
Peru has a tremendous type of ingredients of chillies, potatoes, fruits and spices far more than the other countries.
That helps when 2 types of cuisine meet each other and have the strong character to create a new one, also Peru was for a while one of the countries where most of the Chinese and Japanese can arrive for business and commerce more than the other ones.
Modern Peruvian kitchen in Peru (no fusion), what are some of the trends/ developments you see?
I was in Peru a week ago and it still amazed me that we still place our Traditional cuisine first, which has a big spectrum but also, I can see that some Chefs are doing their own way of Peruvian Cuisine. In the last 10 years molecular techniques are included in our traditional cuisine as well as some Chefs combining Peruvian-Asian techniques with products and ingredients from the Amazon which are really amazing.
As Peruvian and Japanese fusion cuisine is so popular worldwide; is it as well popular in Peru?
I must say that for Peruvians it’s not Peruvian – Japanese fusion cuisine anymore, it’s a cuisine we already have; Nikkei cuisine and yes, it’s well known and trendy in Peru.
How would you describe your own culinary style today?
My culinary style at this point of my life is a result of my whole experience in different places, and influences from chefs or people that I admire. I can describe my cuisine style as casual cuisine, focus on quality of products and the main flavours as a combination of spices like chillies and sauces. I need to transmit emotion and sensation to the guests for my food, the plating needs to be a piece of art, how they look matters but it’s not more important than the flavour. I always try to keep a balance between those two key points. My dishes must have colours and texture, some of them will be just focused on one main flavour, others will have a combination of 2 or 3. Simple but complex food is what I love to do nowadays, but I’m always openminded to develop new styles, it’s important for me reinvent myself from time to time.
Can you share some of your favourite creation with us?
Tuna & Watermelon tartar is one of my best sellers at TokyoLima, the sauce is made with yakitori sauce and increase the flavour with wasabi and rocoto, and texture from the sweet potato chips create the whole experience in this dish.
And your latest creation?
My new collection for TokyoLima is named “Memories”, it’s a collection of 6 new items for my menu in which I’m focused on dishes that have made a special moment in my life with a new touch, the main one is a Salmon marinated in red miso and served with aji Amarillo- white miso glaze and red bell pepper puree.
What are some of the less known spices you use in your kitchen?
It is kind of a long list but the principal ones are my chillies from Peru as “aji Amarillo”, “rocoto”, “aji panca”, also red and white miso is a must for me to use it.
And which less known vegetables?
I use the regular ones most of the time in Hong Kong, still in process that I can have at Hong Kong some of my favourite ones in Peru like lucuma or loche, also I love to work with the differents types of roots that we have in Peru like yacon or arracacha, Amazonian products like aji charapita or mishquina.
What is your favourite Peruvian and Japanese desert?
Peruvian it will be Suspiro de Limena (cream caramel with port meringue and cinnamon) and Japanese it will be Anko (a sweet paste made from azuki beans) and at TokyoLima it will be “Oye Papi” (it’s a chocolate texture dessert with coconut sorbet).
Where do you eat out in Hongkong locally, if you are not in your restaurant?
Well, it depends on my mood, Hong Kong has a great food scene, but always my favourite traditional and contemporary Chinese food, Cha chaan teng are good for local and traditional food, dumplings at any time always are more than welcome.
Can you share with us a local Hongkong street food dish… which inspired you for one of your own creations?
Actually in Peru we have a dish name Lomo Saltado, which is one of the iconic dishes that show how chinese technics can combine with harmony with Peruvian flavours; but no yet I do have a one dish that I specific inspire one of my dishes.
If you would have the time to come up with a culinary book about Peruvian kitchen, what would it be about?
I would love to write a Peruvian Book on how I do my Peruvian cuisine on base of the traditional one, part of it is talking about our heritage and how amazing the fusion of different cultures is in Peru and how it has created what we have now.
Any place in the world you would like to work as chef one day?
At the moment Hong Kong is still my favourite place for work as a Chef, but I would love to have the opportunity to do a Pop Up around Europe.
Thank you very much for your time.
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