María Zúñiga’s catering: «The challenge to serve 500 people»
«This weekend, I am catering for 500 people», says chef María Zúñiga, owner of Casa Zúñiga and teacher at the Pachacútec Foundation of Gastón Acurio.
The first thing I thought was: how do you prepare food on a large scale? María inherited her family’s catering that began in the 50s, run by her mother, Mrs. María Barbieri de Zúñiga. At that time, the catering service per se was not widely known in Lima, what did exist were ladies who were great cooks.
It was a time when the aristocracy in Lima was highly social, bureaucrats and the current President held large events and it needed a warm reception with food. Mrs. Alicia, wife of the owner of the newspaper El Comercio ‘Cartucho’ Miró Quesada, recommended her mother for the celebrations of her friends, that encouraged her to start the catering business. From that time, the chickpea tamale remains as one of the iconic dishes of Casa Zúñiga.
Today, María has continued the family legacy, which despite of having worked for 20 years in the Comptroller General’s Office doing audits throughout the country, has continued the business in parallel. It was in 1992 when she left her job at the office and devoted herself entirely to her passion: cooking. In memory of her family, especially her mother’s, she has continued researching how to prepare tamales and humitas with different ingredients, which were never used before.
Asparagus tamales, artichoke tamales, purple corn tamales, quinoa tamales, apple tamales dough, peach tamales dough and many more, which have been adding 70 recipes. It is the signature of María Zúñiga, heiress of her mother’s good cooking and also of the gift of hospitality and warm welcome. It is not an easy task to have to serve 500 diners, but she only worries that diners are happy with their food.
By Fabiola Gálvez
How challenging is to organize a meal to such a large number of diners?
The most critical part is the distribution. For example, this time I did it in 5 parts; there were 5 areas where each one had food, which is distributed to people of 100 by 100, so that there are no long queues of 300 or 400 people, which usually happen.
And what kind of customers ordered that?
They are factories, industries. In this case it was a university, they were celebrating their anniversary and they requested for three types of dishes: frejoles con seco a la norteña, chickpea tamales, and huatia sulcana, which is a stewed meat marinated for 24 hours, with a cooking time of 10 hours.
Who are part of your team?
I have 15 assistants, but the I am the one who cooks. Within my assistants team, I have an assistant manager, who would be like the chef, they take care of the mise en place and leave it ready for me to start with the dishes.
And I cook because I want a cook to transmit love for cooking and the soul into it, I want the person who is going to eat my food, to take one moment, and feel that it is something different from what they ate or that make them feel moments they have already lived. To get to that you have to cherish food, talk to dressings and give it love. To be a cook is not being a machine that transforms food.
Has the concept of catering evolved, perhaps something different of what your mother lived to this day?
It started at the end of the ’60s and the beginning of the’ 70s, when the service of buffets was presented in an official way, introduced by Marisa Giulfo, who came with the background of the United States, because everything is linked to training, and to principles already established in the world, which were previously done informally in Lima. Now, there is a reason. For example: the distance of the cups with the plate has an official measure, the distance from one spoon to another, the size of a napkin has an official measure, so it is just to make a meal and deliver it.
When I am hired, my clauses are very clear, I dedicate myself specifically to cooking, good food and good presentation.
Do not tell me anything about the table or service, because I cannot guarantee someone else’s service.
Do you mean that the person who hires you has to handle the service separately?
In my case, yes, I am very clear on that, because sometimes I have clients who are very demanding and want imported dishes, or want crystals from Germany. In fact, why do I complicate my life, I care about my cooking and that they eat delicious food.
If you want the Muslim dinnerware set, I put the food there [laughs]. Time has already taught me. If you want to make it commercial, of course you will have that, you could associate with a person who works with that.
Casa Zúñiga is 90% catering but can customers also eat there?
I had to build a room in the workshop local, with a capacity of 12 people, with reservation. Recently, Mark Wiens was here, the youtuber with more than 5 million followers, also businessmen come here who do not necessarily have to have an event, it is a cooking full of feelings and emotions that makes the diner can have a unique experience of remembrance in the moment they eat it, which is finally the goal of traditional cuisine.
The steps to request catering, what are they?
First they communicate by email. Then, they have to tell me the date, what kind of event it is, to be able to propose the menu, the brunch or the table of cheeses, meats or what is needed, because in all events I can’t present the same type of food .
Types of menu according to the event
If she is a lady who wants to get together with 50 ladies, at 11 in the morning it cannot be a breakfast or a lunch. The proposal is salty things, cold drinks or juices, you can not put a fruit salad, such as a breakfast but if you can put a quiche, a chicken roll, a fresh salad, that is not really a lunch.
If it were a bachelorette party, I will not prepare pachamanca in pot, a table of three types of meat: pork, beef and turkey. A basket of bread, salads and garnishes that go well with this type of meat.
As for example, the one that was hired for the anniversary of the university: frejoles con seco norteño, chickpea tamales, huatia sulcana, among others.
There are families that have this custom and others do not, they asked me 15 types of snacks.
I was hired to prepare breakfast for a presidential candidate, Mr. Barnechea, for 100 people. It was amazing, I am totally apolitical but I accepted it because of some old clients.
In this case, I had to make a presidential breakfast. To do this, I put chicharrones, sweet potato, two types of tamales, sangrecita, huachana sausage, various types of bread, brewed coffee, two types of fresh juices, juicy beef tenderloin, various versions of fried eggs, omelette, scrambled eggs.
—“I made lunch for Karlos Arguiñano when he came to Pachacutec School,” she said
—“What did you prepare for him?”
—“I did huatia sulcana,” he was FAS-CI-NA-TED.
We can not say goodbye to you, without sharing with us the secret for tamales to not stick or have that sticky texture, please.
It’s that simple: use the lard but in a few proportions, sometimes there are some cooks that are exceeded and suddenly, everything is cut up, or maybe if it is missing, rather it makes the whole dough sticky. The important thing is also to know how to set it and this is a technique, and not all tamales have the same preparation because they all react according to the ingredient you use.
Tamales are food made with corn and stuffed with chicken or pork, olives and other ingredients, wrapped in banana or corn leaves. We post her recipe here.
Thank you very much, Chef María, book us a place for the next time we go to Lima. It made our mouths water.
Casa Zúñiga, previously called “Tradición Barranquina”, is a place created in honor of the legacy inherited by her parents Eliseo and María.
María Zúñiga, belongs to the second generation of the Zúñiga family, her parents arrived in the capital from Huancavelica and Huancayo to perform trades in the capital. His mother was employed by the Miró Quesada family home. And Mrs. Alicia, her employer, is the one who prompted her to the catering business as an enterprise. As a result, it becomes well known for its good cooking, having as clients the Presidents of the time such as Odría, Belaunde, Morales Bermúdez, García and others.
Currently, María continues with the catering business and also has enabled a space for 12 people in her workshop, an option for people who, even if they don’t have events, can enjoy her cooking. Likewise, Maria has continued to enlarge the legacy left by her family with knowledge. From the chickpea tamales, famous of his mother, she has continued researching and has achieved the great quantity of 70 versions of tamales and humitas to add to her recipe book, of ingredients that were previously only used in sauces, soups or salads. She has participated 5 years in the Mistura fair in Lima, for her great proposal, and also, on the other hand, has received numerous decorations from the Congress of the Republic.
To contact Casa Zúñiga, write to email: email@example.com. They also offer cooking workshops in hotels and restaurants.