"Everything always revolved around food, and it still does. It brought my family together—having barbecues, everyone always eating, my mom always cooking, my dad trying to cook... it was always food."
Exploring Latin American cuisines is an adventure, since some basic staple ingredients get intricate color and flair depending on the climate and the region's history. Yet seldom does Peruvian food get exalted attention, such as what Chef Erik Ramirez is doing at Raymi, where he takes liberty with the ceviches, anticuchos, and whole fish he serves in a cool, cavernous space on West 24th Street.
Though his family is Peruvian, Ramirez never intended to work professionally with the cuisine, and it took some convincing to have his personal and professional experience in the kitchen come together. Now he's using inspiration from trips back to Peru and the technical skills that had him a sous chef at Eleven Madison Park and chef de cuisine at Irving Mill to push the envelope just a bit while still making his plates an accessible introductory education.
What excites you about Peruvian food? For me, what makes Peru very special and unique is its biodiversity. There are three parts of Peru—the coast, the Andes and the jungle—and that biodiversity translates into the products. For instance, there are 104 living zones in the world, and Peru has 84 of them. There are 40-something climate zones and Peru has 34 of them, the most of any country in the world. So because of that they have all of these different elevations and altitudes where so many things can grow. And then with the primarily Chinese, Japanese, Spanish and African-Creole influences, they've used those ingredients in the way they cook, and come up with these special, different dishes.
Is there a regional cuisine that calls to you more than others? I think right now the majority of the food that you find in New York is the Creole food. That's the very traditional, very basic staple food that if someone didn't know Peruvian food they would name those dishes; lomo saltado, arroz con mariscos. That's the food I'm most connected to because that's what we serve. But for me the challenge is to show more of what it is, because it's not just that.
Why is it so hard to branch out? Because you can't find most of those other ingredients? That's exactly it. For instance, there's a whole craze on the white cocoa bean, which is from the north of Peru. The production is so small that it doesn't really come over here. I just recently got a bag from Valhrona of those beans for this big dinner coming up, and I'm the only person in the United States that has this chocolate right now. They don't mass-produce them, so it's a natural, organic product that's not cultivated, so what ever grows, grows. The same as the fruits in the Amazon—it's really hard to get those products. Who's going to harvest those things in a substantial enough amount that they could bring them here to sell, and get them through the FDA and all those steps?
So how do you branch away from tradition then? That's the challenge. We serve food that's traditional and common. But the way we try to elevate it is by making it more technical and using better ingredients.
You've never professionally cooked Peruvian food before. Was there an "aha!" moment when you revamped your thinking for this menu? About a year ago, I went to Peru and ate at this restaurant called Malabar. Most of the time you can compare a food to a memory of something similar, but there I ate some things I couldn't place at all. And I was like, damn! One was mashuro, a seaweed that grows in the Amazon, and takes on the flavor of whatever fruit it grows near.
And then the fruits! Cocona, tumbo, and camucamu, which has more vitamin C than any other fruit in the world. I wanted to use them over here because no one else is using them and so it'd be very special. So that was the aha moment. I grew up eating all the other dishes, and then I realized that there was much more than just that.
Did you decide to go into cooking because of that family connection with food? Absolutely. Some of my earliest memories are of coming home from school, walking into my house and my mom cooking one of my favorite, traditional Peruvian dishes that she does very well. Everything always revolved around food, and it still does. It brought my family together—having barbecues, everyone always eating, my mom always cooking, my dad trying to cook...it was always food.
How do you combine the memories of your childhood and the aha moments that make you want to push further? I think it's important when you eat something that it hits a part of you and brings you back to your childhood. It's amazing when Peruvian people eat here and they say, "I ate the arroz con pato and it reminded me of when my grandmother used to make it." That feels good. There's a great saying that's something like "there are as many great chefs as there are mothers." If you can cook something as good as your grandmother or mother can cook, and that person says that, then you did a good job.
So that's the thing—you want to build that without having mom and dad in the kitchen. That's what we're working on. The food is the easy part, it's already really delicious. The most important part now is to educate people to what Peruvian food is, and to make it approachable. And push the boundaries with it, at a very high level.