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INTERVIEW FLAVIO SOLORZANO ALVAREZ - Chef from Peru

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JV: Flavio, you are a renown chef. You represent your own restaurant. Please, could you tell me more about your work? What does cooking mean to you? What place does your passion for cooking hold in your life?
 
FS: Well, to dedicate yourself almost every day to the kitchen, to have very little free time and not feel like a slave to your work but on the contrary to work for pleasure (and obviously to make a living), you have to have passion for it. For the last 20 years exactly this has been my day to day life. 
Sometimes I ask myself if I'd like to have a little more free time, but really I still do a lot of different things. The difference with me is that everything I do has something to do with cooking; whether it's visiting new places or meeting new people, all the time, all of my body, all of my mind is always exchanging with my environment. So it's not that I go to a place and, I don't know, I go specifically to close a contract or to have a conversation with someone. No! Every time you go to a market you are learning. You are getting to know it. You are meeting people. You are exchanging with them. You are tasting. You are cooking. And therefore there are many aspects. You walk with many receptors all the time. 
 
That's why I think that I don't necessarily ask myself, "man, I'm going to travel or I'm going to do this thing." I don't have fun like other people! I'm answering and trying to explain my subconscious. Because when I think about it I don't only focus on the restaurant. My other passions: cooking, eating, seeing new places, meeting new people, hearing their stories, it's all like cooking! You are always cooking but it is not only cooking! There are many things that are involved in gastronomy. And to dedicate yourself to gastronomy, there are various forms of exchange, of communication with people, and for that reason you don't get bored. A trip is always fun and wherever I go I am happy with what I am doing. 
 
Right now I am going to work in Piura. I asked to go early because I want to spend the weekend there. I want to exchange and interact, get to know the place. You can spend your life learning and exchanging. That is the beauty of cooking. 
 
JV: I have a question that many people want to know about you. I think Peru is being recognized for its culinary talent, thanks to the image it has built and for the variety of ingredients it can emphasize. Based on this, from your perspective, what challenges does the country face in the sense of sustainable growth?
 
FS: Let's first explain the current situation and from there make a suggestion. The work of a chef is promotion. Is it not? It is to present Peruvian food as beautiful, flirtatious, sensual, sexy, spectacular, whatever you want to say. On a plate, in a restaurant, in any space, this is what chefs do every day and from there we create demand. This goes for a restaurant as well as culinary fairs like Mistura which reach many more people. Hundreds of thousands of people in a few days, right? Plus the millions more through the media. All of this creates a large demand for the concept of "Peruvian Gastronomy", and from there comes your question. What do I do, as an actor and a benefactor, to assure that this demand remains? What must I do to conserve something so beautiful? 
The first is, obviously, cook well! But also advance, create, innovate, investigate. We work with organic ingredients, living materials that can transform, that are not the same day after day. But these materials are also sensitive to lack of care; whether it is of the Earth, transportation, over consumption, etc. Right? Therefore, what do we do to share these materials in a sustainable manner?
I've asked myself this many times. The Minister of the Environment, Manuel Pulgar Bidal, made a Chef's Decalogue about responsible chefs, which I thought was great. I didn't think you could make so many commandments for a responsible chef. It sounds so academic, right? "Responsible chef". But it is such a big planet but at the same time so small that we can do a lot of damage. Look at the ocean. It looks big right? It seems never-ending. But regardless, there are no baby octopus, no chita, no black conches. You can't catch enough Sole for the price in the market to drop. You never will. But each day there are less. We can summarize all of the elements that are endangered. 
 
Therefore, a chef should be conscious of when each product is in season, for example. And not just from the ocean, the rivers, or fresh waters, but of the seasons of all products. We must also respect the product bans. And even products that aren't banned, if you keep using the same product and stressing it, you definitely hurt the quality because it must be cultivated in areas that are not natural to it. You put stress on the product and on the Earth. I imagine that changes the flavor, which changes the culinary product...it changes many things. Focus on production causes us to poison the earth with agro-chemicals, because in new areas you can't introduce a new variety of products that don't affect the natural ones. It creates chaos. 
So focusing on all of this growth, there are chefs who are being responsible. We are now basically protecting products from the ocean, but as I said, product bans are not enough. We must also think about product seasons. I mean, it may not run out, but you are ruining the earth because you are forcing a product into an area that is not natural. This poisons the earth and reduces fertility. Therefore, in the long term, we are left with infertile land y products without flavor. 
 
But it is difficult for the chef. I want to touch on another related point. It is difficult for us to determine if, for example, the yellow aji that we are buying is contaminated or not. It most likely is contaminated, because it is so fragile and so much care has to be given for it to grow. Therefore, it's easier to throw some chemicals on it and make sure it grows in abundance. So there is control over some products and we are conscious of them. But others still are don't have control yet. But we are at least starting. It is a question of time. The future looks good, but we have to be organized. 
 
Here in Peru, I think if we don't accept genetically modified organisms, for example, we don't consume them or, from the point of view of the chef, serve them or promote products that don't conform with our standards, etc., these are the ways a chef can be responsible. The future looks good here. 
 
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JV: To continue with that line of thought, what ingredients do you emphasize? What are your favorites?
 
FS: Another thing I forgot to mention in response to your last question is recognition. The chef has to worry about his source, and his source is not the land nor the product. It is the person who works the land - people who are rich in the sense that they have the pleasure of what nature gives them. It is compensation that few have. You have to pay for the products.  This person has put in a lot of effort with the land, and therefore we have to not only pay a just price, but also have to treat these people well. These people are not only rich in the gifts of the land but also in interpersonal relationships. We have to recognize them and make them form part of this movement. This means recognizing their part in the gastronomy but also pay a fair price for their products. Therefore there are four points: recognize the producers, fair price, product seasons, and product bans. Now we can move on. 
 
You asked which ingredients are my favorites. Peruvians, obviously. Peruvian ingredients. Honestly it is a question that I don't like to answer, but I will, because today I crave one thing and tomorrow I want something different. You fall in love with new products. But anyway, I have a lot of favorites. The black conches that are in danger of extinction in Tumbes, which are delicious not only in cebiches but also in rice and things like that. I also like the yucas from that area. They are super smooth and the dishes with yuca make you realize how great it tastes; slightly fibrous, a little dry, but when you cook with yuca it's another thing. You see what I mean? I can keep going. The bananas and plantains that grow in the Piura area, the diversity of bananas, they help create new dishes. I wouldn't change them, they're just there. They are delicious. Who doesn't like to eat a good chifle, or a good Seco de Chavelo. The Majariscos, which are also prepared with banana, is delicious, right? For those who don't know, the Majarisco is like the crushed yuca. They are plantains that you boil and fry. When you fry them you crush and season them and then serve them as the base. They are neutral in their odor but flavorful. On top you add a shellfish sauce with yellow ahi. 
From there you can go to Chiclayo. there are gingers, aji cerezo, carob, and the goats from the area. With the entrails of the goats in Chiclayo, you can make an incredible Chiripico, which is like a Sangrecita but salted and rich. You can also make a humid version of Cau-Cau which is delicious. There are things you can't miss wherever you go.
 
 Heading towards the mountains you have, apart from the potatoes, an incredible variety of cheeses. Each village, each family, makes a different cheese. All are fresh, but each has a personal touch. Also, the variety of tubercles  in general, not only potatoes, but olluco, mashua, and oca, are great as well. The mountains also have the choclos, corn, and guinea pig. The pepianes from the mountains are different from those on the coast, which are with turkey and rice. In the mountains they make them with pork and guinea pig, and the sauce is like a hot Ocopa, which they use to smother the guinea pig and it turns out incredible! It is delicious and has no reason to be jealous of the pepianes from the coast. On top of that, home-raised pork has a totally distinct flavor, and takes a lot of effort. The soups too. The diversity of soups like the Patachis, Lawas, caldos blancos, la patasca, are all very good. Roasted lamb also. I like lamb in soup but not as much as I like it roasted. And also there are the locros, los picantes, los ajiacos which are all great. They are like majados from the coast but a mountain version. From there we can go to the jungle.
 
Oh man. The Patarashcas, for example, wrapped in leaves, dishes like el Juane, el Nina Juane, I mean you can wrap rice, egg, fish in the bijao leaf. All three are a type of juane. Only the fish is called Patarashca. There are rice juanes like Rumu Juane, Juane Mixto, and Juane de Chonta. It's all the same leaf. You cook it, you eat it, you throw it out and that's all! Nature takes care of the recycling. 
 
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JV: I think this question will be a little interesting. The food-lover community is growing, but people are becoming more price sensitive. How do you think the "foodies" have changed since the appearance of this "gastronomic boom"?
 
FS: Look, I don't know any chef, and take this down right, I don't know any chef who prepares difficult products, which is to say that doesn't sell fried chicken or rotisserie chicken, but uses products like guinea pig, pork, mint, or huacatay, that has a lot of money. We live like normal people. And many work incredibly hard so their restaurant can survive. Even charging what they charge, many live day to day. It's not easy.
Many people think opening a restaurant is a gold mine. But it's not. It is a lot of effort. The ingredients are expensive. Of course you can go to a chicken shack and get a quarter rotisserie chicken with salad and fries for about 10 or 12 soles, while a chicken dish at a restaurant is 30. But the whole system to reach the point of serving the rotisserie chicken is quick and direct. it is organized, monotonous to make it economic. To make it cheap. But not the chef. The chef dresses in white, he works with cleanliness, he selects his products, he prepares them. If he will put salt, if he is going to smoke it, if he will put herbs, or marinate it, this yes, this no. He chooses a bigger chicken, or a smaller chicken. You don't buy from the big wholesalers. You go and pick out your chicken. If you do have to use a wholesaler, the preparation in the kitchen is different. The methods. You have to stand in front of your pot, stir it, chop onions, prepare the onions well, buy the best onions. You yourself have to go and buy them. Your tomatoes also. You have to choose them well, boil them, peel them, everything. It's not easy.
 
I understand. This restaurant isn't expensive. We have some dishes that cost the same as in a cafeteria. But I hear every error. Every error that people can mention, and many times I have seen essays by chefs online about how much a cebiche de lenguado should cost. But fish is expensive. Sole costs 40 soles, which means if you serve 200 grams, it costs 8 soles. Add fifty percent and it should cost 12 soles maybe. But then a chef shows up and charges 65 soles, because those 40 soles have to multiplied by 2, or 2.2. So we are talking about 100 soles per kilo, and if we serve 200 grams, we're talking about 20 soles just in the fish thrown on the table. From there you count the rest of your ingredients, and then the chef that you have to pay well (not minimum wage to throw out some rotisserie chickens). You see? Because it is a person who knows how to cut. It is not a machine. It is talent. Talent. And talent also is bought. So you have to pay. Talent should be recognized. Like a great artist. How much is good art worth? And even still, we can't pay what many people who work in kitchens deserve. For that reason that here people work in the kitchen because they like it, because it is there's. It's like painters who sell a painting for 500 and with that they stretch their money and live. They are good artists, but we are in a country that has cultural elements but is there culture? That's another thing isn't it? Therefore, I think we need to be careful when we say that a dish is expensive or not. It's basic math. I don't know much, but basic math tells me that a cebiche de lenguado should cost 60 soles. 20 soles for fish, plus the restaurant, the cost of the square meter here, the staff, who cuts the fish, who gives life to the cebiche, your servers, well dressed, the decoration, and your 28% between taxes and tips that you have to charge no matter what, and what's left? Just the fair and necessary, the basic. 
 
But what is the thought process of many people? A very limited math that sees only the finished product and says this costs so however much so you have to sell the dish for however much. They are crazy! How much does this iPhone cost (points to an iPhone on the table)? 500 dollars? And how much did it cost Steve Jobs to make it? 50, maybe 30 dollars. But of course, you have to pay for the process and you have to pay for his genius. Right? And no one gets upset about the price.
 
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JV: I'd like to lighten the mood a bit. What is the funniest thing that has happened to you while cooking?
 
FS: Oh man...something that mixed things up? Or a time that I messed up? That's what will make you happy, right? It makes you happy, but only after when you remember. Because in the moment the kitchen isn't such a happy place. You remember with happiness the tragedy, your failures, because the kitchen is like a daily soccer game. You lose a game by one goal and it's stupid. You messed up. 
 
For example, I learned to never salt a lomo saltado when the meat is frozen. How stupid! Now it's obvious how to salt it. You talk. People talk. But twenty years ago? Who was going to teach you? No one! You learned in the kitchen. In spite of the fact that now the myth is disappearing and they say frozen meat is better than meat left a room temperature, I still say no. I say no because I did it and it went bad.
 
One day the meat was half frozen, and someone asked for lomo saltado. I sent it out and they sent it back because the meat was dry. I thought I must have prepared it poorly, but the meat was still cold. I sent it out again, and again they sent it back. They sent it back three times! The fourth time I finally did it right because when the woman sent it back for the third time I realized that it was because the meat was almost frozen, and the dish wasn't turning out as it should. That's one story. 
There are other times when you can end up wasting food. One time I had to throw out 500 portions. I was in Mexico, and I ruined 500 portions of duck with rice because I left the heat on too high. Wow! I was depressed for three months! 
 
JV: That leads me into the next question I have for you. What has been your worst, most stressful experience in the kitchen? I imagine it could be that.
 
FS: It could be that. Or also one day we had a catering job. I remember because in that particular restaurant we were used to serving 100, 200 people. But in this event we were going to serve 1000 and they all showed up early. I was waiting to start cooking because I didn't want to reheat their food, and all of a sudden they show up two hours early ready to eat. They told me I had to serve the food and I said "what!?" I was still prepping and they said I had to serve that very moment. It was a disaster - a total disaster. We were so backed up because I had it organized so everything comes out at the right time. Everybody would do their thing and it would be relaxed. But instead we threw some stuff in the fryer, then I would chop some, then I'd go to the other said and sauté, then I'd rush to another area. I was running in circles. I didn't know where to go, where to focus, or how to keep things organized. I'm talking about fifteen years ago, so I had only five years of experience in the kitchen.  
 
That was the type of big tragedy in the kitchen that teaches you. You remember later and you say "That will never happen to me again" and you laugh. Those are my stories. 
 
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JV: If you had only three words to describe the kitchen, what would they be? Only three.
 
FS: My best choice. Yeah, my best choice.
 
JV: Now, please finish this sentence: Señorio de Sulco is...
 
FS: ...my take off point.
 
JV: Two more questions. What does good food mean to you? 
 
FS: To be happy when I eat it. Or to make others happy when they eat it.
 
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JV:I like that answer. What a great answer. To finish, what message are you sending to the world with your cooking? Or what do you want to say with your cooking? What do you want the world to know about your cooking?
 
FS: I know that any dish is an important cultural responsibility:  scientific, cultural, social. I think the message that each dish carries is that each of "those" dishes that we serve are part of the great team that is this country. I feel part of it, and I think my dishes express all of the culture of my country. 
 
JV: I have one more small question, which I don't know if you'll want to answer. Considering your answer to the last question about the various dishes. What dish would you recommend, as a chef, as someone with passion for food, as Flavio Solorzano, to someone who has come to Peru for the first time?
 
FS: If they come to Peru for the first time? Oh man...If it's before they come I would tell them to plan well, because Peru has coast, mountains, and jungle. Peru isn't only Machu Picchu, the high Andes, the llama, the alpaca -  it's not only that. And I'm not saying that those aren't the best parts, but plan well because Peru is enchanting in many ways.
 
If they are already here, I think you have to be open just as in many Latin American countries. Some of the most enjoyable things are things that are hard to come across in other areas. From visiting the majestic Machu Picchu, to taking a moto-taxi ride in the jungle and enjoying how the wind blows over your face. Not only the riverboats, but the tress in Manu. 
 
Peru has this mix of order, history, and chaos which is reflected in the cooking. If you don't see that, you won't understand the cooking and everything will seem very aggressive. To understand why something is so spicy, you have to become a little Peruvian. 
 
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JV: You mean to understand Peruvians and how they live, in the disorder of traffic for example, it's not aggressive. It's just how we are?
 
FS: To understand better and take with you great memories, yes. That's it. 
 
JV: Thank you so much, Flavio. It's been a great pleasure. I hope all continues to go well.

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