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Life is a Kitchen, with Juan Sebastian Perez

by | INSPIRATION, INTERVIEWS

Juan Sebastián Pérez’ life and cuisine are dedicated to reviving and honouring culinary identity.

Drawn to gastronomy from a young age, his training took him to Le Cordon Bleu and from there, around the world. Returning home, he embarked on a voyage of discovery, investigating ancestral ways of growing and producing the native ingredients of communities from the four natural regions of the country.

His restaurant Quitu, Identidad Culinaria, in Quito, is a testament to Ecuador’s culinary identity, and nucleus to Juan Sebastián’s research into the traditional cuisines of Mexico, Peru and in his native homeland.

What’s the new normal like for chefs in Ecuador? 

The last four months have been a little easier: People are in a compulsive mood, going out and spending, and not asking themselves why or how much. Restaurants have been packed. I don’t think it’s sustainable, but it has helped us get back on track. It’s still hard because we all have debts. And everyone’s paying less. 

It’s been a hell of a year for the whole industry – not just economically but also emotionally, leaders and CEOs have been falling into depression with whole teams depending on their wellbeing. 

The upside is that we are all starting from scratch. It’s easy to spot businesses that have or haven’t restructured their core and reinvented themselves. Don’t believe anyone that tells you that the pandemic has just been another crisis. 2018 and 2019 were very hard years for the industry in Ecuador. We were stuck in this wheel of producing and paying, relying on credit cards and overdrafts. We had national strikes in October 2019 and we were just getting over that when the lockdown started.

Those of us who stuck it out, those with true heart, focus on our target. Who would we like to have eating at our restaurant? What do we expect from our diners? It’s a smaller group of people, but it’s constant. And we’ve built a community around them.

Was there a post-COVID rebirth?

Absolutely, it’s called Purpose, and it puts you on another level. South America is all about prestige and recommendation lists and people tend to forget about the sourcing, the value chain and the traceability of their businesses. So, at the end of the day, you can end up eating supermarket food in most of the restaurants. The biggest food groups in South America – the fast food chains – will disappear because they have no purpose.

The good thing about COVID was the trust and the solidarity it bred with the communities. They gave me native ingredients that I could cook at home and deliver. At the restaurant, we built a circle of trust and we have empowered our network. It’s smaller but full of details, full of care, full of these intangible values that shine through in the purpose of our work. Nowadays, my only mission is to connect customers, to let them know who grew that carrot or that potato they’re eating and I’m connecting them in an emotional way.

So, you’ve gone from a vicious circle to a virtuous circle?

My restaurant’s called Quitu Identidad Culinaria, which means “our culinary heritage.” Before COVID, people started to compare an ingredient or tradition with their granny’s favourite recipe. So, I started to change the traditional way of cooking those ingredients with a personal spin that respects the heritage, but shows the natural flavour of the ingredients. Foreigners were fascinated, but locals weren’t so easy to win over at first. I remember inviting the doctor who delivered my son to the restaurant. 

I served him Chicha – wine of the Andes. It’s powdered corn fermented with a controlled ambience, courtesy of a master brewer I work with. If you add sugar it becomes more alcoholic, and bubbles a little. It’s a great cooking wine, and it’s also served as an aperitif. I served the doctor a glass and he welled up and said “You transported me to my grandmother’s house when I was little and I’ve been so into work, these past 10 years that I haven’t called them. Please give me a second.” He Skyped them right then and there.

Memories around food are amazing. During COVID, I delved deeper into the traditions and bring out older ingredients from our diet hundreds of years ago – like potato ice-cream. I had black potatoes from the community that we work with. When potatoes get old, they get sweeter. So, I put caramel, milk, potato and papaya into the ice machine. It worked very well because of the earthy taste of these types of potato. The colour was very appealing and it was the perfect pairing with an Argentinean Rosé. I’d found the hook. I started delivering by the litre. 

Then, I met this old guy who brought me Amazonian vanilla through a project empowering indigenous people to cultivate and fairly trade vanilla. Now, 20 communities are planting them and they’re looking to export. All the chefs are amazed by it. For me, it’s another love story that saved me in the pandemic because I had the vanilla and a small farm delivered the dairy to me. So, it was vanilla ice-cream for everyone. 

Did you have to downscale?

I used to charge $50 a head, I had 15 people on my staff. But I was chasing my own tail. After COVID, I came down to earth and set a $12 lunch menu, good cuisine, using the budget from the previous day to go to the market. I told my customers – “You may not know what you’re going to eat, but you’re going to eat well and leave here full.”

Word spread throughout the community. There were no tourists here at that time. Then, I opened for dinner at $12 or $25. Everyone went for the $25 menu. Then people started asking for the $25 menu plus the wine pairing. I moved from a $5,000 building to a $500 building. I had less than $1,000 in my bank account. And I was working round the clock. It was not the best or cutest restaurant, but it was filled with love, care, effort and sacrifice.

Now it’s $50 or $30 for lunch and dinner, 10 seats instead of 40, one person working with me when we have a full house, and a beautiful lady who helps us clean. It’s all about the hospitality you offer. I would really recommend you read Setting the Table. It says, the power of enlightened hospitality is to make people happy and turn your passion into business. How can you help customers to feel free, and forget all their worries in the restaurant? That is the feeling that makes them want to come back.

A little bird told us you took Ecuadorian cuisine to Madrid, right? 

If you’re familiar with the Spanish food scene, you’ll know Ignacio Medina. He came to the restaurant. He was alone. He was tired. His life was all about journeys. That night, the restaurant was empty. I sat him where he wanted, I gave him some ceviche and venison steak. We became friends. 

One day after the pandemic, Medina came to my restaurant the same day the fisherman finally came. After four months of serving vegetables and some locally sourced proteins, I had a fish menu! Two weeks later, Medina invited me to Madrid to talk about my native produce and gastronomy. That was February 2021. Medina got COVID here in Ecuador. He almost died and he called me to deliver lunch, but the Uber guy didn’t show up. Medina also has diabetes and he had to inject four insulin shots because of me. He was pissed off, as you can imagine!

In Madrid, I found myself surrounded by big-name chefs. I put some bugs out, some guinea pig, llama loin, and all the cameras turned to my table. I was alone. The other chefs had staff, I had a backpack – and some decent knives. There were three other South Americans in this 500-seater room. One from Colombia, one from Peru and me. The Colombian chef and I both cooked guinea pig but in different ways. I boiled stock, and I roasted the llama bones to make the demi-glace. I did it within the 30-minute time limit: Llama steak tartare, and guinea pig terrine with roasted skin and pâté. 

I made them all try it – cooks, journalists, of course, Medina. I felt a connection with them. It all stemmed from the hospitality. Cooking is easy. You just have to find the best ingredients and cook them as little as possible. Nowadays, I don’t have 15 cooks to place flowers with tweezers, it’s just me, so most of my food comes out of the pan or the wood oven directly onto the plate.

What are your guiding hospitality principles?

I always ask myself how I can let food speak for itself. I have to be very careful with the knives, the colours, the roasting, the caramelization. My wife is an interior designer. She taught me that the design is ready when you have nothing else to take out. Less is more.

Ingredients are my boss. They tell me what to do. Like grandmothers who feed huge families by working magic with a handful of rice and a couple of beans. Food isn’t just something you put in your mouth, it’s emotions, memories, connection. It’s what it means to be here or to have maybe one, two, 40 diners remembering hard times and finally celebrating together. 

COVID-19 was a before and after in my career. It’s a new beginning. Whether you’re a chef, a barman or sommelier, you just have to give your best every day. It is about discovering who you are. Life is a kitchen. And that person sitting in your dining room is one more life lesson. After all, what is a restaurant? It’s not a temple of gastronomy or a cathedral of egos, it’s a place where you can go out different from the way you went in. 

 Le Cordon Bleu is a world leading culinary school with a history that spans over 120 years. Through its diverse, dynamic courses, it teaches the fundamental techniques in culinary arts (cuisine, pastry and boulangerie), wine, nutrition or management to give all its students the best possible start in the kitchen, and in life.

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