Joe and I were walking around, eyes wide trying to take in everything, quickly deciding this would be a perfect place to find a bite to eat. However, most of the stalls in the market had identical menus, featuring sandwiches and soups most of them pre-made and looking rather unpromising considering the surroundings. Completely dismayed, there seemed to be no options that involved true creativity with chefs taking advantage of the bounty mere footsteps from their location.
Having completed nearly a full lap of the perimeter where the food stalls were located, we were resigned to settle for the next place we came to. What a lucky surprise, as we rounded the corner and saw a man and a flame. The intensity of his gaze and authority of his movement told us everything we needed to know. This man whom we would later find out is the proprietor and chef, had a bearing about him that said we had found our spot. Sidling up to the full counter, hoping to to edge our way in, finally snagging two seats at the end, under the menu board featuring his dishes and a special of the day.
After seeing the fresh pasta, my mind was made up, I chose a dish based on the fact that I recognized the work “fettucini” and Joe decided to try a rice dish with octopus and squid. My first bite was heaven, the pasta was a simple one, served with steak, topped with a bit of Grana Padano and cilantro. The simplicity of the flavors sang together in the fusion dish. Sharing was not easy, but after tasting the tiny octopus hiding in the Spanish style rice, I was not disappointed. Briny and fresh, lightly sautéed, they were a perfect complement to the earthy rice.
Tucking into our dishes, lulled by the sounds of the market, soon scraping our empty plates and curious to know more. We sat and talked to Diego for close to an hour, and soon had a date in two weeks in the future when we would come back with our camera to take pictures, wanting to document our find and happy to have found such a gem.
Diego Balarezo is an impassioned young chef, his stern looks quickly betrayed by an easy smile and amicable personality. Listening to him talk about where he draws his inspirations and how he worked his way up from bus boy to chef is listening to a real life dream come true. Since he was a young boy, he loved to cook and bake, always drawing joy from seeing his loved ones eat the items he had made. After finishing school, he confessed to his father that he wished to train to be a chef, yet his dad begged him to go into administration and go to a more regular type of university for his higher education.
He chose to instead go start working in a restaurant, hoping to get experience that he could use to perhaps convince his family that he was serious about his passion. He went to several restaurants, finding one that said he could begin as a bus boy, and once he proved himself, perhaps help out in the kitchen when there was room. It was here that he worked his way into the kitchen, eventually cooking and convincing his father to send him to school. That was nine years ago, and this project in the market is his first attempt on his own.
For the past nine years, he has experimented with many different cuisines, learning what he did and didn’t like along the way. Peruvian cuisine is all about fusion, and he wanted to make sure that he had experience cooking in many different styles with many techniques to draw on so that when he opened his own place he would be prepared to show people a side of Peruvian cuisine that they hadn’t seen before. His personal style is to focus on the flavors of the ingredients themselves, he hopes to show that simple dishes can be just as delicious as elaborate ones. Emphasizing that Peru is a mecca of produce, what he feels is so special about Peru is the availability of beautiful vegetables. He wants to show off these ingredients and not tamper with them.
It was such a lovely experience to sit down and chat with Diego, not just once but twice talking about what he hopes to do in Lima, and maybe one day in all of Peru. His dream is to elevate the dining available at the various markets to be more like what you might find in Barcelona or Madrid. To make a restaurant in a market that is a destination, not just a place to sate your hunger as you shop. He opened just two short months ago, but it seems business is booming, and we look forward to seeing where he is next time we visit Lima, maybe to visit him as he opens up his second shop in another market. Who knows, something tells us that is exactly where he will be.