Meet Robert Ortiz – the pioneering chef making waves with Peruvian cuisine

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My connection to food started at a very early age. For the first 10 years of my life, I lived with my grandparents in the Amazonian region of Peru. They had a coffee plantation next to the Marañón River with lots of cows, donkeys and horses. People living there were very connected to the land and food was a major part of family life. I got used to being a companion to my grandmother in the kitchen. I remember watching as she prepared plantain stews, cassava or dry smoked meat. We didn’t have appliances so she relied on traditional techniques.

Later, I went to live with my parents [still within the Amazonian region but 12 hours away on foot], where I made bread in their bakery and even won a cookery competition. These things combined led to my first job as a chef at Costa Verde, a restaurant in Lima. It’s now closed but was one of the capital’s top eateries at the time. That experience opened up a whole new world to me. It wasn’t just through cooking but also the connections I made. It fired up my appetite to explore and travel the world. Soon after, I arrived in London.

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I return to Peru at least once a year to discover new produce

In Peru, people are passionate about the process of making food. Traveling around the country, you’ll discover all kinds of wonderful cooking techniques and special occasion feasts. Families take a lot of time to prepare food – my mum might spend hours and hours cooking one meal – and they’re always finding new ingredients. 

Now I’m based in the West Midlands in the UK. I run my own Peruvian restaurant called Chakana, which is founded on my love of sharing unique and intense flavours from the place I call home. I return at least once a year to discover new produce and find ideas for new flavours from different regions. From the capital Lima, to the Andes in the North and the Amazon, I always learn something new to bring back and share with my diners. I also spend time with my parents and siblings, roasting coffee, making tamales and cooking over open fires.

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At Chakana, we serve a Nikkei tuna ceviche

Peruvians also love ceviche. It’s a traditionally prepared, salad-like dish made from raw fish marinated with limes and chillies (each different chilli brings its own special flavour). People might add red onion, avocado or grilled corn as garnishes, or they’ll experiment with different types of fish. There are so many variations. Recipes will change between individual chefs or families and everyone believes their version is the best. It’s very competitive. My Dad, for example, is extremely good at making ceviche – I can’t beat him. 

Nowadays, we’re also seeing a Japanese-Peruvian fusion emerge that mixes raw fish ceviche with soya, ginger and chillies. At Chakana, we serve a Nikkei tuna ceviche made with rocoto peppers, soy, passionfruit and crispy ginger. It’s hugely popular because it expands the traditional ceviche concept, providing an extra twist of flavour.

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In Lima, people do a lot of parrilladas at the weekend

Another wildly popular Peruvian-style dish is Pollo a la brasa (rotisserie chicken), served with aji verde (a spicy green sauce). It’s a favourite for anyone going out to eat. Another meal we love is made with either lamb or goat marinated in chicha (fermented corn) and cooked with pumpkin and sweet, chocolate-y flavoured huacatay (an aromatic herb from the marigold family).

In Lima, people do a lot of parrilladas (barbeques) at the weekend. Neighbors and friends put so much effort into hosting these collaborative occasions – many houses have a brick barbeque with a chimney for that exact purpose – and it’s a chance to spend time together in a relaxed, communal way.

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Pachamanca takes around nine or 12 hours to cook

In the northern Andean region, you’ll find pachamanca (meaning “earth” and “pot”) – it’s a traditional celebration dish that dates back to Inca times. It consists of up to seven layers of heavily spiced meat (typically chicken, duck or beef), mixed with potatoes, chillies and corn. Each layer is covered in hot stones and cooked underground in a specially prepared oven lined by leaves, including fresh eucalyptus branches, and takes around nine to 12 hours to cook. It tastes wonderful; it’s a real spectacle. 

We replicate some of the flavours of the dish in our Birmingham restaurant, with our beef short rib served with yellow potato and marinated in a pachamanca sauce. Again, we bring a hint of the Japanese flavouring into the mix with this dish, using shiitake mushroom and miso.

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I worked hard to evolve in such a highly pressurised environment

When I first set eyes on London’s Landmark Hotel early on in my career, I felt sure I couldn’t work there; it was too grand for me. When I did get an interview, I walked round the block twice before plucking up the courage to go in. I got the job; there were 106 chefs and I was employee 105. I worked hard to evolve in such a competitive and highly pressurised environment. 

I then worked at the Four Seasons Park Lane Hotel and The Langham, before joining as head chef at Peruvian restaurant Lima in Fitzrovia. During my time there, I received the ultimate culinary award when it became the first restaurant of its kind in Europe to be given a Michelin star in 2013. It makes me very happy to look back and realise I’ve inspired others with the flavours of Peruvian cuisine.

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It’s important we not only make the food fun but also accessible

I decided to start Chakana [the name originates from an Andean cross symbol used by Peruvian indigenous cultures] when my wife and two children moved out of London to Banbury, Oxfordshire in 2019. My team and I found an abandoned building 50-minutes away in Moseley, Birmingham that used to be a bank. We knew we could transform it. 

I wish I had more competition from other Peruvian chefs in the UK to further showcase the brilliantly diverse, vibrant and flavour-packed produce of my country. It’s very important to me that we not only make the food fun but also accessible, continuing to bring it to an audience beyond the capital. People do seem to love our contemporary, colourful cuisine, so we are definitely here to stay.

Robert Ortiz is the founder of Chakana restaurant in Birmingham. Find out more about dining in Lima’s best restaurants, cooking classes and street food safaris on Flash Pack’s Peru adventures.

Got a story or adventure that could inspire a solo traveler like you? Tag @flashpack on social or email [email protected] to be featured.

Images: Courtesy of Chakana Restaurant 

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