Expectations are a bitch! Take a minute and think through this with me… You watch an episode of Chef’s Table about a Peruvian Chef that travels the country finding rare and tasty ingredients, many of which aren’t found anywhere else in the world. All of your foodie friends ask you if you’re going to the place while in Lima. They’re named THE BEST restaurant in all of Latin America and the fifth best in the world. You make reservations two months in advance and invite people from literally around the world. You start telling other folks you’re traveling with and they start making reservations. Every other day people ask if you’re excited for the meal.
Then, you wait. You look at photos off and on. You start wondering what the story is behind 17 courses of ingredients they present in a fashion that represents different elevations of the country. You watch the Chef’s Table episode again…
All of this builds up to an expectation that is hard, maybe even impossible, to live up to. It’s the opposite of the local food movement that is sweeping the world. Central literally goes to the ends of the country to get their ingredients! They then match up those ingredients into dishes based on the elevation that they come from. The theory being that food from the same area is made to go together. Rare ingredients from the depths of the sea to the top of the Andes spread across a four hour meal paired with wine, beer and cocktails. The perfect setting to unravel the story of Peru and its food. Or so I thought.
The seven of us arrived with a good excitement for the night. The unassuming entrance fits a place that has surpassed the need for a sign, the interior is modern with hard surfaces, lines and a muted color palate that fits into Peru perfectly.
Either the size of the group or an unlucky draw landed is a table in a space of the restaurant where a table shouldn’t even be placed. Right at the top of the stairs, bathroom doors to the right and the kitchen door to the left, right in the middle of every possible path for employees and guests. I took the head seat, happily, where right behind me was a large table made of rock full of little impressions each containing an ingredient of some sort. Wish I knew what it was for…
As we sat, the menus were at the ready in front of each setting and we hurriedly starting scanning for a preview of the meal ahead. Alpaca, piranha and “lake algae” stick out straight away. Chatter rises about what we think all these ingredients will taste like, how they find them, etc. as our server greets us. He confirms all the dietary needs and asks if we would like still or sparkling water, the answer to which he had a hard time grasping and asked us to just raise our hands so he could count. At this point a little twitch hit my temple as I saw the first sign of poor service in a fine dining restaurant. In my estimation, proper service takes place without you ever knowing it is happening. Water is refilled and plates whisked away without so much as a pause needed in your conversation.
At Central however, it was made apparent by the second course that we were expected to quiet down and listen as they presented dishes. Fine, I thought, they really want to share the story of the meal and this is the best way to make that happen. A few courses in, after being served a mollusk that was “like a snail” and an “air potato that isn’t really a potato but grows in trees”, I realized that the service was just as cold as the frozen fish they served one of the dishes on. That dish was piranha, which ended up being a piece of fried skin with some sort of cream on it, leaving me us te whether I could describe what piranha tastes like. The alpaca was another ingredient added for effect- dried alpaca heart shaved over some green paste that was eaten with a dry and crumby potato.
So yes, in a country where they pride themselves on growing over two thousand varieties of potato we were served one less than appetizing with zero explanation other than that it was roasted in salt. But, we got to dip it into a paste with the consistency of mud which tasted as good as it looked.
Back to those expectations. I was psyched to learn about the ingredients, about the people that grew/foraged/raises them and about why they were special. After all, so much work went into finding them! I expected an adventure that painted a picture of the country through its food. I expected to leave the restaurant with a better understanding of Peruvian cuisine. Instead I left confused about why we had just paid ~$300 per person to have a server tell us to quiet down so they could continue the parade of disconnected dishes. Though maybe it will be similar to my experience a little over a year ago at Cosme in NYC where I didn’t “get it” until a day later when I realized that the Chef wasn’t trying to serve us authentic Mexican food as much as he was showing us how the flavors fit into American ingredients.
But, I digress. I know I’m not as talented as the team here in a kitchen. I’ve never really desired to cook this style of food and therefore never trained for it. The level of precision and execution in the kitchen astounds me, even if I don’t believe it to be tasty. I just wish that dedication carried through to the dining room.
I wish that they had continued the narrative of ingredients past a Netflix documentary. I wish the first chapter had lived up to the expectation set by the preface. As they say, “never judge a book by its cover”. And I’m taking it to heart now as I wrap this up to find a huarique (a local spot, still doesn’t look great from outside, but the food is superb) for lunch today.