Toronto shines its culinary spotlight on Peruvian fare
Chef Elias Salazar proves this classic cuisine is more than just ceviches and steaks
Chef Elias Salazar is on a mission for more modern Peruvian (IMAGE: KABIR ALI)
It’s been just over a year since the first modern Peruvian restaurant, Kay Pacha, opened its doors on St. Clair West, introducing diners to a new facet of this globally rising cuisine. And on the heels of Kay Pacha came Mira, a snazzy new King West eatery inspired by executive chef Stuart Cameron’s travels through Peru. This spring will see the highly anticipated launch of Chotto Matte, a 10,000-square-foot restaurant and lounge making its first Canadian foray via London, with its splashy Tokyo-inspired decor and a menu built around traditional Japanese-Peruvian cuisine.
Dining experts and influencers have been calling it for years: Peruvian is having its moment, definitely. The World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2018 list, for example, includes three restaurants from Peru. Two of them are in the top 10. One of them, Central, in Lima, was named the Best Restaurant in South America.
The uptake of modern Peruvian cuisine in Toronto has been surprisingly slower than in other big cities, like London and San Francisco, but the quality of Peruvian food overall has gone up since chef Elias Salazar arrived here in 1996 from Callao, a port town just west of Lima. He came with his mother and little brother in the wake of growing political and economic turmoil in his home country.
In the last few years, he’s been making his name as the pioneer of modern Peruvian food in the city, first under the catering brand Limon Modern Peruvian and then as chef and co-owner of Kay Pacha, which he launched with restaurateur Ricardo Chico. He has since left the restaurant to pursue his own projects.
A spread of Peruvian fare at Kay Pacha IMAGE: YVONNE TSUI
“Back [in 1996], there wasn’t much Peruvian food in Toronto, and what was available was very badly represented,” says Salazar. “Trying the food, I realized that there were a lot of flavours missing. A lot of people were cutting corners with ingredients.”
“You do have your rustic Criollo where you get a mountain of rice and a massive steak — and that’s all good stuff — but Peruvian cuisine has evolved a lot since those days. So there isn’t really any good representation of the cuisine that I can speak of.”
The cuisine itself is a hard one to nail down. It can be Creole–South American–style dining (Criollo, the aforementioned mountain of rice and massive steaks is generally considered Peruvian comfort food). It can be Chinese-Peruvian (known as Chifa) fried rice and noodles. There’s also Italo-Peruvian and Nikkei, which is Japanese-Peruvian, and which integrates ingredients like soy, wasabi, ginger and miso.
“The diversity of Peruvian cuisine is just insane,” says Salazar. “Wherever you go, there’s something different — a different ingredient, a different potato, a different pepper, a different corn.”
That diversity comes, at least partially, from the rich biodiversity of Peru itself. Flanking the Pacific and with the Andes Mountains, Sechura Desert and Amazon all within its borders, the country has vastly different culinary traditions. Some of them derive from Peru’s Indigenous populations, others from 500 years of immigration from west Africa, China, Italy, Japan, Spain and beyond.
“The unifying thing is its diversity,” says Ricardo Chico, the current owner of Kay Pacha and Salazar’s former business partner.
“In a city as multicultural as Toronto, it makes so much sense to have Peruvian food be a focus.”
After all, many will say that Toronto’s own unifying quality is our diversity. Chico believes that the reason Peruvian cuisine has taken off so easily in this city is diners’ existing familiarity with the individual influences that are woven into the food.
“For the most part, people know Thai food, people know Chinese food, people know, more or less, Japanese food. Everyone can recognize Italian food,” Chico says. “It’s not so much a discovery of flavours, but rather a reintroduction of flavours that are somewhat familiar.”
And, for the most part, what makes these familiar flavours distinctly Peruvian is the use of truly Peruvian ingredients.
“The potatoes, the different range of peppers, the aji amarillos, the aji panca, the aji mirasol,” Chico says. “All these peppers are Peruvian. These peppers combined with Japanese flavours makes something Nikkei.”
Elias Salazar left Kay Pacha in May 2018, over what he describes as “creative differences.” He is getting ready to launch his own restaurant, Waska, which translates roughly to “To eat, drink and enjoy” in the Quechua language.
Although a location hasn’t been locked down yet, Salazar is envisioning a fine dining, tapas-style restaurant with a pisco and cocktail bar. He has partnered with a hot pepper farm in Fort Erie, which grows aji amarillo and other quintessentially Peruvian peppers that form the backbone of the cuisine.
One of chef Elias Salazar's latest creations
He also has a line of Peruvian food products, including a purple corn juice (currently available for pre-order), a botija olive sauce, a chimichurri and a huancaina sauce — a staple of Peruvian kitchens, made with queso fresco and the aji amarillo.
“But I think that the direction of the cuisine is here to stay for the next 10 or 15 years, maybe even more,” Salazar says. His goal is to open at least five or six restaurants in the city.
“There’s so much you can do with it. And that’s the mission I have. That’s the goal I have.”
But until then, there’s still plenty of Peruvian in this city to dine out on –– and from the looks of it, a lot more coming.