When he was 15, Chef Carlos Delgado knew he wanted to be a chef. In Peru, we learned from him that kids cook, families do things together, and that Peruvian people carry a deep sense of pride in their food and multicultural influences, and embrace it all to make every day unique. A native of Callao, a district in the port city Lima, the capital of Peru, today Chef Carlos’ journey and influences has culminated in his role as Head Chef at Washington, DC restaurant China Chilcano.
“I grew up with a grandmother who was a cook, and she cooked every meal, every day. We treated [home and the process of cooking] like a restaurant, so we never got bored of what we ate,” Chef Carlos shared of his passion for expressing Peruvian food. He was born in a country where food is a part of the people. They eat every day, but each generation has a hand in daily meals, he explained. Each day, his family would see it as an opportunity to find good products, and then better products to incorporate into every meal.
It’s really the cultural norm for Peruvian children to play a part in food, in cooking, and in home life. Many children accompany their mothers to the market and help with meal preparation, he said cheerfully. “There is no Peruvian mom or Peruvian child who doesn’t know how to cook as a young kid. As a kid, whether you’re making it or helping to buy it, there isn’t a kid in Peru that isn’t involved in the cooking process of the family,” Chef shared.
At the restaurant, a creation of Chef José Andres and his talented team, you’ll find a hybrid of Chinese, Japanese and indigenous Peruvian cooking showcased in a trifecta of popular dishes. For those unfamiliar with Peruvian cuisine, these influences are deeply rooted in Peru through centuries of the migration, mingling and making of traditional cuisines with local Peruvian ingredients. A look at China Chilcano’s menu, you’ll find these cultural fusions displayed through Chinese Chifa, Japanese Nikkei and Peru’s Native Criollo Cuisine.
Peruvians always find inspiration though how diverse Peru is, Chef explained, and having his grandmother teach him all these things, had him only wanting to learn more; that’s why when he was just a kid he knew he wanted to be chef.
“Depending on the subject, there is criteria that you grow up with as part of the culture as a Peruvian to know what is really a good or fresh ingredient and what isn’t—it’s what makes us who we are because we have a wide variety of food,” he explained. “Peruvians are very needy when it comes to food,” and because of this they know to expect fresh ingredients all the time. Today, with the boom in Peruvian gastronomy topping the global food scene, you’ll find more than 80,000 restaurants in Lima alone, he told us. That’s not even including the hundreds of thousands of hidden gems tucked away from the crowds.
At China Chilcano, every dish has its own story. Each part of the menu showcases a part of Peruvian cuisine that has become influenced through Chinese, Japanese, and indigenous cultures of Peru. The whole story requires a history lesson that dates to at least to the 18th century, but as Chef Carlos explains at the restaurant, “whether it’s connecting or combing the two or three cuisines or simply allowing the original to come through, since we’re combing Chinese and [traditional] Peruvian ingredients some people unfamiliar with the history think that it’s fusion, but it’s not.” It’s more about culture, he explains.
The Chinese migrating to Peru, marrying their traditional dishes with Peruvian ingredients then the standard becomes normal to you, to me, to them. That’s how, after chatting with Chef Carlos, I understood what he meant: “This is Chinese-Peruvian, this is Chifa. All the dishes at the restaurant are representations of these stories.”
Even as Peru has become a popular food destination in recent years where you can sample these cuisines in its cosmopolitan cities, the Peruvian palette is even more diverse than even the stories shared through the dishes at the restaurant. “Lima has been the food capital of the world for the last four years, and young Chefs like me are showcasing that; and I’m from Lima, so I’m going to showcase it, but Peruvian cuisine goes beyond that. There is still the cuisine of the Amazon, and the Incas, for example, that still hold on to their own traditional culture.” At China Chilcano, there’s yet a wonderfully diverse gastronomy for a taste of modern-day Peru.
When it comes to defining dishes at China Chilcano, the “Aji Gallina is very homey; something a grandmother would make, and we’re still showcasing it a very traditional way. It’s not something you can really mask or redo,” Chef tells us. Another very popular dish, “Our ceviche—we take a lot of pride in it; we respect all the ingredients for what they are. We try to mimic as much as we can its traditional preparation as in Peru. This fish comes in fresh every day, and it lets us showcase the fish and the techniques to pronounce the fresh ingredients—to allow them to tell an actual story of Peru,” he explained.
By paying attention to the freshness of ingredients in its dishes, China Chilcano is true to Peru. Chef tells us, “At the end of the day we cook to tell a story. Whether you’ve gone or will go to Peru, you’re tasting quality. We’re able to leverage the back-end of things, like the trueness of preparation, to show you what Peru is about.”
Stepping into the restaurant, there’s an overall experience that visually echo’s the multicultural diversity of Peru. “We’re about telling you a story through the restaurant because there is a deep and unique story behind how Peru started, and how the Chinese and Japanese migrated and how these cuisines were born—how they are now under one umbrella in Peru” Chef explains about the features of the restaurant that evoke the senses through a balance of décor, ambiance, music, and especially the bold flavors and aromas; a slice of Peru in the U.S. capital.
In terms of the menu, the restaurant also strives to preserve the Peruvian norm for local ingredients. As Chef explains, while you can’t serve tomatoes, for example, on the menu year-round like in Peru because of its climate, his team respects the seasons of the Washington, DC area by incorporating its local and seasonal ingredients.
Take a visit to China Chilcano for lunch or dinner any given day and you’ll surely discover that each cuisine has its own persona, the sort of magical mingling of South American and Asian flavors. Bite into any dish and we think without words you’ll start to understand the vast and diverse history of Peruvian cuisine. “The presentation of the countries that migrated to Peru is something that Peruvians are very proud of because it makes our cuisine more diverse than if they never came,” chef shares proudly.
Chef José has said of Chef Carlos in this article from his website, “He’s the Head Chef at China Chilcano because he’s super talented … He’s gonna help us keep telling the story of HIS Peru to Washington, and to America, and to the world.”
We wholeheartedly agree, and he’s got the heart to do it.