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An ambassador for Peruvian cuisine
Peruvian cuisine hasn't yet reached celebrity status in Switzerland, and Christina Tobler wants to change that. The owner of Barranco on Zurich's Bullingerplatz and her kitchen crew have good reasons why the profile should be higher. For example there are 3,000 varieties of potato and dozens of types of coriander growing between the Andes and the ocean. And, of course, there is ceviche.
What does a Peruvian restaurant look like? According to the clichés there should be llama decorations everywhere, ponchos hanging on the walls, and panpipe music. And the restaurant needs to be called Machu Picchu. At Christina Tobler's restaurant, though, everything is a bit different. Not only does she have a new take on Peruvian cuisine, she also showcases modern-day, urban Peru. Barranco is named after a well-known artists' quarter in Peru's capital city Lima. Its walls are covered with the expressive and colourful characters that are the signature style of graffiti and street artist Ente, who is actually from the artists' quarter and went to school with Christina's cousin's wife. Friends laid the floor and Tobler's long-term partner sorted out the bar. Barranco is basically a crime of passion, and that's fine with the guests – bookings have been high since day one.
According to the esteemed San Pellegrino list, two of South America's best restaurants are located in Lima. Young chefs are giving Peruvian cuisine a modern twist and Peru has now become the continent's top destination for foodies. Children there want to be chefs when they grow up – more than they want to be footballers, says Christina, who loves her top chef José Severino's take on his job: "We have to prove ourselves anew day after day. After a successful day we press the reset button and reinvent ourselves again the next day." Inspiration is everything, he says, but it can't be forced. José, originally from Peru, moved from his old job in Luxembourg to join the team after being contacted by Christina Tobler via LinkedIn. In the lead-up to the restaurant opening they stayed in close contact via Skype. The original plan was for a simple setup with take-away food, but this soon morphed into a fine dining concept.
What are the distinguishing characteristics of Peruvian cuisine, though? It's based on an inexhaustible supply of products from 80 different climate zones. Peruvian cuisine is far more than just ceviche, and diners will be happily surprised with the variety of unfamiliar ingredients, herbs and spices. It brings together numerous different influences and is based on traditional Incan cuisine. Ginger, garlic, coriander, citrus fruits and onions were brought to Peru by the Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century, along with pigs, cows and chickens. Prior to that the main sources of meat were alpacas, llamas, turkeys, ducks and Guinea pigs. In the 19th century elements of various different immigrant cuisines were incorporated, including African, Chinese, Japanese, Italian and French. By the beginning of the 20th century, top French chef Auguste Escoffier already deemed Peruvian cuisine to be among the best in the world after French and Chinese cuisine.
The most-requested dish at Barranco is a vegan version of a very traditional Peruvian speciality: rather than beef heart skewers they serve aubergine skewers. Even ceviche, indisputably Peru's national dish, gets a makeover from head chef Severino. He marinades sashimi grade tuna in the famous leche de tigre (milk of the tiger), prepared using lime juice, chilli, olive oil and wasabi. The citric acid denatures the protein in the fish in a similar way to the cooking process. He then serves the ceviche with cucumber, coriander and radish.
Christina spent two years searching for a location suitable for her restaurant. In the end, she tells us, someone else moved out, and they just happened to be in the right place at the right time. If you see something that could work then you should go for it, she says. Even if you encounter resistance. When she visited potential locations with her business partner, she reports, the owners only ever spoke to him. "No-one took me seriously. Even established restaurateurs very patronizingly said, "Go ahead my dear." The message was clear, in that they didn't think I could actually succeed. But that motivated me even more," she says, noting that even now guests at the restaurant still sometimes ask to speak to the boss because they want to congratulate him.
The young restaurateur has a Peruvian mother and a Swiss father. She is neither a waitress nor a chef, but between the ages of 15 and 25 she often worked as a waitress or behind the bar and even went to college to learn about bar-tending because she was interested in it. She cooked at home with a passion – and was the only one in the family to do so. Her approach to gastronomy was completely new and shaped by the millennials generation: first comes the business plan, then the investment, then the prognosis, then implementation. But there was never a lack of passion. Christina is a young woman who has studied business and who wanted to indulge her love of Peruvian cuisine in a professionally structured way. And she found herself the help she needed to achieve that, on all fronts.
Her motto is, "I see things through if I believe in them." If she meets with resistance she counters it with 1. optimism, 2. business acumen, 3. passion. She says, "My parents stick at things, too. My mum always looks on the positive side, and she's passed that on to me, while I get the rational thinking and courage from my father." He's a banker and a motorbike racer.
"My dream has come true," says Christina. She isn't interested in taking a holiday, she just wants her restaurant to be a success, saying "I'm the ambassador for Peruvian cuisine."
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