Editor’s Note: The Culinary Institute of America presents its 17th annual Worlds of Flavor conference April 22–24 at the Greystone campus. This year’s conference—themed Asia and the Theater of World Menus—brings chefs from around the world to share culinary and cultural influences from Japanese, Indian, Thai, and Korean cuisine. To learn more, or register for the conference, visit: www.worldsofflavor.com.
Every menu tells a story.
At China Chilcano, the latest Washington, D.C., concept of José Andrés’ ThinkFoodGroup, the menu is designed to illustrate Peru’s history as a melting pot of South American, Chinese, and Japanese cultures.
“Great food is great food, but to know the story behind it—that’s the story we’re trying to tell and what we’re introducing to guests,” says China Chilcano’s Head Chef James Gee.
The modern menu at the restaurant, which opened in January, incorporates three branches of Peruvian cuisine, Criollo, Chifa, and Nikkei, which together exemplify Peru’s history of immigration and define the country’s modern culinary scene.
Spanish influence in South America defines Criollo, while Chifa was born from Chinese immigrants mixing Peruvian ingredients with traditional Chinese techniques, Chef Gee says. Similarly, Nikkei is the culinary heritage of Japanese immigrants in Peru.
In the 19th century, Peru saw a deluge of Asian immigrants who came to the country seeking work, bringing their own culture and culinary style.
“And the Peruvians embraced it, not just as a new culture and new food but as their own,” Chef Gee says.
Chef Gee previously worked at Jaleo, a Spanish tapas restaurant under the ThinkFoodGroup umbrella. But when Chef Andrés was inspired to create a Chifa restaurant following trips to Peru and Asia, he approached Chef Gee to draw on his Chinese heritage.
“As we developed and grew [the concept], we realized that in order to do a Chifa restaurant we had to embrace the entire culture of Peru. We became a Peruvian restaurant, not just a Chifa restaurant,” Chef Gee says.
The Chifa portion of the menu includes dim sum, which is prepared in a dedicated station in the front of the open kitchen so guests can watch chefs prepare dumplings and hand-cut noodles.
An example is lomo saltado, an essential dish found on most Peruvian restaurant menus. This wok fry of soy sauce and vegetables, emblematic of Peruvian cuisine, illustrates the influence of Chinese culture, Chef Gee says.
The menu also features chaufas and tallarines, or fried rice and noodles innovated with indigenous ingredients like aji peppers and bananas, as well as another essential Peruvian and popular dish—the aeropuerto.
“It’s almost a traditional fried rice, but with the addition of noodles it becomes what Peruvians refer to as aeropuerto,” Chef Gee says. “It’s a fun dish because the name, meaning airport, suggests anything can land in it.”
China Chilcano’s aeropuerto incorporates at least 20 vegetables, which vary depending on what is available at the local farmers’ market.
Many of the restaurant’s ingredients come from a local Asian market or directly from Peru. Entire shelves in the kitchen are dedicated to Chinese ingredients such as soy sauces and dried mushrooms, Peruvian ingredients like chili peppers and black mint, and Japanese seaweed and seafood.
The Japanese Nikkei influence is exemplified by ceviche, which transformed over the years in Peru to focus less on seafood being cooked in other ingredients and more on the essential flavor of the fish.
“The Japanese emphasis on the flavor of raw seafood has been applied to the method of ceviche, using cleaner, brighter flavors and less marinating so you have better texture,” Chef Gee says.
Guests at China Chilcano can watch ceviche as it is prepared at a marble station in the dining room. The menu also includes sashimi, nigiri, and causagiris—California rolls made with causa, a potato dough, instead of rice.
A commitment to fresh seafood is evident in the restaurant’s 300-gallon microenvironment lobster tank, soon to be home to other sea creatures as well.
“Lobster fresh out of the water is juicier and plumper,” Chef Gee says. “They’re in their natural habitat, and it shows in the quality of the lobster.”
The restaurant launched a lunch menu this month that offers favorite sandwiches from Lima such as an adaptation of lomo saltado and pan con pollo, a chicken salad sandwich. The full menu is also available all day.
For a true taste of Peru, China Chilcano offers one of the largest Pisco libraries in the U.S. The cocktail menu features classics like the Pisco Sour and the namesake Chilcano, crafted with Pisco, lime, bitters, and ginger ale.
The restaurant, which seats 158, has seen a positive response from D.C.’s vibrant Peruvian community, as well as visitors who are unfamiliar with the history and culinary experience of Peru, Chef Gee says.
“José’s vision of this restaurant, as it is with all our restaurants, is to celebrate and tell the story of what this food really is,” Chef Gee says. “That’s the part we’re having fun with.”
By Sarah Niss