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Erik Ramirez: Food Is The Language Of Culture

In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, Zagat Stories asked Latinx chefs from across the United States about their experiences being Hispanic in the restaurant industry, how it has shaped them, and what needs work.

Erik Ramirez is the Peruvian-American chef at New York’s Llama Inn. The restaurant earned a Michelin Bib Gourmand recommendation and two stars from the New York Times, where it was named a top restaurant of 2016.

When you work in a French, Italian, or New American restaurant, people feel very comfortable being a guest. They order things they are generally familiar with. More often than not, the expected cultures are much more broadly understood, and so even making the decision to go eat there is made more simple.

When you are a Peruvian chef creating Peruvian food, you are basically dealing with selling a stretch in someone’s comfort zone long before they get to the table. In that sense, I noticed an extra task and a straight-up obstacle for our restaurant that I had never really noticed before in less diverse settings. For example, take beef heart, which is a popular street food found grilled in Lima, Peru. We call it anticucho de corazón, and it’s absolutely delicious. I feel like it’s actually a really great introduction to eating heart if you’ve never had it. Cuy—guinea pig—is also a pretty popular thing to eat in Peru. It’s not super common, but it is on the menu in some restaurants. Mainly in the mountains, but also in the city.

In New York City, people are pretty accepting. People are used to different cultures and backgrounds. I did have one experience with a restaurant that made me wonder if my ethnicity was affecting my experience. I worked hard, I was reliable, but I felt like I always got the short end of the stick. This was luckily one of my only serious experiences with racial discrimination that I was overtly aware of. This was in my early 20s. I was young and I didn’t carry myself the way that I do now.

Some experiences are hard to describe because they are more of a feeling than anything. I feel a person just knows when they are being treated differently, and if the only variable is skin color, it’s clear. In this particular case I noticed immediately that when I made the same mistake as someone else, it was such a bigger deal for me. I would get yelled at for the same things other people just got told to do again.

I think people make a lot of assumptions about people who have a different culture than theirs. You can’t judge someone just because they listen to rap music, speak Spanish, and act differently than you. Their culture should never be a representation of their work ethic—their character should prove that.

I’ve definitely seen many more popular Hispanic chefs as time goes on. However, the variety of their origin has never been very diverse. In the last few years, we’ve been really fortunate to have the rise of knowledge and popularity of Peruvian food globally. People are starting to understand what a special cuisine our culture has to offer the world. Small strides, but they are happening.

One of our notable Peruvian chefs is Virgilio Martínez at Central restaurant, in Lima. This is huge for Peru because it’s on all the awards lists. He was also on A Chef’s Table on Netflix. And La Mar by Gastón Acurio in Miami is a great international representation for Peruvian food. Back in Lima, there’s Mayta by Jaime Pesaque, who is also internationally known and representing Peruvian cuisine. And Maido by Mitsuharu Tsumura aka Micha is super important for Nikkei Peruvian cuisine—it is considered one of the top ten in the world. Some media have helped too, such as Down to Earth and the Street Food series on Netflix, Taste the Nation on Hulu, and Anthony Bourdain’s work.

However, if you exit New York City and want to get some type of Latin food, your pickings are going to be slim. Of course there are going to be metropolitan hotspots like Miami or New Jersey, but for the most part people know and feel comfortable with tacos. Luckily the industry has made great strides, and more people want to show what their culture’s cuisine has to offer.

I never originally wanted to do Peruvian. Nobody was taking it seriously here. If you wanted to be taken seriously as a chef, you needed to be cooking New American, French, or Italian. I struggled to represent it properly at first, as so few ingredients are even accessible here in the US. That in itself shows how unique it is, but also how small the supply and demand is for my culture to be represented. It’s one of the reasons my partner Juan Correa and I wanted to build what we are still creating. We wanted to truly represent how special the food and culture is—keeping it alive and making sure, in a world of pasta and pizza, people were able to choose Peruvian and be transformed.

I am the proud father of two boys, and I’m constantly trying to pass on my culture to them. My lady is not Hispanic, but grew up speaking Spanish in New Mexico, so on the inside she can be even more Hispanic than me some days. That makes me happy because I know my boys are growing up with the Spanish language ringing in their ears, Peruvian cussing dancing on their tongues, and salsa music beating in their hearts.

Having children actually brought out cultural connections I was barely even aware of. You grow up Peruvian, and you just kinda are Peruvian. My first son was born right before Llama Inn was created, and it made me so proud that he could come and eat what I ate growing up. Passing that on feels powerful and important.

I always try to make sure I’m representing a dish in a way that would make any and all Peruvians proud, because at the end of the day, our cuisine is unique, delicious, and needs to be tasted. Cooking ain’t easy, but if you have something you want to say and cooking is your only way to say it, you better be loud enough for the people in the back to hear you too.