Director Ernesto Cabellos, the Lima, Peru-based director of the lovely new film about Peruvian identity through food entitled, De Ollas y Sueños, or Cooking Up Dreams (read our review here), was kind enough to answer a few questions with us about making the film, the relationship Peruvians have with food, and some of his inspirations in making the project.
New World Review: You have a history of making documentary films about political and social injustice. What made you decide to do a film about Peruvian cuisine?
Ernesto Cabellos: I found something unique: Peruvian cuisine begun to be a platform to talk about politics, development, social inclusion, to revamp Peru as a mixed culture. I think the most inspiring political speech in the past decade was given by Gastón Acurio, a chef. It was given at the opening of the school year at a college in Lima. I remember reading it and immediately thinking that behind “the pots” was great material for a documentary. There wasn’t a single recipe in the speech, but a great vision of development, integration and projection to the world.
And well, De Ollas y Sueños is not a documentary about Peruvian cuisine, is about the feeling of identity and pride that cuisine has brought to an entire nation. It was also a challenge for me, to address the Peruvian society in a middle point between celebrating it and maintaining a critical point of view.
NWR: Why do you think this boom and growing pride in Peruvian food is happening now?
EC: I think is due to the globalization process; the need to have something to back you up against the world and say, I’m Peruvian, I’m from a mixed nation, with a delicious cuisine that is the result of centuries of fusion. It is in our cuisine where we rediscover and encounter our nationalism. It hasn’t been in football – Peru hasn’t participated in a World Cup in more than 25 years – or either in politics or music. It is the cuisine, our food. And this feeling of union, pride and validation of what we are is a recent phenomenon, it just happened in the last decade.
NWR: How is Peruvian food unique among the world’s great cuisines?
EC: What makes Peruvian food unique is the diversity and the collective work through centuries to preserve and try to enhance the flavors, aromas and ingedients. The Inca’s cuisine assimilated various coastal and Andean cuisines, then it merged with the Spanish cuisine. Later on came other influences like from Africa, Italy and Asia – especially from China and Japan. There is so much history in each dish, in each ingredient, is like an encyclopedia. Peruvian potatoes have eight thousand years or history, of culture. You could not imagine the world as we know it today without potatoes, Europe would’ve died of hunger. Potatoes were cultivated for the first time eight thousands years ago by Andean communities nearby Lake Titicaca. Now days we have two thousand varieties of potatoes in Peru.
NWR: Why was it important to show expat Peruvian communities (New York, London, Madrid, Amsterdam, Paris) in the film?
EC: We wanted to explore the nostalgia that people have for the flavors to resemble who they are, how they feel identify in a globalized world. It is interesting to prove how food is not only a hunger supply but also a way to feel identify to a nation. The flavors, aromas, colors and sounds associated with food, refer us to a sensory universe that we need to restore our prosperity. And that’s what we wanted to show in these scenes of Peruvians abroad in the documentary.
NWR: There’s a part in the film where a Peruvian with a restaurant in Amsterdam describes how he first began cooking when he moved there. One by one, he learns to cook dishes he misses from home like Ají de Gallina and Lomo Saltado that are in his tiny Nicolini cookbook and calls home to his mother for advice. It’s funny, because when my wife first moved to the United States from Peru, she did the exact same thing. Even the beat up little Nicolini cookbook. What is it about the food that makes every Peruvian a natural chef and promoter when they leave home?
EC: That is a nice story. Nicolini is a basic recipe book, a compilation of recipes more than anything. Along with the Peruvian cuisine boom, there is also a boom in the cookbooks publishing industry. These books are gorgeous and win international awards. But the recipes have been handed down and preserved by many female generations. I have had a long discussion about this exact theme with my wife and producer of the documentary, Susana Araujo. Our conclusion is that the greatest chefs in Peru are our mothers, aunts, and grandmothers. They have educated our palates, our sense of taste, associating it with the affection, love and family celebration. So then when we are abroad we just have to recall what we used to have for dinner at home, and we share it and enjoy. If I have a question regarding a recipe, I’ll call my mother. I would never call my father, he only learned how to make coffee. It is thanks to women that we have what we call Peruvian cuisine.
NWR: There’s a moment in the film where you visit a cemetery in Villa María on November 1, el Día de los Muertos, and everyone there has brought the favorite foods of their dead loved ones to eat with them at their graves. Do you know of any other cultures where food is so closely celebrated in life and death? What does this say about Peruvians?
EC: We found the same celebration in Mexico. It is a tradition that comes from pre-Hispanic times, which is not shared by the Lima and modern Peru population. It’s a tradition that lives in a socially excluded part of the population. On November 1, Día de los Muertos, if you go to a cemetery in Lima you will see a lot of people moaning for their dead love ones, but if you go to a cemetery in Villa María del Triunfo, an outcast neighborhood, you will find this celebration, which was filmed for the De Ollas y Sueños documentary. For them, this is not a sad day. It is a collective ritual that says a lot of how we are, how our culture is so complemented with food that it could transport us to a surreal world where we can eat, drink and dance with our dead ones.
NWR: In Lima, large supermarkets like Wong and Metro are opening all over the city. Here you can buy food from every region of the country and cheap vegetables from China and other parts of the world. Do you think there’s a danger that if everyone shops at Wong or Metro and not the corner markets some of those traditions and regional recipes that have stayed the same for many generations will start to change?
EC: We Peruvians are not only reassessing our cuisine, but also the produce and where these are sold. There is a major initiative led by APEGA (Gastronomic Peruvian Society) to revamp the markets, such as the one in Surquillo, one of the most important in Lima. All these just because of what you mention. There is much more culture in a market than in a supermarket.
NWR: You question in the film that Peruvians overcome diversity in the kitchen, but that doesn’t always translate to every part of society. What do you mean by this?
EC: There is still much inequality in Peruvian society, there are many gaps. I think with what we have achieved with the Peruvian cuisine, that delightful integration of all cultures, could serve as a point of inspiration for addressing other areas of our life in society. That is our proposal in the documentary.
NWR: At Madrid Fusion, Pedro Miguel Schiaffino of Malabar is telling an excited crowd about Amazonian ingredients and how much potential they have in restaurants. Do you think Peruvian chefs are following his lead? Will we see more rare and exotic ingredients enter into Peruvian cuisine?
EC: There are very few chefs working with the cuisine of the Amazon, but a lot of people who cook really good are conquering more palates with it. A lot of the Amazon produce is not known in Lima, the capital. The world knows very little about this cuisine and its produce. And that is why Ferrán Adriá talks in the documentary about how the future of cuisine is in Latin America, especially in Peru for its Amazon region and the great quantity of produce that are unknown.
NWR: At the Culinary School in Pachacutec there’s a female student thanking Gastón Acurio and the other professors/chefs of everything they have taught them, but that she is going to try and be better than they are. Do you see that ambition in any other profession in Peru? Why is cooking so unique?
EC: That is the spirit that our cuisine inspires in all Peruvians. Our cuisine is culture. Feeling like you’re being part of a collective creation that has been passed from generation to generation and not only you are preserving it, but also that you can add a personal touch to enrich it is a very special feeling that we found not only in cooking students. It is unique because with our dishes we are exporting our culture to the world.
NWR: You’re from Pisco, where an earthquake completely wiped out the town in 2007. How did food help the people survive (apart from the obvious of filling their stomachs)?
EC: When I was a kid a lived in Pisco for three years, but I’m from Lima. My father worked as a civil engineer in the fishing port near Pisco. The earthquake was on August 2007, while I was working on the script for De Ollas y Sueños. With the Guarango team, our production house, we decided to go and share a Christmas dinner with people of a dilapidated neighborhood. We believe that food, in chaos and pain, has not only an alimentary function, but most of all supportive, life-affirming and hope. I recall that the people chose a dish that reminds them of home the most: sopa seca con carapulcra. We were in the middle of the street, in a common pot, and dinner was delicious, as well as restorative.
NWR: There are a lot of people that are coming together to help promote Peruvian cuisine, both in Peru and abroad and big advances are being made. What else do you feel still needs to be done to make the world aware of Peruvian cuisine?
EC: Peru has near two million tourists a year. It’s more than 5 thousand people having breakfast, lunch and dinner every day. I believe we can do more to make them have a unique and satisfying culinary experience. Not standardizing all the recipes and the way to cook them, but standardizing the service quality, to commit to Excellency in each part of the process that has become our presentation letter to the world. This way we will have hundreds of thousands of people promoting our food around the world. The government requires to invest in education. The Pachacutec school is an example of private initiative not from the government.
NWR: What is your next project?
EC: With Guarango, our production company, we have several projects. I’m currently working on a human rights project, on memory. I believe that exercising the memory is the capital for a nation. Documentary films are that. That is what we try to do in Guarango, the production company I founded with family members and friends 15 years ago in Lima. Peruvian history needs a photograph album. Our documentaries are just a few photos. This time with De Ollas y Sueños we have had the opportunity to photograph a happy and inspiring moment.
Writer and photographer Nicholas Gill is the editor/publisher of New World Review. He lives in Lima, Peru and Brooklyn, New York. His work has appeared in publications such as the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, CondeNast Traveler, National Geographic Traveler, Afar, and Penthouse. Visit his personal website (nicholas-gill.com) for more information.