I came to know Jason Nanka and Lorena Valdivia quite well over the past couple of years. They reached out to me through social media well before they opened their Lima restaurant, Nanka in La Molina, and we continued to stay in touch. I exchanged emails with them probably at least once a month and met with them on two occasions at Nanka. I considered them friends.
With Jason being a gringo (he was Australian) and Lorena, even though she was Peruvian, having this lovely Australian accent when she spoke English I felt a kinship with them and their enthusiasm for Peru. The excitement they showed towards Peruvian food and ingredients could be recognized immediately when stepping into Nanka. There, the waiters speak enthusiastically about the olive oil they use. They are excited about the beer they serve that is brewed with quinoa and the rare native potatoes that they so proudly promote. There was lots of love there. It hit you like the smell of baking bread as soon as you walked in. It was infectious.
Jason and Lorena passed away in a traffic accident on Friday November 30, alongside chef Ivan Kisic of LA 73, and Maria Huamani, a local producer from the region that was taking them to get to know the local farmer cooperatives that are organically growing the fruits tuna and tumbo. This was the sort of thing they loved. The four will be sorely missed.
I wrote about Lorena, Jason, and their restaurant often. I interviewed Jason not long after the restaurant opened here on this site. I wrote about their scallop in a cauliflower puree with a beet/blood sausage crumble and aji panca spiced honey – one of my favorite dishes to appear in Peru in years – in the July issue of Conde Nast Traveler (US Edition). During Mistura, when a French restaurateur asked me to take him around to Lima’s best restaurants I made sure we went there. Weeks before the pair died I recommended to a Travel Channel producer that they contact Jason and Lorena to appear in show they were working on. One day before they passed I recommended their restaurant to an editor at Food & Wine magazine.
What I often said about the restaurant was that Jason and Lorena were bringing much needed new ideas to Peruvian cuisine that had been sorely needed. Their food and drinks were designed to be enjoyed. There is not the slightest bit if stuffiness at Nanka that you often find in Peruvian restaurants. It is fun to eat there. They made tortillas from black quinoa. A Peruvian version of bangers and mash. They deconstructed the chilcano so that you made it yourself at your table. It’s a place you could stay all night and have no desire to ever leave.
What I don’t think I ever said, but had always thought, was that the pair had a perfect unity between the front and back of the house that I’ve never had the pleasure of experiencing in another restaurant anywhere. Technically, Lorena took care of the front and Jason was back in the kitchen. However, it wasn’t a surprise to see Jason out with the diners showing them his herb garden on the back wall or Lorena making a cocktail or finding a lucuma in the pantry. There was a connection. They were always on the same page, thinking the same things. They were in tune.
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.