The stupidest thing you can do is romanticize kitchens. The second stupidest thing you can do is romanticize travel. I did both of those things.
In 2016 I booked a flight from Newark to Lima, well-fed and optimistic about my 15 week externship at Astrid y Gastón. The restaurant is mentioned briefly in the Chef’s Table episode on Virgilio Martinez and is now greatly overshadowed by Central, although both hit the World’s 50 Best List in the last half of the 2010s.
I spoke Spanish, or at least I thought I did, and knew another CIA student who had a life-changing externship experience at Astrid y Gastón. She set me up with accommodations and gifts for the kitchen when I arrived. Half of my suitcase was packed with paring knives for the savory cooks, pocket-sized spatulas for the pastry cooks, and souvenir t-shirts for the sous chefs.
I left my then-boyfriend’s-parents’ house in Connecticut. His mom had helped me pack my suitcase in a way so that I could actually zip it up. Her bathroom floors were heated. I used the massage chair before I left.
For some reason I thought it was a good idea to arrive at the Lima airport at night. Or maybe I didn’t have a compelling reason to enter Lima during the daytime. Nobody had warned me, or if they had, I didn’t listen. I was invincible--until I stepped out of Gate 3 onto the sidewalk outside of the airport. What had been a quiet and seamless plane ride with headphones and a complimentary blanket did not prepare me for what was outside after landing. There were more taxi drivers than there were potential customers, so every driver was fending for themselves. I had no idea which drivers were reputable, or if there was any standardized taxi service in Lima, so I pulled out my phone to grab an Uber. None of my apps worked. It was like my phone went through a black hole and came out on the other side. I started to panic. I only had a hand-written address and no one I could trust to take me there. Truly alone and overwhelmed, I went back inside the airport and tried to restart my phone.
In those two minutes between turning off my phone and turning it on again, I tried to recall all the good things in my life. I saw a short slideshow of pictures, fleeting and fragile. I could be kidnapped. This could be the end.
I opened up the Uber app and somehow my phone worked. I don’t know if it was international data or the airport WiFi, but I had never felt more relieved in my life. I confidently stepped out onto the chaotic sidewalk and made my way through the s-shape maze to meet Juan, my driver, who was five minutes away. I tried to ignore the men shouting at me in the dark, offering a solution to my problem. Until I got into a car, they heckled me. My cheeks flushed and I bounced back and forth nervously, chipping away slowly at the suitcase handle with my fingernail.
Seven minutes pass and there is no Juan to be seen. I am hoping he will come find me. After all he has my location. I walk a little farther into the labyrinth of the passenger pick-up laneway, hoping to meet him halfway. I hear a voice call out to me, “UBER!” I look and a tall, lanky mustachioed man with thinning hair is looking at me as though he recognizes me. He opens the trunk and gestures for me to pass my suitcase to him. I do so and get in the back of his black car.
“¿Dirección?” he asks, when we’re both situated in the car.
I pull out the handwritten address and show him.
I look down at my Uber app and see that Juan has cancelled my ride. I start to feel a heat rising from within me, a deep protective steam. I keep my mouth shut and brace for the worst. I am not in an Uber with Juan, the certified 4.5 star driver. I am in a random man’s car as a passenger, entering an on-ramp to the busiest highway in Lima, hoping this man will take me to the address in his hands.
I don’t know how far it is. I think I researched it ahead of time and it could be 35 to 45 minutes depending on traffic. Everything is a blur of lights outside of my passenger’s window at night. The city smells different than the place I came from, though I couldn’t put my finger on it just yet. I sensed dust everywhere, somehow.
I checked my phone to see if WhatsApp was working. No bars, no signal, no data. I tried accessing my gmail. Nothing yet. I promised my mom I would let her know when I landed and got to my apartment safely. I wondered if anyone would hear my scream if something happened in the car.
We were slowing down now and I could see more outside the window. We were coming on to a cobblestone street in a neighborhood of narrow Spanish-style villas, lined up side-by-side for urban dwelling. The driver asked if we were at the right address and seemed irritated when I answered “no sé.” I’d never been here before.
A woman with flying brown hair rushed out onto the sidewalk to meet us. It took me a second to understand what was happening. She was my landlord. She was here to help.
“¿Cuánto cuesta?” she asked the driver, flustered and out-of-breath.
I didn’t know if that was a rip-off or not. Perhaps he could tell I had no idea what I was doing as an estadounidense and that this woman holding out money from the shotgun window was hovering with a mother-like protectiveness over me, willing to pay any amount of money to see me safe.
I suppose it was a fair price, or maybe it wasn’t. The truth is that I arrived at my new apartment to start my new cooking life in Peru completely exhausted, overwhelmed, and grateful. My landlord showed me inside the open air courtyard beyond the gate and I met the cats that wandered the compound. My room was upstairs, and lucky for me, the previous tenant had left a bed and dresser behind.
I asked about the WiFi and immediately contacted my family and friends. I charged my phone and ate some fruit. I went to bed hungry, which was telling for the rest of my time in Perú.
Halfway through my externship, one of the sous chefs pulled me aside before family meal and said, “You have to eat. We can see your cheekbones.”
It was too hot to eat. Oversalted garlic rice was the only thing I could choke down. I tried to eat the tripe, but the sauce was heavy, and my throat rejected the stringy texture of the meat. The person in charge of family meal was always rushed. No amor, my chef de parties had said.
Whenever a cook didn’t prepare food in a delicious or attractive way, “No amor,” was the oversimplified gut response of the cooks in this kitchen. If I needed to do something better, the only constructive criticism I got was, “Más amor.” I had to figure out what kind of finesse I needed to give more of in order to meet the quota of “bastante amor,” or “enough love” to make something work. This was a frustrating and beautiful way to look at food.
I was starting to see someone outside of the restaurant, not my boyfriend who I had left in Connecticut, but a 26-year-old Peruvian man who lived with his dad. (I’d called it off with Connecticut on day four.) We went to the beach and the market and the museum and I occasionally cooked for him. Sometimes the only food I got in a day was the food from his dad’s fridge, usually a modest portion of ham, cheese, toast, papaya, and cancha. On occasion we had chicken, rice, and lentils on my days off. I tried camu-camu ice cream. I wish I could find camu-camu ice cream in The States.
I met his friends at a parrillada, or outdoor cookout. Everyone was supposed to bring something to contribute. I brought chicken, thinking we could easily throw that on the grill. The chicken disappeared into the freezer that night and was never seen again. It was all about the meat, the carne, the red stuff. I connected with a woman at the party who had lived in the States for high school, who spoke English. I started opening up, and being able to express my emotions in my own language. This was something I had struggled with in my day-to-day life in Spanish. It’s mentally taxing to translate every word from one language to another and try to conjugate every verb correctly and read the other person’s context and body language. I felt so relieved to have a communication interaction without thinking. I could effortlessly speak again.
The longer I was in Perú, the more I appreciated the food. I felt disoriented the first few weeks, trying to learn the names of all the ingredients and keep track of which dish they were used for and if I even liked that dish. I spent a lot of time in a kitchen that celebrated cultural fusion. Peruvian ingredients intermingled with French, Italian, and Japanese cooking techniques. In the garden, I picked herbs that I recognized, like basil and mint, and others that were unique to Perú, such as huacatay, muña, and chincho.
The most important takeaway from Peruvian cuisine I got from my time there was the importance of sourcing limes and salt. The type of lime in Perú is not the same type of lime we have in the U.S. It’s a lot stronger and more acidic in Perú. More effective. The salt was sourced from the salt flats Moray. The salt is less abrasive and lingers on the tongue longer than the standard cooking salt in the U.S. Those two ingredients together, salt and lime, unstoppable.
Please, do not underestimate the quality of food found outside of the United States. Please do not underestimate the work ethic and cleanliness of kitchens outside the U.S. Working at Astrid y Gastón as an extern raised my standards immensely. The apex of a fine dining experience in the U.S. isn’t comparable to the commonplace pollo a la brasa or carta de menú experience on the streets of Perú. I’m upset that there aren’t names for these ingredients that English-speakers can readily Google on the Internet. Learning these things requires traveling to the country and naming the ingredients and dishes firsthand, which isn’t always accessible to everyone.
I got into cooking for two reasons: 1) learn how to take care of people 2) travel.
My definition of “taking care of people” has changed over the years. Yeah, you can physically take care of someone by cooking for them. But you can also celebrate a people, a cuisine, by recording the names of things, and translating them into other languages for people to enjoy.
And traveling isn’t glamorous. When it’s safe, it’s boring. When it’s exciting, it’s probably because something unexpectedly went wrong and your life is now at risk. But travel is human, and it’s necessary.
Follow Aurora's journey here.