When Niko Romito Came to Peru

When Gelinaz! founder Andrea Petrini approached Niko Romito, the Italian chef of the restaurant Reale, to be a part of the second incarnation of the Grand Gelinaz! Shuffle, where 40 of the world’s top chefs would be swapping restaurants for one night, he reluctantly said yes. Despite having a three Michelin star restaurant, Romito isn’t that well known outside of Italy. He’s not all over television or flying to Moscow for four hands dinners. He’s comfortable working on his craft at his restaurant Reale in Abruzzo. He assumed that for the Gelinaz! Shuffle he would probably end up somewhere like Copenhagen, but then began to think about the possibilities. Immediately after he said “hopefully, it’s not somewhere like Peru.” Of course it was Peru.

Gelinaz!, founded by Petrini, is a self-proclaimed “collective of worldwide cutting edge chefs willing to share knowledge and dynamite culinary languages together.” The “performances” have included things like an 8-hour octopus and potatoes dinner in Lima beside a Pre-Columbian pyramid, a surprise birthday party for Wylie Dufresne in his own restaurant, and a series of “Walk With Us Dinners” where diners walked from one restaurant to another. It’s unpredictable and it doesn’t always work out as planned, yet new ideas are given birth and unusual collaborations are formed, which is why chefs like René Redzepi (Noma), Sean Brock (Husk), and Massimo Bottura regularly take part.

Coincidentally, I was in Italy a couple of months before the Shuffle. Looking for places to eat, Petrini recommended via email I stop by Romito’s restaurant in Abruzzo, as I was going from Rome to Naples and it is more or less in that vicinity. Weeks later Virgilio Martinez asked me to be the Gelinaz! ambassador at Central for the event and I mentioned to Petrini when we happened to meet for dinner in Copenhagen a week before I would be at Reale. “Do you swear not to tell who the guest chef at Central is?” he asked. I did. It was Niko Romito. Petrini insists that it just worked out like that. The destinations were already chosen when I told Petrini I was going to Central. For better or for worse, you never quite know what is going to happen with Gelinaz!

Other than a few courses at A Tavola con lo Chef in Rome and Etoile in Sottomarina di Chioggia, plus a couple of months in the kitchen at Valeria Piccini’s 2-Michelin star restaurant Da Caino in Montemerano, Romito, 42, is completely self-taught, having learned most of what he knows about cooking from reading about it and experimenting in his own kitchen. He never even had the intention of working in a restaurant. He was studying Economics in Rome when his father turned the family pastry shop in the village of Rivisondoli in Abruzzo into a restaurant. Later on, when his father passed, he and his sister Cristiana returned home to take it over. The restaurant was quickly awarded a Michelin star in 2007 and a second followed two years later. In 2011, they moved Reale to Casadonna, a sixteenth century monastery surrounded by vineyards and gardens in nearby Castel di Sangro, which serves the base of a cooking school he opened and a boutique hotel. A third Michelin star quickly followed. Additionally, he now has a network of restaurant-laboratories (Spazio) run by the graduates of the school, located in Rivisondoli, Rome, and Milan that are on the verge of international expansion, as well as a nutrition project called “Intelligenza Nutrizionale.”

During my dinner at Reale, Romito’s cuisine gave me the impression of simplicity. Just a few ingredients were used in many dishes, most of them fairly common in Abruzzo, like eggplant and almonds. Many dishes even resembled standard preparations. This is all intentional. Yet, when you look what goes in to each dish you realize just how complex it is and how much technique is being implemented. As Romito is not really mimicking any other chef, he has his own methods for preparing each dish that are unlike anything I’ve ever really experienced in fine dining.

“I work from the ingredient, trying to awaken its intrinsic power rather than add it,” he wrote in his book 10 Lezioni di Cucina. “I don’t want the ingredient to get lost, but rather explode on the palate with all its vitality.”

He is fond of layering an ingredient so that the flavor is intensified. His roasted artichoke is a perfect example of this. He first steams the outer leaves, then blends the stems and leaves with water and passes the mixture through a cheese cloth to make a glaze, steams and then roasts the whole artichoke in a pan with sunflower oil, and finally adds the glaze and puts the artichoke in the oven. Secondary flavors like mint and licorice within the artichoke are then released and are so forceful that you just assume they are part of the recipe. It’s this concentrated effort to control each ingredient, which often extends into how it is grown and understanding the physical structure of it, in order to unearth its maximum expression that sets Romito apart. So, the question for Gelinaz! at Central became: how do you apply these techniques in a few days to a kitchen that might have more unusual ingredients than any other on earth?

As I was the ambassador out at Boragó in Santiago, Chile for the Gelinaz Shuffle in 2015 when Slovenia’s Ana Roš was the guest chef, I know how difficult it can be for a European chef cooking in a Latin American country where so many ingredients are unfamiliar. So after my visit to Reale I sent an email out to both kitchen teams on points of commonalities between the two restaurants. From afar, it may seem like Central and Reale have two completely different approaches to cooking, and they do, though there’s more overlap than it may seem.

For instance, both chefs have spent their careers trying to understand ecosystems and how the flora and fauna within them go together gastronomically. With Martinez, it’s the entirety of Peru, categorized by altitudes. Romito sticks to Abruzzo, though his scientific approach is just as thorough, having done things such as mapping out and cataloging the wild plants around Casadonna. Balancing acidity is important for a good ceviche and a concept used throughout the dishes at Central, while acidity is important to many of Romito’s dishes as well, such as Spaghetti and Tomato. I also pulled out ingredients on Romito’s menu that had some obvious Peruvian alternative, such as sacha tomate instead of tomato, Bahuaja nuts instead of almonds, and huacatay instead of parsley.

On our first morning together in Lima our initial stop was at Surquillo’s Mercado No. 1 and Central’s Karime Lopez, who speaks Italian, and Romito’s partner Laura Lazzaroni and co-author, came along. We walked around tasting fruits like yacón, camu camu, and lucuma. He found the artichokes curious, as they were pealed and the hearts floating in water. By the time we left the market he was debating with Lopez about specific fish he could use for stock and if alpaca shoulder might be useful for one of his recipes.

Bread is an essential part of the Niko Romito experience, so we next sought out Pan de la Chola’s Jonathan Day. At Reale, bread doesn’t just come on the side, it’s a course. Brioches and various baked goods make up much of the breakfast table, while he is developing a concept around the bomba, a stuffed pastry his father’s bakery was once famous for.

“Do you have a good tradition of wheat in Peru?” Romito and Lazzaroni asked Day, surprised that there were bakeries of this level in Lima.

“No it’s shit. A nightmare,” said Day. He explained how much work he has had to do to be able to produce breads of this quality in Lima. They debated attempting to create a new bread with Niko using Peruvian potatoes, but there just wasn’t time. Romito would go on to use a brioche with the tuber arracacha that was pulled from the Central archives and would be topped with liver and figs, and Day’s house bread for a new version of his “Pane e Cioccolato” where a mixture of chocolate with 70 percent Piura cacao and cacao mucilage (an ingredient Romito called “bitter, acidic, and transparent yet with an almost viscous texture, primordial and elegant”) was melted over the bread.

We had lunch at La Mar and later dinner at Central. Romito had about 20 ideas for dishes racing through his head, and probably more by the time the night was over. “It’s going to be a disaster,” he joked.

The next day we set out early for a family farm outside of Pachacamac south of Lima. If there were a few more days we would have gone to Cusco or Tarapoto so Romito could have a better idea of the landscape, a fundamental piece of the Central experience. This farm in Mal Paso, run by a pair of sisters and their mother, is not what most have in mind when they visit Peru. The landscape is arid desert and sand dunes are not uncommon, but out of nowhere there is a patch of lush green, where organically grown crops are ringed by banana trees. Standard herbs and tomatoes were there, as well as purple corn and arracacha.

He wanted to put himself in Martinez’s shoes, not to cook his food, but to work within the boundaries of Central. To get completely out of his comfort zone. He wanted to work with what was local and he didn’t have his team or equipment. “At Reale we have seven ovens, Central has one,” he said. “The reason being obviously that the technical approach and culinary concepts are totally different.”

After returning to Central in the afternoon, Romito rarely left the kitchen for the next two days. The menu quickly began to come together and Martinez’s wife and Central’s head chef Pia León, had the kitchen team helping Romito every moment outside of regular service. We borrowed sea urchins from Maido to pair with tamarillo and pork belly from Osso that would be flavored with apple and ají panca.

He decided to use the Peruvian yellow potato for gnocchi. They kept falling apart and everyone thought it wasn’t going to work, but Romito was able to find the right consistency and would serve it with burnt butter and coca powder. A potato dish paid homage to Peru using Romito’s layering technique where he reconstructed a potato with purée, crisp skin, and potato powder. Soon, the eight dishes became 11, plus a snack.

As Romito and the team prepped at Central, we began getting news of the other Gelinaz! Shuffle dinners occurring around the world. Martinez was finishing service at Jimbocho Den in Tokyo. Hours later Romito and Lazzaroni began receiving photos of the dinner at Reale, where Narisawa was cooking. René Redzepi popped up in Paris. Jock Zonfrillo was in Brooklyn. At the Gelinaz! HQ at Bon Bon in Brussels, where 20 chefs were preparing four three hour dinners, we couldn’t tell what the hell was going on.

Though he admitted otherwise later, Romito never showed any hint of nervousness. “I feel Peruvian today,” he said as he cut the veal liver, which looked like the breast of a pigeon and was as soft as foie gras.

“We’re going to have fun. Everything is ‘a la minute,’” said Lopez, who had a nervous look on her face. Like at Central, Romito’s style of cooking has a considerable amount of preparation done in advance, though there is significantly more execution of dishes in the moment. There is much more that can go wrong.

Before service started both León and Romito addressed the front of the house and back of the house teams. “The thing is the food is very simple, but it’s very precise,” Romito explained. He wanted them to know that. To be prepared. It didn’t matter. There were few hiccups, if any. Everyone I spoke with enjoyed the dinner. There were breakthroughs that only a self-trained Italian chef making spur of the moment kitchen decisions in Peru could have thought of, like braised octopus with carrot puree and a grapefruit leche de tigre, or that pepino melon could find its way on a tart with goat cheese.

“A challenge was maintaining my own identity while trying to celebrate not Peru in general, but rather a very particular, nuanced, and deep expression of its gastronomy and biodiversity,” Romito said.

Like every Gelinaz! Shuffle dinner, Romito’s menu at Central was not the full Reale experience. Rather, it was a bastardized version of the chef’s cooking, a brief glimpse into his brain. Have a look.

Niko Romito’s Gelinaz! Shuffle Menu at Central