Peru, Chifas, And “Sexy” Tapas
Chef Carlos Sotomayor is the head chef at Elefante, a Spanish-Mediterranean fusion fine dining location. He is part of the highly-respected El Willy Group that brought the original “sexy” tapas to China, which are places where you can go and get bites and drinks. “Tapas” are appetizer-esque dishes that can be served hot or cold, and come in bite-sized portions. In these “sexy” tapas that the El Willy group began to open up, they are paired with drinks made specifically for those dishes, and they have become a quickly-rising hit in Shanghai over the last 8 years.
Chef Sotomayor was born in Peru, and lived for quite a while in the U.S. During his initial schooling, Sotomayor was in an IT program before switching over to the hospitality major. He stated that he couldn’t see himself sitting at a desk 8 hours a day after obtaining his degree, and that this revelation was the driving force behind his change of major. He took as many culinary elective courses as he could, and after obtaining his degree in Hospitality, he went to go study in Germany for six months. Sotomayor also did a stint of studying in France, so his eclectic food background shows within the dishes he creates at Elefante.
His culinary journey began when he went down south to live with his grandmother when he was 13 years old. He admitted to her that his mother didn’t know how to cook well, so his grandmother took to writing down 10 pages worth of basic Peruvian-based recipes, such as stews and coriander rice.
He admits that his at-home cooking is still richly steeped in his grandmother’s recipes, but in his restaurant he adds a wonderful, trendy twist on them to attract customers. He loves that people are beginning to ask questions about where he sources his ingredients. It’s this growing wealth of knowledge, and his want for the consumers to learn, that pushes him to use the very best ingredients.
Back during older times, dining out was more of a treat than it was a normal occurrence. Homegrown parties and get-togethers with the neighbors were more popular, and the dishes that a person brought over would usually signify to someone where they were originally from. That was the beginning stages of people educating others on food. Now, in both the Peruvian and Chinese markets, there is this growing trend of eating out much more than eating in, so this need for fresh ingredients that remind people of home is quickly making its way into the market. This want for homegrown food minus the homegrown atmosphere is what’s pushing consumers, as a whole, to become more knowledgeable about what they are eating.
He admits that many people who live in big cities still have a massive lack of information when it comes to the food they are eating, but he is seeing a quickly-growing demand for producer-to-plate style restaurants, especially in the Chinese market. Higher quality products are in demand as the knowledge of food rises, and he welcomes questions about his food all the time.
He admits that when he travels to a new country, the first place he goes is to the food market. You can find the country’s specialties within any of their food markets. In China, for example, you can find an entire green market that specializes in everything from bok choy to green tea-cooked eggs. You have a dry market that houses things like dried seaweed and dried fish, and you have an entire tofu market with types of tofu that you can’t find anywhere else in the world. A food market is the place to go to find the best food that a specific country has to offer.
In Chef Sotomayor’s background culture, there is this growing trend of food blossoming called “chifa,” which is a Chinese-Peruvian fusion of food. Elements of this fusion are taken and fused within his recipes for Elefante, and his own love for it is seen in his own eating habits. He admits to loving fried rice, fried noodles, and potato strings with chili.
His relationship with the El Willy Group has skyrocketed his career. Willy, the owner of the group, got a chance to open a place called El Willie, and became so successful after three years that he opened Elefante. Now, there are several offshoots, called “tapas,” that cater to the bite-and-drink crowd. Their particular brand of tapas has a very sexy, trendy feel to it, and it is a major hit with the younger and business crowd. It has grown into a massive movement in Shanghai in just 8 years, and the key is maintaining quality and consistency within the fine dining world.
One of Elefante’s core dishes is the suckling pig, which is odd to find because China is very ingredient-driven versus being meat-driven when it comes to their style of cooking. To them, meat is just a medium for flavor, not the star of the show. However, their process for their suckling pig includes seasoning it a day in advance, and the method of cooking it is kept consistent within the kitchen so that it has that crispy skin and juicy meat every single time.
While chifa is a growing trend in Peru, tapas are a growing fine dining trend in the Chinese marketplace, and its rapid growth in just 8 years shows a lot of potential for other markets in other major cities in China. But, for right now, Shanghai is their target, and they are flourishing.
Suckling pig, anyone?