It was the moment when I had to recite the dim sum’s components to our dining companions, in Spanish, that I knew I was immersed in something unique. In a way, this is what my dinner companions and I had agreed to – to let go of our typical assumptions of what dining out entails, allowing ourselves to be surprised, and hopefully, delighted.
That’s what Nestor Rodriguez, the head chef, and his partners, Wister Sanchez and Ana Cecilia Obregon, want to bring to the table with the Jato Project (in operation since November 2016). I was one of twelve invited into their home in Miraflores, not just to eat but take part in a different type of dining concept often referred to as “puertas cerradas” in Latin America, or underground dining in many American cities.
Like many other _puertas cerradas_, the Jato Project’s base idea is fairly simple – guests are invited to the secret location where they are served a multicourse meal. The location and menu are revealed only hours before the start of the dinner. Guests, no more than 12 at a time, can feel like they’re taking part in something exclusive and special. The owners also benefit from the flexibility and freedom to operate a business as they please.
_Nestor Rodriguez, left, guides guests (Photo: Monique Loayza)_
Rodriguez, arms covered in tattoos, face shielded by a dapper beard, eyes bespectacled with thick rimmed aviators, and ears adorned with plug piercings, leaves an impression. If you got the sense that he’s one to bend the rules, you wouldn’t be far off, and that extends to the kitchen. A native of Venezuela, he was drawn to Lima because of the city’s famed gastronomic reputation but became dismayed by what he describes as the restaurant industry’s less than ideal conditions – long hours in return for low pay.
As a city that is widely regarded as the gastronomic capital of Latin America and home to some of the top-ranked restaurants in the world, there is no doubt that Lima is a breeding ground for culinary creativity. But this also means it can now command a steep price for those looking to break in. The next Central or “Maido”:http://www.peruthisweek.com/food-restaurant-review-maido-110509 won’t just spring up naturally, but requires the gradual build-up of a heavy army of investors.
Rodriguez, 29, didn’t have backers but he knew he was ready to have his own outpost where he could work for himself and showcase his culinary talents. It helps that he isn’t a novice to the _puertas cerradas_ concept, having run one before in Buenos Aires, the city that is no stranger to the trend. Just try googling “puertas cerradas” or even “closed door restaurants” and you’ll find that most search results are nearly all in relation to Buenos Aires. During years of economic volatility, it offered Argentines the possibility to run their own business without the constraints of opening a restaurant from scratch. Better yet, there was less risk involved and an opportunity to entice foreigners who came to the city in droves after the value of the peso dropped.
_Quinoa crepes stuffed with duck breast (Photo: Monique Loayza)_
While Peru hasn’t experienced quite the same conditions as Argentina, Lima’s culinary reputation has already begun to attract tourists but has also set expectations high for locals, who in theory should be enticed by the greater variety in the food scene here. Rodriguez, enlisting the help of his two friends as partners, is banking on this.
Recently I attended one of the Jato Project’s dinners, and the evening was full of personalized and unexpected flourishes. As each guest entered the apartment, we were welcomed by the hosts (Obregon and Sanchez), introduced to our fellow diners, and asked to make ourselves at home. And who wouldn’t want to call this place home? While the location is meant to be kept hush hush, let’s just say it’s a very nice apartment with an enviable location on the Malecón in Miraflores, and stunning views of the Pacific Ocean to boot.
When we were all seated, our hosts gave us a quick overview of what we could expect that night. Although the menu changes weekly, we learned we would be feasting on Rodriguez’s take on a chifa menu. With nods to both Peruvian and Chinese influences, the menu ran the gamut, starting from an otoshi, or _amuse-bouche_, of _lomo saltado_ and ending in an _helado dai dai_, ice cream made more whimsical with a dusting in cocoa powder, with five other courses in between.
_Helado dai dai to finish off the 6-course meal (Photo: Monique Loayza)_
One of the standout dishes for me was the deconstructed _sopa wantan_, which featured a superbly balanced and clear broth, brimming with flavors of umami. I could have eaten bowls of the stuff. Also delightful was a dish of quinoa crepes, surprisingly light with perfectly cooked cuts of _magret de canard_ and crispy duck skin tucked into the folds and flavored with a homemade strawberry hoisin sauce. While duck tends to be paired with orange, this dish convinced me it’s ok to shake up the relationship from time to time.
Eating pleasurably was the easy part. So let’s revisit that whole having to recite my meal thing. Before each course was served, guests were invited to come up two at a time to the kitchen to observe Rodriguez and his staff plate the upcoming dish, basically taking a crash course in learning the names of the ingredients. After each pair finished serving the plates, they had to recap what they learned back to everyone else, all under the watchful eye of Rodriguez. Let’s just say my intermediate level of Spanish and memorization capacity of a goldfish didn’t serve me well during my turn.
While this forced participation might seem at first unwarranted, what results is a level of intimacy and relaxation with the food, the staff and fellow guests, that isn’t really possible in a revered but often times sterile fine dining experience. We had a full view of what was happening in the kitchen and were encouraged to peer and wander in. Well after the last course was served and the plates ushered away, no one was in a rush to ask us to leave. In fact, the whole Jato Project crew stuck around to talk, mingle and enjoy a drink with the remaining guests. They may charge 70 soles for 6 courses, but it’s hard to put a price on all these extra touches.
It’s clear that a project like the Jato Project adds something novel and exciting to the already flourishing dining scene here in Lima. And while Rodriguez, Obregon, and Sanchez will continue to serve dinners twice a week at this location, for them the long-term future is to refine their offering and bring in a network of more chefs and locations. While deciding what to relish for your next dinner out you probably have a myriad of establishments in mind, but the originality of this offering puts it in a category of its own. One useful tip: it doesn’t hurt to practice your food vocabulary before dinner.
For more information about the Jato Project and to find out about upcoming dinners, “visit their Facebook page”:https://www.facebook.com/TheJatoProject/?fref=ts.
_A native New Yorker of Peruvian and Colombian descent, Monique Loayza is a recent transplant to Lima after having spent the better part of the last ten years in Europe. Working in marketing for a travel company by day, she spends most other waking hours eating, cooking, or thinking about food. Fascinated by urban food landscapes, her mission is to further explore Lima’s vast food scene, one bite at a time._