It is an undeniable reality that Peruvian cuisine is the new golden child of global food critics. Thanks to endorsements from maestros including Ferran Adrià and Eric Ripert, savvy eaters around the world can now indulge in ceviche at multimillion-dollar establishments. Gastón Acurio’s empire has expanded to many Latin American capitals with its trademark Astrid y Gastón franchise. Hence, it has become customary for the epicurean Peruvian businessman to dine at Acurio’s restaurants while discussing Kirchner or Peña Nieto’s latest policies in Buenos Aires or Mexico DF respectively. Amidst so much recent global penetration of ceviches, causas and tiraditos, it was no surprise when a business associate of mine in Maceió, Brazil picked the local Peruvian restaurant for a meeting last week when I visited the country’s sugar cane capital. Little did I know about the caliber of the culinary experience that awaited me.
In a country of continental proportions, Maceió’s population of fewer than one million fails to place it in Brazil’s top 10 largest cities. However, beach charm, pristine waters and exceptional Peruvian food make up for its lack of size. In 1996, long before another one of Acurio’s establishments, La Mar São Paulo, had opened its doors in Itaim Bibi, Jose Luis Risco Bert and his wife Simone inaugurated their interpretation of Peruvian cuisine: Wanchako. The story goes something along the lines of: Peruvian boy meets Brazilian girl, Peruvian mother-in-law teaches new daughter to cook, Brazilian girl’s passion in the kitchen and the entrepreneurial vision of the couple leads them to start a Peruvian restaurant and it becomes the best eatery in the city for almost two decades running.
You don’t need to get much further than the front door of the restaurant to see that this couple has found success; it is showcased by the mural of plaques celebrating their accomplishments in the entrance salon. The decoration is an array of carefully handpicked artifacts to give the place a homey air. Jose’s love for Trujillo and its beaches is evident in the laidback ambience. As he explained, the name Wanchako is a play on Huanchaco, a beach where he surfed growing up. The food complements the environment in a seamless manner and embraces the local flavors of northeast Brazil superbly. Being the daughter of a fisherman, Simone’s hand is evident in the selection of local seafood that adheres to the traditional flavors on the menu. The seasoning of ají brought directly from Lima is the house’s staple ingredient and local twists representing Maceió’s important coconut industry are reflected in dishes such as the coconut shrimp tempura with a hint of pisco. To top off the experience, a delicious suspiro a la limeña is served to perfection.
Wanchako came as a breath of fresh air in contrast to the cookie-cutter production of Peruvian restaurants that I have visited abroad in the past year. There is something to be said about the comfort food that Peruvian cuisine embodies. In my opinion, this is best conveyed by restaurateurs who are personally involved daily in every aspect of their operation. From personal experience, those who have prioritized competing for reviews with neighboring three-star restaurants have failed to control simple details such as paper towels in the restroom and sufficient stock of rice on busy days.
As food for thought, it is imperative that our most distinguished culinary ambassadors focus on sustaining the quality of our most cherished export in the manner that Jose and Simone have mastered. I highly doubt the Michelin Guide critics will visit Maceio anytime soon, but if the founding principle of their publication still serves as a compass, this restaurant is definitely worth a detour from the road.
Rua Sao Francisco de Assis 93
Maceio – Brasil
Carlos E. Naupari grew up as an expatriate in Bolivia, Venezuela, Brazil and Saudi Arabia. He graduated from the University of Virginia with a degree in foreign affairs, after which he spent four years working for UBS in New York. He recently decided to become an entrepreneur and moved to his native Peru to join in the economic boom, and is now the managing director of Madison Trade.