By Antonia Mufarech
Surrounded by colorful quipus (knotted cords used by the Incas to store information) hanging from the ceiling that contrast with his gray uniform, executive chef Roberto Rocha checks the freshly plated lomo saltado (a traditional Peruvian stir fry over rice) that enters the dining area.
He usually hangs around in the kitchen, helping chop some camotes (sweet potatoes) or explaining how to make the perfect arroz con mariscos (seafood rice), setting an example for the rest of the cooks.
Born in Lima, Peru, Rocha grew up in Miami and studied graphic design in Mexico. Although his parents owned restaurants in Lima, he never imagined himself in the kitchen. Now, as the executive chef of Tanta Chicago, Rocha brings his multicultural experiences and eye for design to the restaurant. He hopes to attract diners who have never tried Peruvian food – and those who can’t live without the raw fish marinated in lime juice that makes up a ceviche.
Editor’s note: This interview has been condensed, edited and translated from Spanish for clarity.
When did you decide to become a chef?
I started a little bit late – when I was 25. Before that, my parents had restaurants in Lima, but my father didn’t allow me in the kitchen. I studied architecture and graphic design. Everyone in my family studied architecture, from my great-grandfather to my dad. I realized architecture wasn’t my thing – I only lasted about a semester, but I did finish graphic design.
Without intending to, I ended up cooking because a friend told me that I was a good cook, and that’s how I ended up in a professional kitchen. The passion arrived when I saw the intensity inside the kitchen. The connection between the food you cook and your clients is what led me to want to study and learn more to be able to get to where I am today.
I started learning by myself, reading books, finding recipes online – which was a little harder at the time, but I really loved it. I then started working with the Carvelli Restaurant Group in 2007, and I was very lucky because they allowed me to practice what I was reading in the kitchen, and they pushed me to be a better chef. They also enabled me to start taking cooking classes in 2011 where I learned even more. The only condition I had was to study hard. And I really loved it, so I did.
You have less than a year at Tanta Chicago. How did you end up working for ambassador of Peruvian culinary arts Gastón Acurio?
I became good friends with Jesús Delgado, who is one of Gastón’s corporate chefs. We discussed the idea of getting to Tanta Chicago and bringing a little bit of what he had seen on my Instagram – lots of colorful dishes. In that sense, my knowledge in graphic design helps me a lot because I know how to combine colors. As he said, “Tanta is colors, Tanta is happiness, so it would be good for you to join the team and start something different in Tanta.”
It’s not only about cooking with Gastón. It’s also about learning from Peruvian culture. When you cook, you’re doing it for Peru as well and showing people that live here that we are a very rich country.
I’ve been trying to place my signature in every dish. I want to show people that the different tastes and recipes that Gastón shares with us are incredible. For example, I started a concept called warike, which is an experience of seven steps or dishes.
Can you tell us more about warike?
We launched this new concept a few weeks ago. In Peru, “warikes” are hidden places that people go to. When you go to a place a lot, people call it warike. People can come to Tanta and have a ceviche or lomo saltado. But now, they can also come and experience something a little more romantic, where they can see better ingredients, better products, combine different flavors they’ve experienced from other restaurants and dishes with a Peruvian twist.
The idea behind warike is to offer a more personalized service. The experience lasts almost two hours, where people sit at the Nikkei bar and I serve them directly, explaining what each dish represents and where I got the inspiration from. I will change the menu every three months. For example, I am currently doing Nikkei food (a cuisine that consists of Peruvian ingredients shaped by Japanese techniques), then I will do Bachiche (culture from Italians who moved to Peru). And then I will continue with all the different cultures we have in Peru: African, Middle Eastern and so on. We don’t only want Peruvians to come for our products, but we want people in Chicago and the United States to get to know our food.
How do you find a balance when it comes to embracing the traditional recipes and adding an innovative twist?
I try to make sure that 70% of the menu consists of classical Peruvian dishes – the other 30% is all about innovation.
What other new concepts have you proposed to commemorate the 10-year anniversary of Tanta Chicago?
We have started creating different dishes, such as the tiradito chucuito. It’s a Bachiche dish inspired by the Italians that immigrated to Peru and installed themselves in Chucuito in Callao, Peru (a district in Lima). The dish is made with leche de tigre (the marinade used to cure fish in ceviche) with parmesan cheese. And then we add white fish, for which we usually use corvina (sea bass), and add some fried capers, tomato confit with some olive oil and oregano, some chips made from pasta and some basil oil. It’s simple but very flavorful, and it has lots of Italian ingredients.
The idea is to show how all the different races and roots found in Peru influence its food and culture. We’re hoping that people will take a new idea of Tanta while getting to know Peruvian ingredients.
What do you hope people experience at Tanta?
I want people to know Peru for its food. A smile once people are done eating is everything. They don’t necessarily need to say the food is delicious. They just need to leave happy. That’s more valuable than any other thing.
I am a cevichero – anything that has ceviche or tiradito (thinly sliced raw fish typically served with a spicy citrus sauce), I will always prefer that. Before I go home, I always eat either one.
Antonia Mufarech is a Magazine graduate student at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter @antomufarech.