Post #GelinazShuffle: Niko Romito talks Central & Peru

I am shy and by nature prone to isolation: why otherwise would I live in and work out of a monastery on the mountains of Abruzzo? I took part in the Gelinaz Walk With Us London Edition, and enjoyed the experience, but I knew the Shuffle would be different. I thought to myself “Just as long as it’s not somewhere really far – like, I don’t know, Peru” and when Andrea Petrini told me it would be Peru my reaction was: “Oh Madonna!”. Well, it was fantastic!

Normally it takes a long time for me to develop a new dish. I’m a self-taught cook so my natural approach is a total immersion into the ingredient: the result is simple but there is a great deal of technical work required to achieve that simplicity and maintaining balance is especially hard. I had never been to Peru before and I had 3 days to develop an 8-course menu with ingredients I had almost never heard of, let alone had a chance to study in depth like I am used to do at home. The stakes were high because I would be by myself at Central, in Lima, where Virgilio Martinez showcases even the most obscure and forgotten products from all of Peru’s ecosystems, of which he has an encyclopedic knowledge. I wanted to honor that.

Niko Romito discovering Peru. Photo: courtesy of Nicholas Gill
Niko Romito discovering Peru. Photo: courtesy of Nicholas Gill

Nicholas Gill, my Shuffle Ambassador, Pia Leon, wife of Virgilio and the head chef of Central, and Karime Lopez, one of Virgilio’s closest R&D collaborators, were my A-team. They showed me around and literally exposed me to thousands of smells, flavours, textures and dishes. I had already sketched some options out on the flight to Lima: the majority I scratched, with so many new ideas popping. I started to have fun. At the end I made 12 dishes.

Niko Romito working on the menu with the team of Central. Photo: Courtesy of Nicholas Gill
Niko Romito working on the menu with the team of Central. Photo: Courtesy of Nicholas Gill

Everybody chipped in – in the true Gelinaz spirit. Osso’s Renzo Garibaldi provided pork belly for our Pancetta with Ají Panca and Apple, Jonathan Day of El Pan de la Chola brought his sourdough loaves, we got sea urchins from Maido and many vegetables from a farm in Pachacamac that supplies Central too. There were barters with other restaurants, involving Tupperware and radicchio … We we forced to find solutions, quickly.

Niko at work at Central. Photo: courtesy of Nicholas Gill
Niko at work at Central. Photo: courtesy of Nicholas Gill

On my first night in Lima I had dinner at Central and was particularly struck by a Nasturtium leaf roll. I wanted to riff on that, shaping the leaf so that it would resemble a raviolo. At Reale I make a lot of “pasta ripiena”. More and more I’ve been tinkering with the pasta texture and the pasta-to-filling ratio, and stripping the dish so that there’s basically no sauce, just a thin “lacquer”, a glaze. That also ties into something else I do a lot which is layering the same ingredient over itself, in different forms, in order to super-enhance its flavour.

The beauty of Peruvian ingredients. Photo: courtesy of Nicholas Gill
The beauty of Peruvian ingredients. Photo: courtesy of Nicholas Gill

So I had the leaf. I had the shape. What was I going to fill it and top it with? I thought of almonds: I use them a lot back home, especially in a “base” form, a very versatile paste that goes at the bottom of my Mixed wild greens with gin and in my Veal jelly with dried porcini and black truffle and also in a kind of tortellini I serve in a smoked broth. But almond is not a Peruvian staple. Once again Nicholas, Pia and Karime came to the rescue. They suggested Bahuaja Nut, similar in taste to Italian almonds, sweet and delicate. I froze the peeled nuts, and then blended them with water. I filled the Nasturtium ravioli with this paste and then glazed them with an extract of sage and Huacatay, a herb I had discovered at the market, very balsamic and slightly bitter.

The Nasturtium raviolo. Photo: courtesy of Nicholas Gill
The Nasturtium raviolo. Photo: courtesy of Nicholas Gill

After the Nasturtium raviolo the other dishes came easily. Three kinds of Peruvian potatoes were layered in a sort of ode to the tuber. Slices of bread were drenched in cacao mucilago (a fantastic product I wish I had in Abruzzo) and coated in Piura chocolate. The Central crew even found a meat slicer for the liver prosciutto we had prepared. And when time came to roll we were ready. Part of our job as chefs is to build a network of references for ourselves: that is how we find our gastronomical voice. It was great to lose all that, to be without references and to learn to “talk” again. Though I must admit: I’m happy to be back on my mountains!

Niko Romito, Ristorante Reale (Castel di Sangro AQ, Italy)

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