Villa Maria del Triunfo, one of the Peruvian capital’s most underprivileged and crime-blighted neighbourhoods, seems an unlikely place to seek out fine food. The streets are dusty, the pavements cracked, the roadside buildings lurch violently in different directions. A 2012 survey found that at least 43 per cent of households had been a victim of crime during the preceding year, that 80 per cent of residents felt unsafe in the streets and only 20 per cent had confidence in the police.
But the founders of El Populacho, a restaurant that opened here late last year, have a vision: that good food and good wine should know no borders. Recent years have seen Peruvian cuisine enjoy a surge of popularity in the fashionable districts of London, New York and Paris, but the team at El Populacho believe poor Peruvians are increasingly missing out. “Since Peruvian cuisine has become so popular of late, especially in the most upmarket areas of Lima, excellent food has become too expensive for locals,” says Roland Carhuaz, sommelier and one of the founders, “and this is sad in a culture that loves its food so much.”
Standing beside Carhuaz are the other two founders, siblings Betsi and Andrés Albornoz. Betsi, 28, who is also Carhuaz’s girlfriend, works as the restaurant’s pastry chef while Andrés, 25, a veteran of many of Peru’s top restaurants, is in charge of the savoury dishes.
From this cramped kitchen, the restaurant opens into a bright dining room with enough space for 30 diners. Articles from local newspapers decorate the walls, which are painted blue, and two speakers belt out cumbia classics. Outside, the mid-morning chaos of the local neighbourhood is beginning. Cars burp out thick clouds of fumes and tuk-tuks zoom in and out of the mounting traffic like mosquitoes.
The team say they didn’t want to open in one of the city’s more fashionable neighbourhoods where rent is sky-high, and where they would risk being lost amid the ever-increasing number of fine-dining restaurants. “We came here because we wanted to open in a place where there wasn’t anything around,” Carhuaz tells me, “where the restaurant would have an impact and give the local people an experience that they had never come across before.”
We want to make high cuisine accessible, so that a lawyer from a wealthy neighbourhood might sit next to someone from the local area
The menu, they had decided, would be mostly Peruvian-based, and would include classics such as ceviche (fresh raw fish cured in citric juices) and fish anticuchos (a type of local brochette). Service would be key — they would take time to talk to customers about the food — and prices would be cut as low as finances permit. “This was particularly important concerning the wine,” says Carhauz. “There isn’t much of a wine culture in Peru outside of the upper classes; so, to sell something nobody knows about in a poor area, it has to be reasonably priced.”
Now in their tenth month of operation, the team is happy with how things are going. There are, of course, the weekly problems with the water supply, the occasional power cut, and the constant worry that comes with running a business in a neighbourhood where extortion and burglary are rampant. But the founders admit, they were well aware of these problems before they started here.
“People are coming every day; they are ordering wine, artisanal beer, and enjoying the quality of the service we give them,” says Andrés Albornoz with pride. “Some diners are even making the trip from the city’s more affluent areas.” It seems the unlikely dream behind El Populacho — of lawyer and local workman sitting elbow to elbow — is beginning to become a reality.