I try not to make resolutions as the New Year comes around as they tend to weigh me down and the stress of keeping or trying to stay on track is eventually very tiresome. This year there is one change that I have made consciously and I hope to adhere to, that is trying to ‘free up space in my mind’. With all the activities I am involved in, the cooking, the event and demo appearances, the travel, and meeting people my brain is cluttered with stuff. In search of that calm that is so fickle I am attempting to share all my thoughts and stories with everyone by writing and hopefully freeing some more space to carry on accumulating ‘more stuff’.
It is very motivating to meet people who have chosen to live life on their own terms and hereby not just existed but lived fully and freely. I have eaten tartares and ceviches, crudos and sashimi served up in many cuisines, and I am ashamed to say was a little jaded about even some extreme proteins used by elite chefs and restaurants tout le monde.
Last year I gained a fresh perspective about this style of cuisine when I went to meet with Chef Javier Wong at his Chez Wong, situated in his home in Lima, Peru. The experience was enlightening not only because of the skill of this world renowned master of ceviche or his ceviches. The food and life philosophy of this 67 year old man and our conversation about these subjects still resonates in my conscience. Fulfillment in your work and life can be attained by aspiring first for contentment. Wong’s unlined visage and calm demeanor is a result of the choices he has made about how he prefers to cook and live his life. I was envious of the serenity that radiates from him and hope to work towards that state this year by simplifying and enjoying each day as it unfolds.
Javier Wong Peruvian Master of /Ceviche
Chef Javier Wong is a food icon in Peru and revered not only by chefs and cooks but the entire country. On a recent visit to Lima I made sure to visit Chef Wong to savor his food but ended up having a very interesting conversation with him. Wong’s restaurant Chez Wong as the name suggests is located in a part of his own home. I have heard stories about how he sometimes limits entry to certain individuals. In the simple dining room with red tablecloths and glass topped tables he serves the menu of the day. There are usually four dishes, two hot and two cold and he decides what he will serve on a particular day. The restaurant is only open for lunch and closes at four to allow him to be up in the early hours of the morning to source his products for the day.
Wong is known for his cebiche and guests start their meal with a lime marinated fish and octopus cebiche with sliced red onions, aji chilies and cilantro. The products for the day are very carefully selected on his early morning shopping trip but the real magic is his skill and expertise at getting the best out of them. There is a small counter in the back of the room, a part of which is taken over by the cash register and the gentleman who very laboriously prepares the bills for customers. On the side of this small counter are four knives on a magnetic strip. Behind this an open doorway leads into a minuscule open air courtyard with a wok on top of a gas cylinder. The cylinder is the cooking source as well as the base for the wok. One assistant there preps the vegetables and other than condiments and a dish washing area that is the entire operation. He whips out a huge flounder from under the counter and at lightning speed filets and slices the fish, drops into a bowl adds the limes and chilies and voila! Within three minutes the dish is on your table. In this bare minimum kitchen he makes magic happen and any Limoan worth his salt is happy to be there at least once in his life. He does not like to give interviews so I was uncertain about how my conversation would go and was pleasantly surprised by my interaction with him.
What does food and cooking mean to you?
It is one of the largest expressions of liberty that can exist. All I need is a table a couple of knives, some product to work with and I can make it happen.
So it is not only about feeding the body but also feeding the spirit?
Exactly, you are very wise. I like conversing with people from whom I can learn as life is about learning and when you stop that you cease to be. How unhappy would our God be if he saw a person who thinks he knows it all?
That would make life very boring don’t you think?
That is what I believe. God will say that people have declared a strike and they want me to leave.
What is the most important emotion a cook must have?
The most important thing that God has given us is the power to create and the freedom to do it because without freedom nothing is possible. We must cook from the heart.
Do you things chefs can change society with their food?
Food without social spirit does not serve any purpose. For chef’s frontiers, barriers are like old vehicles that must be removed to clear the path. A chef must also make his food accessible to those without money in this social world. We must share everything, food, skills, and knowledge.
What makes you happy and smile all the time?
Well it really depends on yourself. You have to allow yourself to be happy.
According to you what are the three most important qualities a chef or cook must have?
Honesty, creativity, and a lot of love. The last one is the most important because without love nothing is possible.
Who inspired you to start cooking?
An uncle showed me the way to the kitchen and over time I started to develop my own style.
Where do you find inspiration on a daily basis for your cebiche and your other dishes?
People like you inspire me. I am so happy to be having a conversation like this.
What you think of the trend of cooking with fancy technology and fusion of other cuisines in Spain for example?
There was that wave of Japanese influence in Spain that was not good for their food culture and now Peruvian which not really new to them. A lot of this came from Spain and is now going back there again. So they are just returning to their roots. To use a phrase that comes from Spanish it’s the oceans that unite people and the rest like cuisine follows.
What is your favorite season in Lima?
I don’t feel the difference because I am here behind the same counter and cooking every day.
Dare I ask what your favorite dish is?
Cebiche of course! See I am 65 and I don’t have a wrinkle and this is because of what I eat every day. I don’t serve any rice or bread with my food because I think they are harmful to consume and so not even a grain of rice with my food.
Which young chefs in Peru are the ones to watch according to you?
There are lots of good chefs but Virgilio Martinez at Central, Giacomo Bocchio from Manifiesto, Rafael Pequeras at Maras, and actually except for Toshiro at Mesa 18 they have all been my students.
Do you train others besides these prominent chefs?
I am a mentor to a lot of others who are very talented. I do like to help those who come to me.
I know you live here in this house, tell me about your family?
I am blessed with two sons and two grandchildren.
Have your children entered the culinary field too?
(laughing) Only in that they are good eaters and enjoy my food.
Since I have been here in Peru and visiting the markets I am seeing ingredients that I never knew even existed. Do you think you are fortunate to be located in this place?
Here in Peru we have so much original products that we don’t really need anything to come from outside. In our Amazon we have barely scratched the surface in terms of products or studied only maybe 11% of what lies there. That is where our future and our destiny lie. There are many health benefits from a lot of these products that are in the Amazon maybe even to treat and prevent cancer and people all over the world will be better for it.
Do you like the sea or the landscapes?
Definitely la mar (the sea).
What music or art do you enjoy and which artists do you prefer?
I like the art more than the artist.
Tell me about your favorite place to visit and why?
Spain for sure and especially Madrid. I like San Sebastian too (this after I recognized Juan Mari Arzak in a photograph with chef Wong that is proudly displayed on his counter).
I will be going to Galicia in the second part of June by invitation of the Michelin people. All the Michelin chefs will be there.
Can I tag along?
For sure I would like you to come too!
Then he had to go back to cooking for his guests in the dining room many of them coming up to talk to me to tell me that it was the first time they saw him having such a long conversation with anyone. I followed him to the wok to learn the secret to his sweet and sour dish. That’s a secret I am not sharing with anyone!