Sandra Plevisani and I met for the first time at a Cava and paella party hosted by acclaimed chef Rafael Piqueres at his Maras restaurant at the Westin in Lima, Peru. It had been an exceptional day for me as that evening I met Chef Toshiro Konishi at Mesa 18 for a great conversation during which we realized we were both invited to the same event that evening and we ended up going there together. At the party I was introduced to Sandra and her husband Ugo, and we connected instantly and found we had a lot in common besides food, travel and supportive spouses. Strangely our experiences with cancer helped create a bond of empathy and a close connection between us. Sandra lost her beautiful daughter Camilla to cancer just over nine years ago, and when we met I had just marked the one year anniversary of my battle with cancer.
Sandra, Ugo, my husband, and I ended up talking till the early hours of the morning, and by the end of the night we were no longer strangers but friends. I have to say it is easy to love this beautiful, elegant, vivacious being, so full of energy and life. Ugo had interesting stories including some about the time he took bakery instruction from Nancy Silverton in the US and, all of us being avid travelers and diners, we had many experiences in common. The next day I found Sandra had dropped off her book of Peruvian desserts and CDs of her TV shows for me, and after coming home to California I studied them to know more about this remarkable woman. Her story of how she transformed after her loss into the self-taught Queen of Peruvian Desserts is inspiring and motivating. It touches a cord in me since I started writing my conversations with chefs as a way of staying connected to the world of food when my illness kept me away from my work.
I was back in Lima a few months later for Mistura and we got to spend time together. Sandra represents the Nestlé Company as a spokesperson and has written cookbooks for them. She is a bonafide celebrity in Peru with her TV shows, dozens of cook books, charity work, and being the face of Nestlé. Her husband and she also own several restaurants and coffee shops such as La Trattoria Di Mambrino, Bodega De La Trattoria, and Paseo Colón, where of course her delectable deserts are featured. At the Nestlé pavilion at Mistura last September she was constantly surrounded by throngs of admirers and well-wishers. Fans of all ages were clamoring around her to take pictures and stand in lines that stretched forever to buy her sweet treats. Sandra brings artisanal sweets that evoke memories of days gone by for a lot of Peruvians, and even at Mistura she was showcasing regional specialties being made by local cooks.
My Questions for Sandra:
You are a self-taught pastry chef. What sparked your initial interest in sweets?
I became interested in pastry because of my older sister Monica Pierantoni who used to cook and I used to peek in at what she was doing till finally one day I was allowed to watch her. She does not cook sweets anymore though being an extraordinary cook she does excellent savory food.
Your initial education was in art and graphic design. Does that play a role in your creativity with desserts?
Yes I am a graphic designer by training because in those days you could not dream of going to cooking schools in Peru. I think I have a very creative eye and hands that have the ability to create what I want to express. Later I spent my summer vacations learning pottery and ceramics, which are related arts. I think that I apply all of that in my pastry.
Who was your first teacher?
I have never had a teacher, I think that I learned by watching the big ones on television and having the opportunity to travel and go to all the different places and restaurants with Ugo.
You are a mother and very devoted to your kids. Is it easy to divide your time between your many restaurants, coffee shops, TV shows and your own pastry operations while still taking care of your family?
I love and respect and put my family before anything else. I love to work and feel that I am useful to family, to society, to business and my charity operations. I love genuinely the colors of pastry, love to travel, and not to lose time sleeping on my voyages and visit and discover everything until I am exhausted. Of course it is crazy, sometimes I want to escape, but I am only joking because I will never do that. Somehow I stretch the time to do everything.
Your charming husband Ugo is a big fan of yours. Did he encourage or motivate you to cook on such a grand scale?
As I told you, he lets me be what I am, he is my Pygmalion I love him so much. In the good and the bad times that we have lived together being married for 26 years and together over for 30 years, he encourages me to do whatever I am inspired to do.
You have over 25 books to your credit. How many hours do you put in at work on a daily basis?
My schedule every day including Sundays to wake up, go to the gym at 9am, run 10 kms, have a shower, see what is on the days schedule, then go to the restaurants, TV commercial, cooking classes, TV show, restaurant again, dinner at home with family, after dinner run to the restaurant on weekdays. I finish if I do not have a cocktail party or something else after roughly 16 hours of work.
How much research goes into each book since there is a lot of information about the background of deserts in Peru in your books?
If I am writing a book on traditional desserts like crème brule, brownies, etc. then I use my home recipes like the cheesecake baked at my parents’ house, but in the case of research for the book of Peruvian desserts, it took me a year of traveling and compiling recipes. When I travel with Nestlé Foods or for my TV program I will stay back for a few days on my own account to research and talk to people. I have done a lot of travel on my own because no one else likes to do this kind of real research and EAT everything, good or bad!
You have a lot of traditional Peruvian recipes in your books. Is it important to you to keep the traditions alive?
I love traditions and I do not want them to get lost. I wrote the book so my daughters do not lose all the things I saw in my childhood. Many traditional desserts were getting forgotten in Peru because of cebiche and all of that stuff, you know that people generally associate with Peruvian food. There were thousands of savory cooks, and then came the only ONE dessert lady, self-made…. Can you imagine what it has been for me?
You are a public figure in Lima and Peru yet you are so down to earth. How do you maintain that normalcy?
I am very down to earth because I hate spoiled people! I am the 4th of 5 children, never been spoiled, I have seen things in my life with Camilla that not many people go through, and the world needs humble people, not people full of themselves. I care a lot about poverty in Peru; I try to do things that keep me connected to the real world. I have to work I am not a Daddy’s girl and never have been and my siblings are the same. Any way Ugo will always put me in my right place if I fly too high. No spoiling at all.
There are not many women in your field in Latin America. Was it a difficult journey to get where you are now?
It was a long and hard road, nobody respected desserts the way they do now until I came along, everybody was into cebiche, Lomo Saltado, and all those things that people know well, but I did it and here I am 9 years later. When I was in Washington with my daughter I read about Nigella Lawson not having graduated from culinary school as a chef, and what she has achieved, that inspired me as well as Martha Stewart with her books, TV, and magazines.
How did the TV shows come about?
The TV shows came along because they were offered to Ugo my husband as he was the guy famous for doing game shows on TV, but when he was offered a show on cooking he declined, and then they came to me. This was around the time when Camilla had died. I took it up as a therapy and of course as publicity for my restaurants. I had been away for a year in US with Camilla spending all day long with her treatments. I said it is time to come back to the gastronomic world all the way and I did. Now my TV show has been running for over nine years.
Which woman chef has inspired you the not only in pastry but in savory as well?
I think my mentors in Peru, are Marisa Giulfo and Teresa Ocampo, 72 and 82 year old women. They have certainly influenced my life since they are on TV or doing the best catering in Peru. I admire them since my childhood and now they are my best friends and I see them all the time. I even wrote a book for Nestlé Foods with Teresa Ocampo. She did the savory foods and I did the sweets, and in fact she was my guest on the 5th anniversary of my TV program.
There are not many women in your field in Latin America. Was it a difficult journey to get where you are now?
I think I have arrived where I am because of hard work and discipline. People believe in me; if I say I want to do this project, and they know it is going to be done. My credibility is 100% because I always finish what I begin, for the good or the bad. I do my things on my own; I am not part of an elite group of chefs in Peru. As a self-made pastry chef for years I was not even considered as one, but winning the Mistura best desserts title two years in a row and selling 96,000 desserts in 10 days has changed that. Then having my TV program for 9 years and winning the Gourmand Award on my book, now the culinary society and Peruvian people finally respect me.
What is the biggest difference between Peruvian desserts and those in other parts of the world?
Desserts around the world are the inspiration for us in Peru. Spaniards conquered us, they were conquered by Arabs who came from Middle East, and I feel everything is connected. I go every year to Turkey and I love to relate both kitchens in the sweet part, it is amazing, everything comes from somewhere.
What is your family’s favorite dessert that they like you to make for them?
Maria likes my NY cheesecake made the real way, Valentina my 5 leches instead of 3 leches, Arianna my Gianduija ice cream! Ugo likes my thumbprint cookies with almond raspberry jam, lemon yogurt cake, etc. Of course Italian rules our life and I love Mediterranean food. Some of our Peruvian food is related to Mediterranean food, since fusion is a part of our everyday experience.
I have to ask how despite being around sweets you are slim and elegant. Do you like desserts yourself? Which one is your favorite?
I love to eat desserts, and do a lot of sports because I consider that you can have the best of both worlds. A pastry chef does not have to be heavy. Everything should be in proportion and nothing in excess. My favorite desserts are spoon desserts like crème brule, suspiro de limena, guoiandia cream, Nutella, Pistachio ice cream, cheese cake, really everything that is good.
You love to travel. What is your favorite destination?
Paris, Istanbul, and Naples in Italy.
Most exotic place you have visited?
I love the whole world, but Turkey, Italy, Greece, and New York are special. I love ancient cultures and history; last year I went to Ephesus and loved the feeling of walking on top of ancient history. Exotic would be Bodrum, Miletto, and Moquegua in Peru. I love Sicily, have been to Anatolia, and Berlin since my daughter lives there. Truly everything is exotic to me, even one week spent in Cusco.
How do you relax? Any hobbies?
It is hard for me to relax. I relax on my trips in July with my entire family; we all love to go to the beach. My hobbies are painting pottery, sports, and I love movies.
Your favorite music? (Don’t worry, it won’t date you…)
The Beatles, I love them.
As we parted the last time she admonished me with “Geeta, don’t work too hard and stay in touch!” I will see her in Lima in September when I travel there for Mistura 2014.