"From a really young age, I was always exposed to good food. My father is someone who likes to eat well, but he doesn’t like to cook. Same with my mother. My grandmother on my father’s side is the only one who actually cooks incredibly well in the family! So all that tradition from my grandmother was going to be lost at a certain point. I was lucky enough to be interested in cooking, so my grandmother passed all her recipes and her mother’s to me.
I became interested in cooking in high school. There weren’t many cooking schools in Peru, but I had the good luck that Le Cordon Bleu opened in Lima a year before. My father is a traditional person, but we came to an agreement that I would study to be a chef at the same time as I finished school, then I’d apply to uni to study a 'proper’ career. My father wanted me to be an engineer but I studied marketing and finance instead. I got a good job working as a brand manager at Johnson & Johnson, but I wasn’t feeling complete – I was always talking about food.
There are many developing countries in South America, so it’s hard to say, 'I want to do something because it’s my passion.' But my generation has started to challenge that. I decided to quit my job, and started my career as the food movement in Peru was beginning.
I went to Barcelona and worked in a bistro there. Once I was feeling more confident, I went on to work at restaurants like Les Ambassadeurs in Paris and The Fat Duck in the UK. I started to feel exhausted and a friend working here in Australia suggested I come over to work in a cafe and relax for a while.
So I came for a working holiday, planning to return to Paris after a year. That was nine years ago. I worked in a cafe in Manly briefly and then went on to meet and work with a lot of the great chefs, like Guillaume at Bennelong and Grant King [then] at Pier.
When I came here, I realised I was South American. In my spare time, I cooked Peruvian food, and I drafted a plan on how to introduce modern Peruvian cuisine to Australia. The first stage was to educate people with cooking classes and pop-up dinners. People started to ask when I was going to open a restaurant, but I was waiting for the wave of interest to explode here. Then in 2011, I got a call from Crave Sydney International Food Festival director Joanna Savill. She said, 'Finally Alejandro, Peru will be showcased by SIFF.' This was the call I’d been waiting for.
I opened Morena in October that year. The first thing people said was, 'Will you put guinea pigs on the menu?' I said, 'No, I’m going to have alpacas.' Sadly I’m not allowed, but I would love to see you eating guinea pig! Peruvian food is so unique in terms of flavours and ingredients that if I tried to do traditional food here, it wouldn’t be truthful to the cuisine – so it is modern Peruvian. Morena is a first step for people to start understanding the cuisine and the flavours, to lead you to go to South America to try the real thing."
Photography by Alan Benson.