• Carlos Ramirez-Roldan especially enjoyed breakfast in Peru when pan con chicharron featured. (Rohan Thomson Photography)Source: Rohan Thomson Photography
Carlos Ramirez-Roldan, the owner of street-eats Mr Papa, always looks forward to eating the dish of his childhood: a Peruvian pork belly sandwich.
Elli Iacovou

3 Sep 2020 - 10:49 AM  UPDATED 25 Mar 2021 - 10:59 PM

"My curiosity and passion for food and cooking began as a child watching my aunts and uncles prepare food in my grandparent's catering business," says Carlos Ramirez-Roldan.

Carlos's grandfather, Vicente, began working as a Maitre'D in Lima, Peru. Through his dedicated passion for service, he established canteens, opened the first fine dining restaurant and even bought land and built a ballroom-style hall by 1965. Subsequently, as demand grew, his business expanded into catering.  

About Peruvian food
One of the world’s most precious and vibrant cultural fusions, Peruvian cuisine is the living legacy of a colourful history played out across three distinct regions of South America: from the vast, bountiful Pacific coast to the magnificent Andes ranges and lush Amazonian basin.

Unfortunately, Carlos didn't meet his grandfather. In 1981, the year he was born, his grandfather passed away. But he did get to know him through his mum and grandmother's stories, which he had the privilege of hearing as he grew up.

"Age seven, every Friday I would catch the bus after school to spend most of my weekends with my grandmother and be around the business, it was my playground," he says.

He would sneak into the kitchen, sit in his usual spot next to a window and watch everyone cook. Carlos loved the noises, the smells and of course, the opportunity to taste everything.

"I was a little boy immersed in the kitchen surrounded by cooks and my grandma making sure the taste of everything was right," he says.

There, he would hear his uncle Carlos, also his godfather and namesake, detail stories about the mercados, the local markets he bought raw produce from.

"He would refer to the food vendors as friends and [explain] how at the markets they also sold food and juices to enjoy," Carlos says. "I was curious to know how he knew that many people, so I started asking him, 'hey uncle, what are you going to do tomorrow?'"

When Carlos' uncle replied that he planned to get up at 5am to go to the markets, Carlos would ask to go with him. For the next six years, he would accompany his uncle to the mercados every Saturday morning. 

Carlos (left) with cousin Vicente (right) and Uncle Carlos.

"Together we would speak with local food vendors, hear the stories behind the food, and search for the best produce. My uncle would also shake hands and hug them, and this affection and connection between the buyer and supplier really resonated with me."

As they waited for their order, they would enjoy breakfast. For Carlos, that was always pan con chicharron, a pork belly sandwich filled with fried sweet potato slices, onion coriander and chilli salsa served on a crusty round bun.

"This sandwich was my prize for waking up early and being my uncle's 'official helper'," he says.  

"I remember sitting on a food stall in front of the Chinese migrants making the sandwich, but also staring at the pieces of pork, one by one and comparing them in size."

"At the same time, I was hoping the guy would be generous with my serve. I always combined this sandwich with a surtido, a blended juice of beetroot, apples, papaya, pineapple and banana."

"This sandwich was my prize for waking up early and being my uncle's official helper." 

On one occasion, age 13, Carlos was entrusted to carry out the tasks by himself. "Uncle Carlos gave me about 15,000 soles ($5,000), two mobile phones in case one ran out of battery, and I needed to call him and two staff members to escort me," he says. 

Eager to impress Uncle Carlos, he arrived at the markets earlier and found a food vendor that sold him the same quality produce but at a lower price. "I used the money I saved to treat the staff members to food at the markets just as uncle Carlos did with me. The vendor became our new supplier after that."

The pan con chicharron was also a home staple favourite his mother, Fanny, made weekly.    

"By Thursday, mum would ask us what we wanted for Sunday breakfast. Me, my three brothers and my father would yell out the same answer every time, pan con chicharroooon!"

Peruvian pork roll (pan con chicharron)

In Peru, chicharrón refers to succulent pork, which is braised and then fried in its own fat. It forms the basis of this popular snack, piled onto a roll with fried sweet potato and a spicy onion salsa. We’ve added a sauce made from Peru’s ubiquitous aji amarillo chilli, and have used pork belly roasted in the oven for ease.

Every mum in Peru has a "special" pork sandwich recipe, and Fanny's recipe was no exception. She would wake up early to slow braise the pork belly for three to four hours at least, and then fry it in its own fat. It was more traditional than the one Carlos ate at the markets, which had Chinese influences with ingredients such as garlic, soy sauce and Chinese five spices.

"Mum's hints [of flavour] would include garlic, salt, cloves, cumin and bay leaves. Onion salsa must include yellow chilli, fresh lime and some Yerba Buena – a type of Peruvian mint, or coriander on top, says mum all the time."

All five men of the house had a task allocated in the kitchen by the boss - Fanny.

Carlos recalls how his little brother, Ruben, was in charge of setting the table, his older brother Sergio ran to the bakery to grab the fresh "pan frances", a French-style crusty bread, his other brother, Moncho, would make the surtido juice and salad, and dad Sergio was in charge of washing the dishes.          

"As for me, mum taught me how to rub the finely cut pieces of pork with salt and spices before they were brine and braised," he says.

Although a biology teacher, Fanny's love for cooking expanded outside her home kitchen when age 64 she graduated as a professional chef from Le Cordon Bleu Institute. Subsequently, she established the first professional kitchen in the country that taught cooking to students of all ages.

Peruvian pork belly sandwich: The perfect comfort food.

While the culinary arts were equally in Carlos's blood, he also took a circuitous route to becoming a cook.

His career began at the frontlines of hotel hospitality. After receiving his BA in Hospitality Management in Lima, he completed internships in US hotels, receiving among other accolades the award Hilton Hotels Employee of the year in 2008.    

In 2009, he returned to Peru and helped Chef Mitsuharu Tsumura open Nikkei restaurant Maido, ranked 10th in San Pellegrino's World's 50th Best Restaurants.

Then an offer found him and his wife Cynthia in Canberra to work in the food and beverage department of Rydges Hotels

Knowing that he wanted to do something that celebrated Peruvian food culture and paid tribute to his family, in 2013, Mr Papa food truck made its first appearance at Canberra's Multicultural Food Festival.

"My memories are what encouraged me to cook and transform what I lived in the past into 'bites' of my life," he says.

"In Spanish, papa translates as potato. So, I decided to offer a Peruvian style stuffed potato, papa rellena, and that's how Mr Papa was born."

Carlos has built a successful business by celebrating Peruvian food culture and paying tribute to his family.

A few months later, he received a call from the National Gallery of Australia. That changed everything.

"As part of The Incas Exhibition, they were looking for a Peruvian caterer," he says. "I instantly suggested the dish that gave me the most confidence. The pan con chicharron, renamed chanchito, to make it easier to pronounce."

With the help of his brother Moncho, seven years of Mr Papa has expanded into catering Peruvian street-food eats like empanadas mixed with local ingredients – as a way to pay homage to both homelands and thank local customers. Mr Papa also delivers meals that are easy to assemble to customers' homes.

"When I cook, I try to express what I can't say with words. I'm incredibly shy and my passion for cooking has helped to express my memories through food."

When the family reunites in Australia or in Peru, where he goes often to reunite with his roots, pan con chicharron is the food they still cook together.

"It's funny because after years, whenever we get together again at family reunions, we all still do the same job in mum's kitchen."

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