Ambition, originality and excellence: Ollanta has an exciting new chef!
After winding through the Sacred Valley, following the meanders of the Urubamba, our colectivominibus rattles over the Incan paving to reach Ollantaytambo’s sunny plaza. Mountains rise high on all sides of the square, including the jagged snowy peak of Apu Veronica. There is a magic about this small town. Even with frequent busloads of tourists arriving to see the incredible Incan terraces and continue on to Machu Picchu, the town has nothing of Cusco’s hustle and bustle. The houses are modest and quaint, while the mountains are so imposing that they never fail to take the breath away.
We wander down the hill from the plaza and cross the bridge. Overlooking the stream is a new building, earthen orange with wooden balconies and a list of Peruvian specialities by the door. The restaurant is framed by the buttresses and slopes of the surrounding mountains. Above the sign for Apu Veronica Restaurant, a wooden plaque proclaims the space a panoramic restaurant. Ascending to the second floor, it is indeed a special spot not only for natural beauty, but also for a view directly across to Ollanta’s famous ruins, etched into the hillside by Incan royalty as part of their famous agricultural system.
Carmen outside of Apu Veronica
At the table beside us, a large group is enjoying their meal of alpaca steaks a la piedra. When the food is brought to table, the steaks are still sizzling and steam rises over the thick-cut potato wedges and the anticuchera meat sauce, made with Peruvian spicy pepper, aji panca, and traditional Peruvian corn drink, chicha de jora.
Apu Veronica is barely three months old, but already it is making its mark on the culinary scene in Ollantaytambo. In just a matter of weeks, owners Carmen Rosa Mescco and Henry Monroy Olivera have established their 4.5 star rated restaurant in the top 10 of over 50 Ollantaytambo restaurants listed on TripAdvisor. And that’s not all. Their success story becomes even more impressive after talking to Carmen about her journey to opening the restaurant and becoming a business owner at the age of 23 years old.
Carmen grew up in the town of Ollantaytambo, but her mother often walked the three hours to their family’s village, where they own a piece of land and work the fields. The importance of Andean agriculture is clear in the decorations that adorn the restaurant walls, including the taclla, a distinctive type of plough used in the Andes since pre-Columbian times.
Some LAFF volunteers tucking in at Apu Veronica!
Community spirit has been key to the foundation of the restaurant. Carmen cites the financial help of her business and life partner, Henry, as well as his father, who works as a carpenter and made the restaurant’s tables from scratch. Neighbours and family friends come to the restaurant with flowers and decorative baskets to help make it a welcoming space. Carmen says that she’s truly grateful to her community for their collaboration in making her dream a reality.
Earlier this year, Carmen finished her course in gastronomy in Cusco, where she has been studying for the past three years. Carmen lived in a house for post-secondary students who come from rural communities throughout the Cusco region. The project that supported her education and her living costs is called the Andean Youth Programme, one of the central initiatives of Canadian-Peruvian charity Mosqoy. Mosqoy, which means dream in Quechua, the local indigenous language, has been funding the post-secondary education of twenty students every year for the past decade. The aim of the project is that after learning a skill and establishing their profession, AYP students will return to their communities to contribute to the local economy. This is exactly what Carmen is doing.
Some of the amazing food served up at Apu Veronica
She talks about her three years at Casa Mosqoy as a unique time in which the students, volunteers and resident adviser shared many things, including the exchange of cultures and languages. Mosqoy also helped her organise the internship with a high-end Cusco restaurant which gave her many of the skills she now has. I ask her about the beautiful presentation of the causa dish, and the special sauce and perfectly tender alpaca meat. She says that many of her skills in the kitchen she learned while studying and many of them she picked up in the kitchen of the restaurant where she worked before. However, despite Carmen’s modesty, she has an innate ability when it comes to producing high quality food and knowing how to make it just as appealing on the plate as it is in the mouth.
She says that she has always watched closely, so as to copy the dishes that are most popular with diners and then work on improving them. Even at this early stage in her career, Carmen has long-term goals and an ambitious vision. She wants Apu Veronica to become the first of a chain of thematic restaurants that not only offers local folkloric entertainment, but also teaches Quechua and cooking classes in the morning. She says, “I hope that the restaurant will be unique and different to all the rest. I want to present my culture to visitors so that they can enjoy it and get to know Andean music and dance, as well as our cuisine.”
Dinner for two
Opening up a restaurant has always been Carmen’s dream. She talks about the economic problems her family had growing up, and the sacrifices her single mother made for Carmen and her siblings. Mosqoy gave Carmen the opportunity to realise her most longstanding ambitions. She smiles when I ask about her connection to the charity and what it made possible for her; “When the restaurant is more established, I will pay the studies of a future Mosqoy student. I want to do that for them. I want to give the very best that I can to Mosqoy, who gave everything to me.”
Henry tells me that initially, it wasn’t easy. The first few days they were nervous that no one would come. However, he explains that Carmen never gives up. She is “so, so hardworking. She takes the initiative and she keeps going. She is an example for Mosqoy students and for all of us.”
Carmen smiles shyly and admits that she has always wanted to be her own boss. “When you work for other people, you worry that they won’t pay you a good salary, that they will treat you badly. I always knew that I wanted to work for myself.” Henry adds that it’s a very different ball-game, working and having your own business. The 27-year-old exclaims that he never thought he would be pursuing the latter, and if it weren’t for Carmen’s ambitiousness, he wouldn’t be doing this today.
The couple muse about the multiple responsibilities of working in the kitchen, serving, managing the business and overseeing all aspects of running the restaurant. They say it is “a different reality.” They are clearly still in awe at all that they have achieved over the past few short months. “For us, it was an experiment, you know?” Henry tells me.As I look out over the incredible beauty of Ollantaytambo, of which Apu Veronica restaurant is in the midst, and then back at the neighbouring tables filled with homemade tortillas and guacamole and immaculately presented tarwi humous appetisers, I respond; “well, this experiment certainly paid off.”
LAFF Programmes Coordinator