Pía León

Pía León: “It’s a session of gratitude for the earth”

Short Profile

Name: Pía León
DOB: December 1986
Place of birth: Lima, Peru
Occupation: Chef

Ms. León, after a decade spent working at celebrated Lima restaurant Central, you opened your own restaurant Kjolle in 2018. Is this the best representation of your voice as a chef?

I'm happy nowadays with Kjolle, and with my team, of course. I think we’re in a good place, even moreso after the pandemic and two really hard years, it’s confirmed everything for us. I was at Central for almost 12 years, and I loved it. But at one point I decided I had to do my own thing. It’s more colorful, there’s a bit more movement in the kitchen, the atmosphere is a little different… I don't like to compare but I think Kjolle expresses my voice more. Even with the menu, for example, we have a dish which is tart of tubers. I think it's the most representative of my voice because it’s all about colors: yellow, pink, different textures. I’m proud of this dish, but at the same time, I think I’m not done evolving yet. We have to keep working.

It’s important for you as a chef to keep expanding your resources and deepening your knowledge?

It's really important! You have to be open minded, you can’t stop learning. That’s what keeps us motivated and growing, to try and be better than the day before. I think it's a mistake for chefs to think they know everything. I've worked with my husband and business partner Virgilio for almost 12 years and every day, we still come together to share new ideas. In a kitchen, this is especially essential because gastronomy nowadays is not only about food, you know? It's also about nutrition, art… We’re even designing our own ceramics, just to make sure our food is plated in an amazing way. So there are many areas that make up our restaurant experience.

“We’ll travel to the Andes or the Amazon to learn more about communities, people, and cultures. It’s important to make those connections, and then bring back everything we learn to share with our team.”

Is that why it’s important to take that learning process outside the kitchen as well?

Yes, I try to make a point of that, to not always be in the kitchen. I think in order to cook well, you also need to go out, to see more, to experience more. So that's what we always try to do. We are really connected with Mater Iniciativa, a group that fosters knowledge through research and excursions. It’s run by Virgilio and his sister Malena, and with them we’ll travel, for example, to the Andes or the Amazon to learn more about communities, people, and cultures. It’s important to make those connections, and then bring back everything we learn to share with our team.

What kind of lessons have you brought back recently?

Actually, these days we’re working with cacao; this is a little example of how to work with a familiar product in a new way. There is a big world behind cacao, there’s a lot to learn. At Kjolle, we’ve been working with the whole fruit —  normally people think that from cacao you can only get chocolate, but actually, you can use the outside, the seed, everything. We now have a person on our team who is dedicated just to cacao! We use it in desserts, but also in savory dishes. We’re trying it right now in tiger's milk, a sauce that is traditional with ceviche, but our version is with cacao.

Apparently during your travels, you’ve also met with indigenous tribes around your country to learn from their traditions and techniques.

Yes, it's amazing. In fact, I think that has really become our mission: to keep these traditional techniques or methods of cooking alive. It's our mission, and we want to keep communicating with the world about Peru, what techniques we have, how they’re used. There is this traditional oven called a huatia, it’s an oven in the ground, made with rocks. And inside we put the seasonal, local tubers and roots… I was taught by a local community how to make a huatia, how to use it properly, and that was an amazing experience. It’s like a session of gratitude for the earth and for the work. It was very inspiring, the respect for the earth that these people have. And now we’re even making our own version of the huatia at the restaurant.

It seems like there is a lot of pride around cooking and food culture in Peru — much more so for example than in Germany, where I live.

Definitely, and here in Peru, there are many, many traditional restaurants, you can find picanterias, or cevicherias. There are lots of options, but one thing we have in common is this passion. That is really important, maybe the most important for me because you're born with it. Nobody can take it from you. But then, passion is also completed with other aspects: academics, techniques, cultural influence…

And that’s how you take tradition and subvert it to make it your own.

Right, there is also a lot of opportunity to express Peruvian food in our own way, to do our own version. For example, we have this traditional way to start a dish, with a lot of garlic and chillies and onions; we call this aderezo. We have all this base, but then you can do whatever you want with the rest. At Kjolle, we don't do traditional Peruvian food, but we do use one hundred percent Peruvian products. We’ve also been researching about the seasonal foods in Peru, and trying to adapt our menu to these changes, so it’s really fundamental for us to go out and see what is happening not only in Peru, but also elsewhere in the world.

Can it sometimes be difficult to navigate your love and need for travelling, with your family and home life? Is it hard to strike that balance?

Yes, that’s true. At the beginning, I'm not going to lie, we were crazy, going out travelling a lot. Before the pandemic, we didn’t stop. It was like a race! We went to so many countries, learning about different spices, ancient products, going to the markets, sharing techniques. But then eventually, I found more of a sense of accountability when I became a mother. It was not easy. But I think now and especially after pandemic, I have to think more consciously about the decisions we’re making. We are more reflective. My child has just started to school after two years, because here in Peru the schools were closed for two years, so I really do need to have more of a balance in my life. Of course, I have to travel for work. But also, I have a family, so that balance is necessary. And it’s much better that way.