When Erik Ramirez was 28, he took a trip to Peru.
“I was blown away by what was going on there,” Ramirez told me, one morning late in the spring. He was sitting at a corner table at Llama Inn, the Peruvian-inspired restaurant he opened late last year in Williamsburg. “It was just like flavor bomb, after flavor bomb, after flavor bomb—everything was just so flavorful!” he marveled.
You might think this is an obvious thing to say about food one enjoys, but, really, it’s not. A chicken pot pie, or a tuna sandwich, even a burger, while delicious, are not made of surprising, or diverse and potent ingredients. Their inherent flavor is not what shines. In Peruvian cuisine, Ramirez tells me, flavor is its primary attribute.
“Geographically, a lot is happening,” Ramirez explains, as he sips on his sweetened morning coffee, wearing a ball cap with a floral pattern, adjusted casually off center. Peru has most of the Earth’s many climate zones. “Broken down, it’s the coast, then you have the Sierra, then the Amazon, then the desert,” says Ramirez. And what those places yield in terms of flavor—many derived from an abundance of sub-tropical fruits you’ve never heard of—creates tasting note combinations found in few other places in the world, and certainly not in other South American countries.
During that trip eight years ago, he tasted a ceviche that changed his life.
“I was just like, wow, this is so fucking good,” Ramirez says, becoming enthused as if he were eating it again. At a large culinary festival in Mistura, every vendor would tell him, “taste the flavor, taste the sauce, taste the sauce.” He went home with a new understanding of what Peruvian food was, and could be. “I couldn’t believe what I’d been missing out on for 28 years.”
At Llama Inn, Ramirez takes many of those flavors and makes a cuisine that he calls “Peruvian influence in heart and flavor but with New York swag,” by which, broadly, he means food with Peruvian roots to which he does whatever he wants. To most people, Peruvian food is chicken and rice, stews, and more traditional ceviches—delicious and hearty, unquestionably—but Ramirez’s mission is to reveal that it can be a lot more. “That’s why it’s good, it’s not ‘traditional,’” says Ramirez of his menu. “If this is the first time a person eats Peruvian food, they’ll walk in and they’ll think, this is Peruvian food,” he says with satisfaction. “And it is.”
On Llama Inn’s traditional end, you will find a large, family-sized roasted chicken with plantains and three dipping sauces, but more experimental recipes include a beet salad with gooseberries, and a ceviche with bananas, of all things, and dashi (like Ramirez’s first experience with ceviche in Peru, his version, “Leche de Tigre”—“tiger” he explains “because it wakes you up and gets you going”—swims in a seductive pool of lime and spice, and it also changed me. I wanted to drink it, like a soup). “So we are making people look at it with a little different color,” he summarizes.
If Ramirez’s enthusiasm for this project is palpable—and it is as we talk, and his kitchen prepares for a lunch service that featured Peruvian sandwiches and wildly inventive fruit smoothies—it’s probably because the work is so personal. Ramirez’s mother Tatiana was pregnant with her son when she moved from Peru to New Jersey with Ramirez’s father about thirty-five years ago. After his sister was born, Ramirez’s father left the family; his mother worked two jobs—at Quest Diagnostics and as a waitress at night. Still, she managed to make traditional home-cooked Peruvian meals every night for Ramirez and his sister. “Yeah, thank god for the Boys & Girls club,” Ramirez said. That sounded unbelievably tough to me, but Ramirez focused on the good. “My mom is awesome,” he responded simply.
But she was also strict. Theirs was an “eat everything on your plate or you’re not leaving the dinner table,” household, though this wasn’t a problem for Ramirez. His mom’s meals were hearty and traditional, arroz con pollo, stir-fries, beef tenderloin, and stews. He loved them, though they never seemed particularly special. It’s just what food was. When he decided to go to culinary school, he assumed he’d cook French cuisine, or American.
Studying in Philadelphia, he honed his kitchen skills over the course of five years, but eventually made his way back to the city, where he ended up at a restaurant called Nuela, which served “nueva Latina” cuisine. He learned a lot, but it was not for him—his intention was to stay away from Peruvian food. It was around that time that he took a trip home, and tasted the ceviche that changed his life.
Nuela would close, turn into Raymi, and serve Peruvian food that gave a nod to Peru’s multicultural roots, the kind Ramirez become interested in. Over the prior decade, Peruvian cuisine had picked up steam across the world, both as a result of a broader interest and education in food in general, and through celebrity Peruvian Chef’s like Gastón Acurio, who was exporting his restaurants around the world, and showing off the true wonders of his native recipes. Meantime, Raymi’s chef wanted Ramirez on board. “You’re American, you grew up here, and you know technique,” but, he continued, “You’re also Peruvian—it’s in you. You just have to practice.’”
Ramirez hesitated. How could he make it taste as good, as flavorful, as it was in Peru?
“He was like, you know why you’re not gonna do it? Because you’re scared,” Ramirez recounted. This worked like a charm. “I said fuck that—let’s do it.”
After two years of cooking Peruvian and learning at Raymi, Juan Correa, now Ramirez’s partner, was planning a new Peruvian restaurant and reached out to Ramirez via LinkedIn. Correa said, “I’ve eaten at a lot of Peruvian restaurants, and your food tastes great—it’s pretty innovative, certain things you’re doing.’” But Ramirez thought his vision didn’t go far enough. “I said look, man, I see what you’re doing, and I see the potential it has, but I think you should do this with it.” And with that, Llama Inn, under Ramirez’s direction, was born.
But Ramirez says his work isn’t close to over. Late in spring, he opened El Techo, a rooftop bar above the Inn’s downstair’s dining room; a couple of weeks before that, he started experimenting with a lunch service based off of traditional juice bars and “sandwicherias.” Ramirez is also working with upstate chocolate maker Fruition Chocolate to concoct complex, high quality candy bars. A Llama Inn cook book is in the works and, this fall, Ramirez hopes to debut a food truck on the restaurant’s wide front sidewalk. Plus—eventually—he wants to expand to Chicago, where Ramirez’s partner, Juan Correa, and Tatiana, Ramirez’s mother, currently live.
I couldn’t imagine staying on top of all the projects he’d just listed. Plus, he has a young son, and a second baby on the way. “It makes me work harder, you know, because I wanna provide a good future for my kids,” he said, finishing up his coffee. Around that time, one of his employees walked up to him and showed him a plate of fresh greens they’d just picked from the market that morning. “That looks like mustard greens, cilantro, chive blossom, mizuna mint,” he started listing them off, making his way around the plate. They wanted to source more ingredients from the green markets, he said, to give the menu a fresh facelift with a lot of unique salads and fruits.
He asked if I’d ever had Ambrosia, that fruit salad that is kind of very American and not particularly interesting. He planned to make one for the summer menu, but with quinoa.
“Whoa,” I said. “That’s crazy.”
“It is crazy,” he responded, smiling mischievously. “But it might be good.”
All images by Liz Clayman