Passion and love are the essential ingredients and approach to cooking linking Italy and Peru, whose equally rich culinary traditions are embodied in Michelangelo "Miguel" Aliaga, the new executive chef at Los Balcones in Hollywood.
Aliaga follows a simple cultural philosophy learned from his native Peru and nearly a decade spent developing his innate culinary talents in Italy: "How the people say, 'I love you' and 'thank you,' is to prepare something and feed you," he says in his deep, baritone voice.
In the kitchen he not only channels his culinary foundations honed in Spain and Italy, but carries with him a heartfelt fondness and striking appreciation for his grandfather.
"He was my father," says Aliaga, "he was an old man with strong ideas and was really tough. It was difficult for him to express his feelings."
Aliaga was raised in the small town of Celendín in the Cajamarca region of northern Peru. His grandfather was the patriarch of the family.
The inspiring figure played a larger-than-life role in Aliaga's adolescence. But his grandfather's inability to express his love for his family could only be manifested through the passion that he brought to his cooking.
This unspoken language of love that transpired inside the family’s kitchen was not lost on Aliaga.
After moving with his mother from Peru to Spain in 1994 when he was 14 years old, he secretly funneled the entirety of his savings, which had been given to him by his grandfather, to pursue culinary school — instead of university — in Barcelona.
His motivation to pursue a culinary career stemmed in large part from those family meals prepared and served by Aliaga’s grandfather.
Despite his grandfather’s protests on this pursuit — "he was pissed," says Aliaga — the aspiring chef got his start in the kitchen working at Trattoria 4 Leoni (the Four Lions) in Florence after finishing up his culinary studies. Despite his credentials, he started out at the bottom washing dishes, mopping the floors and cleaning the bathrooms before he earned the confidence and rapport of the head chef.
Aliaga spent six years at 4 Leoni and moved up the ranks to eventually become chef de cuisine at the mom and pop restaurant known for its Tuscan-focused, three-course menu featuring ingredients sourced daily from the local market.
The finesse he demonstrates in the kitchen is a byproduct of his Italian training. "For me cooking is really natural. When I'm cooking, I'm cooking more with my senses instead of the recipe. I'm cooking by tasting and smelling [the dish]."
Upon taking the helm at Los Balcones this March, Aliaga, who up until then had spent the entirety of his professional life cooking non-Peruvian cuisine, spent the next two weeks in a quasi-state of cultural reimmersion.
"All the ingredients you see in Italian cuisine [are] very, very similar to the ingredients I find in my town [Celendín]. Lentils, beans, polentas, low-temperature cooking for a long time with real passion. I see my grandpa cooking all this stuff."
Despite cooking traditional Peruvian meals for his wife and two children, Aliaga nonetheless reacquainted himself with the flavors and tastes that have been etched into his memory from family and friends recipes.
"Ajís (chiles) are the base of Peruvian cuisine," explains Aliaga. "The difference between chiles in Mexico or America (U.S.) with Peru is that ours are less spicy and more aromatic. A lot of aromas, a lot of flavor in our chiles."
Though Aliaga incorporates top-grade frozen chiles shipped to the U.S. from Peru in the menu, he said that he and the Rodrigeuz brothers (owners of Los Balcones) are encouraging those farmers in Mexico, along the border with the U.S., to grow the variety of chiles found in Peru. Doing so would be a better way of integrating the same quality of aromatics and freshness into a variety of dishes at the restaurant, says Aliaga.
Two years before being hired at Los Balcones, Aliaga took a trip back to Peru. While eating his way through the country he learned about the culture of the Moche (Mochica) who occupied northern Peru from the first century through the eighth century, before the birth of the Incan empire.
The Moche valued cooking and love as part of their society, says Aliaga, which is the essence of why Peruvians love food and love cooking.
"The decision to leave all my years in Italian cuisine to make Peruvian cuisine is very much for the love I have for my family," he says.
"It's my payback for everything Peru has given to me and my upbringing in my country," explains Aliaga about his mindset as executive chef.
Before the Rodriguez brothers brought Aliaga on, the Italian transplant by way of Peru was already making a name for himself elsewhere in Southern California's culinary circles.
Alliaga had moved the U.S. in 2008 and went to work at All’Angelo on Melrose and Cecconi's in West Hollywood before moving onto La Spiga in Palm Desert and was recently the executive chef at Primo, an Italian restaurant in Torrance.
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Fusing his culinary upbringing from Peru and Italy in an assertive, yet traditional menu at Los Balcones, Aliaga is quite proud of the dishes being served. They include oveja a la nortena con chuchoca, which he describes as "lamb shank braised, really small, in Peruvian herbs with Peruvian polentas and chuchoca (cornmeal-like soup)," and risotto de caiguas a dish, featuring the namesake vegetable and staple of Peruvian cuisine.
"Caiguas is a vegetable that was consumed during the Incan empire and tastes kinda like a pepper and cucumber," explains Aliaga.
Aliaga admits he lost some of that intrinsic know-how about his native cuisine after so many years spent working in kitchens cooking traditional Italian and Tuscan-style foods. Yet, in the spirit of his grandfather, he is able to express his love and passion for his Peruvian heritage in the food he prepares for the community of guests at Los Balcones.
"Everyday I'm making Peruvian cuisine I love it more and more and discover new things."