Known as one of the world’s most talented and effervescent chefs, Diego Muñoz has recently landed in NYC, bringing his flair for culture and Peruvian Cuisine.
Teaming up with Hotelier Ian Schrager and Chef John Frazer, the duo is currently overseeing three of PUBLIC’S new bars and restaurants; signature restaurant POPULAR, casual and lovely CANTINA & Pisco Bar, and fast gourmet food bazaar LOUIS. Chef Diego shares his Peruvian homeland’s multicultural-inspired cuisine while setting the creative vision, as well as curating the cocktail program, that focuses exclusively on Pisco, Peru’s favorite spirit made from grapes.
“It has always been my dream to cook in New York City, a place that I adore for its non-stop energy and incredible culinary diversity,” says Chef Diego. “I am honored that Ian Schrager chose me to present my country’s rich and multifaceted cuisine at PUBLIC, the execution of which would not be possible without the local knowledge, expertise, and infrastructure that Chef John Fraser and his team bring. I’m also excited to share Peru’s incredible cocktails. When I worked at elBulli with Chef Ferran Adriá, the restaurant had no bar. All the cocktails were created in the kitchen as a logical extension of the cuisine. I’m honoring this tradition at PUBLIC.”
We sat down with Chef Diego after the opening of POPULAR, and chatted all things food, cocktails, and travel wish lists:
Pursuitist: Tell us about yourself. What inspired you to be a chef? How did you get started?
Chef Diego: I had not planned to become a chef. My plan was, as a normal person, to attend university after high school back in the early 90s. In Peru, there is a test to get a spot in university and after 2 years of trying to get admitted, my vision was to become an Industrial Engineer. It was three years of constantly trying to not be kicked out of university, as well as cool times of skateboarding, punk rock, and beer “training.” My friends kept progressing as I struggled. At the end of my junior year, I decided to put my university dream on hold and enroll in culinary school. It was not common in Peru back then to become a chef, but I still went for it. I turned from being the last student in my university class and always on the edge of failing to being #1 at Le Cordon Bleu Grand Diplome in Paris. After that, the real chef training started and I am still at it until now.
You helmed Astrid y Gastón in Lima, which was named the Best Restaurant in Latin America by The World’s 50 Best Restaurants. What does it take to get a restaurant to that level?
Yes, I came back to Peru after a long period of being based in Australia, invited by the amazing and super generous Gaston Acurio to lead this Peruvian gastronomic institution. The plan was to move it from its original home into a new venue, this one being even older than the original, a beautiful cultural heritage house, a former hacienda. I oversaw all of the design, planning and moving, which allowed me to be able to get acquainted with the terrific staff along the way.
I think recognition comes from focus, conscious and super concentrated constant work, giving as much talent as you have, but constantly learning every day with and from your team, being able to motivate yourself and your team every day, and reflecting on the prior day for opportunities for improvement. It is a constant journey and one that professional chefs are used to experiencing every day. Many restaurants are at that level on an everyday basis and that is already an amazing success. To get an award is an extra big pat on the back and, with that, an immense responsibility, especially since we are aware that we represent our culture before we represent ourselves.
What trends do you see with Peruvian Cuisine and the Chef-made cocktails?
Just talking about ceviche, which has been transformed from being a simple elaboration into a great technique resource for chefs worldwide, it demonstrates the amazing reach of our cuisine. From the great Top 50 Best Restaurants in the World’s Peruvian chefs to street food stands that are a destination as well, Peruvian cuisine is having a great moment.
I hope that Pisco becomes a common language in bars all over the world. What we are doing with our Macerados (macerated Piscos) at Cantina is a way to interpret our Pisco using local ingredients as well. We use botanicals, spices, fruits and vegetables and, together with the bar team, we create really good cocktails.
What are three courses a first-timer should order at Popular?
Ceviche Clásico, Papa Huancaína, Chirimoya Meringue
What culinary destinations are on your bucket list?
On the top of the list is Japan, I cannot wait to get there. Vietnam is on my list as well. Napa Valley as well, and Georgia for a wine discovery trip.