Pop-Up Perú’s mission to think outside the taco
Sit down, relax.
I’m going to tell a story.
When you think of the quintessential Peruvian dish, as seamlessly blended into American cuisine as spaghetti or fried rice, what’s the first thing that comes to mind?
Can’t think of one? I didn’t think so.
I told a friend of mine, “I don’t think anyone here knows jack sh*t about Peruvian food.” He replied, “I mean, I can definitely say I don’t.” I talked to a perfectly affable, intelligent guy about it for an hour and I still can’t say that I know much about it… and I eat a lot.
This is why Mario Cespedes, founder of Pop-Up Perú, doesn’t have dreams of becoming a top chef—he doesn’t even really consider himself a restaurateur. He sees himself as more of an ambassador, bringing the story of his culture to Columbus through food.
Cespedes moved to Columbus nearly four years ago, leaving the New Jersey home where he spent his youth with an older brother, Giuseppe, and his mother Ingri, a Peruvian immigrant. Growing up so close to New York City, Mario found himself immersed in many different international cultures; he noted the Latino influence was particularly palpable. So when Cespedes relocated to Columbus, he found himself quickly sucked into the undertow of culture shock.
“It felt like one big suburb,” he said, noting that initially, he’d had a difficult time finding a foothold on Ohio culture and good places to eat. Sympathetic, but still curious, I asked him what he considers good food. His face lit up, but his eyes stayed serious.
“When I say good food, I don’t just mean food that tastes good…I grew up eating balanced, home-cooked meals—and to me, that’s good food. I understand that a lot of people love their pizza and wings and French fries…I’ve just never really been into that, and I’m still not into that.”
So what’s a lover of balanced, wholesome international cuisine to do when they find themselves high and dry in Chicken Fingers-ville? Comb the entire city for the best hole-in-the-wall international restaurants they can find—and Cespedes did just that. So voraciously in fact, that he considered taking down his experiences and starting a food blog. When he discovered that it had already been done, he asked himself, “well, what hasn’t been done yet?”
What he discovered connected him to a new destiny.
On his excursions, Cespedes noticed there were several blank spots along the spectrum of Latin food in Columbus. The majority of the Latino population in Ohio is Mexican, even more specifically from the state of Oaxaca. The way Columbus experiences Latin food is limited to the offerings from that region of Central America; most South American cuisine remains largely under-represented. This void inspired Cespedes’ concept for Pop-Up Perú. After college, he was throwing large dinner parties at his apartment twice a year; he had retained his passion for the food native to his culture, and still enjoyed sharing it with people. But at a certain point, he began to suss out a life plan, unsure whether or not he would stay in Columbus. Then, suddenly it struck him: Columbus loves food, and there was room for his vision here.
“Everyone loves tacos, right?” he said, “Well, let’s tell people to think outside the taco—show them what else is going on in Latin America.”
“I’m lucky to have been born Peruvian, because Peruvian food within itself is insane … the range and diversity of food in Peru … there’s a huge [Chinese and Japanese] influence, African, European, Native Indigenous influence … all of that kind of mixes in certain places and what forms out of that is what in Peru they call comida criolla, which literally means ‘Creole food.’” When most people think of Creole, they think of the French colonial influence in Louisiana blending with African and Haitian culture. Criolla Peruana is contagious across the spectrum of Peruvian culture, but the food speaks a language of its own.
Cespedes’ concept for Pop-Up Perú is, to him, mostly educational—and this mission is evident when you meet him.
“I guess to some degree I’m a little bit of a preservationist,” he said, twisting a toothpick between his fingers. “I don’t want to lose certain things my mom used to do, or her mom used to do.”
It was a longtime dream of his family’s to open a Peruvian restaurant, but the right opportunity had yet to present itself. When the idea started to become a reality, he taught himself how to run a kitchen and make food to order. With the help of friends, Cespedes established the first Pop-Up Perú event last August at Global Gallery in Clintonville. He featured one traditional Peruvian sandwich and another entree made into a sandwich, served with fried yucca. His older brother and mother came to town from New Jersey to help out—and suddenly the family dream began to gain traction. Cespedes, not being a huge risk taker, worried he had over-ordered food for the event, but even with a few bumps in the road, the event sold out. With that encouragement and more experience under his belt, he decided his next event would be even more ambitious. His second pop-up was held at Bonifacio in Grandview, offering a three-course, prix fixe meal, complete with a traditional Peruvian beverage. Tickets for the event sold out, and Cespedes welcomed with a full house.
This story has two morals:
First, your dreams may materialize in the most unlikely of places, so you’d better hold on to them just in case.
The second? To know food from all over the world is to love food. If you haven’t gotten yourself hooked on Peruvian cuisine yet, now is your chance to investigate the rumblings this article has hopefully placed in your stomach.
The next Pop-Up Perú event will be another three-course affair; held on April 10 at Bonifacio, located at 1577 King Ave. Tickets are $30. For more, visit at popupperu.eventbrite.com.