23 April 2021
23 April 2021
Making Chris Hemsworth look good on Home and Away isn’t obvious training for becoming a restaurateur. But for cinematographer José Alkon – who started his career as a camera assistant on the show, back in 2007 – it’s more relevant than you might think.
“The art of cinematography is the art of telling stories. To me, when you walk into the restaurant, I’m telling you a story,” says Alkon, who owns Pepito’s in Marrickville, in Sydney’s inner west. “I’m telling the story of Peru that people don’t know about.”
The restaurant is named after his father, who is from Huánuco in central Peru. Alkon was born in Lima and remembers special occasions where they’d prepare pachamanca in their backyard: “It’s a really traditional dish, it goes back to native Peruvian times, where they’d dig inside the earth [to cook] meat and potatoes and veggies in an earth oven.” The family also enjoyed ají de gallina, a chicken curry that roughly translates as “hen chillies”, according to Alkon. The curry’s spice levels didn’t discourage his youthful taste buds in any way: “It’s not like Asian chillies, which get hotter and hotter and hotter – Peruvian chillies just give you a kiss and fade away.”
Alkon’s family migrated to Australia in the 1980s, to avoid the brutal Shining Path guerrilla insurgency, which ultimately killed 70,000 people. “A lot of people left at that time,” he says.
Settling in Sydney, the family kept Peruvian culture alive by speaking Spanish and eating staples such as ají de gallina and lomo saltado – a beef stir-fry dish that can be traced back to the country’s Chinese migrants. What makes lomo saltado so distinct is the addition of crisp French fries in the pan, seasoned with soy sauce, and served with rice. “In Peru, it’s all about double carbs,” Alkon says. It’s a dish he serves at Pepito’s, a venue that actively resists the touristy clichés often associated with his heritage.
“I’m not going to have Machu Picchu on the wall, I’m not going to have llamas, I’m not going to have ceviche on the menu because that’s what people expect,” he says.
Instead, Pepito’s proclaims itself as a “rocking neighbourhood taberna” with an atmosphere that evokes the “edgy and grungy” suburb of Barranco in Lima. Alkon modelled his restaurant on a Barranco institution, Juanito, a family-owned restaurant that has been around since 1937. It’s not a fancy place – you can order sandwiches there – but its energy and buzz make it stand out. “You can’t beat that atmosphere. It’s loud, it’s fun,” says Alkon. There’s even a corner of Pepito’s that has been plastered with music posters as a visual tribute to his favourite spot inside Juanito. You’ll also see photos of Peruvian musicians all over the taberna – and hear them over the speakers, too.
Expect Los Saicos on the playlist: the Peruvian band pioneered punk in the 1960s – a decade before it broke in the UK. “They came out with this angry destructive sound that no one had heard of before,” says Alkon.
And of course, the menu is a snapshot of Peru’s past, too. The ox-heart anticuchos are a street-food reminder of the country’s enslaved population and their resourceful use of offal. “They’d receive the offcuts and that’s what they’d be cooking with – they’d cook it over barbecue,” he says. The lomo saltado is served in an updated, tapas-friendly form at Pepito’s, but remains a historic symbol, too: Chinese migrants first arrived in Peru as indentured servants to replace the slave population after abolition took place in the 1850s. They eventually became a significant part of the population – and ended up creating Chifa, a Peruvian-Chinese style of cooking.
“There wouldn’t be a Peruvian cuisine [without migration],” says Alkon, pointing to the Japanese influence on the presentation of seafood (including modernising ceviche).
Modern migratory patterns have also made their mark on the menu, in particular the head chef’s experience in French cuisine, which has also informed their take on traditional dishes such as Arroz con Pato (duck with rice), a popular dish that originated in the northern city of Chiclayo.
Pepito’s version is a confit duck leg with a fragrant coriander rice, a dish Alkon says often brings his father to tears.
“I would say it is my Dad's favourite dish at Pepito's … he spent time living in northern Peru and our version brings him memories of his favourite restaurant in Chiclayo, El Rincón del Pato.”
Unsurprisingly, pisco dominates the drinks menu. Pepito’s offers nine kinds of Peru’s national spirit – which Alkon had planned to hand-select from the source before the taberna’s opening last year. He was scheduled to fly to Lima in March 2020, but started to get “a bad vibe” when his flight was delayed for three hours. He undid his seatbelt and got off the plane – just as countries began closing their borders in an attempt to contain the COVID-19 pandemic. Peru closed its borders the following day. “I would’ve been stuck there if I had gone.”
Instead, he’s taken advantage of international courier systems to find the boutique pisco he wants to showcase. “I really like some of the aged piscos we have. It’s almost like drinking ghosts,” he says. “[It’s] ethereal, smoother, more gentle, it lingers more; whereas the younger pisco is like a young kid – harsh and brash.”
This loudness seems apt for Pepito’s, which draws Peruvians natives from all over Sydney who instantly understand what the restaurateur is doing. “They say, ‘wow, this reminds me of Juanito!’” he says. They also remark on the food – how it’s Peruvian food unlike any they’ve tried in Australian before. For Alkon, this could be considered a mission accomplished.
Our Story on a Plate is a series unpacking the cultural influences behind some of Australia’s most popular restaurants and profiling the people who are sharing their stories through the medium of food.
In case you missed it, check out the story of how one Adelaide family is reclaiming the narrative of their Afghani heritage through their restaurant and cookbook Parwana.
By Lee Tran Lam