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Famous Peruvian gastronomy agonizes in debt, chefs ask for ransom due to COVID pandemic

By Maria Cervantes

LIMA, Feb 17 (.) – In a restaurant that for years was among the best in the world, only one table looked occupied at the end of January in the middle of a spacious room surrounded by more than a hundred Andean spices and varieties of corn that show the rich biodiversity of Peru.

Now the famous Central restaurant, in the bohemian Barranco district of Lima, has closed its doors to the public due to a new quarantine decreed by the Peruvian government until the end of February to stop the fierce second wave of the coronavirus.

“Suddenly the restaurant closes, it is clear that we are going red,” chef Virgilio Martínez, owner of Central, told . as the cooks cut slices of olluco, oca and mashua, three tubers from the Andes with healing properties.

“A very long quarantine is going to leave us in the red and in debt anyway”, remarked the chef.

Central restaurant was included in 2015 in the top 5 of the famous list The World’s 50 Best Restaurants and remained between the fourth and sixth place in the ranking until 2019.

Gastronomy is part of the Peruvian identity and a national pride. In the last two decades, the boom in local cuisine spread throughout the world due to the great variety of its products, flavors and dishes, with ceviche -based on fish marinated with lemon and accompanied by corn from the Andes- as the star.

But Central, among the most expensive in the country, does not present traditional dishes but instead puts on a staging of diversity, drawing inspiration from ancestral products little known or rediscovered by the chef.

In mid-March 2020, the Government imposed one of the strictest quarantines in the region, leading the country’s economy into an “induced coma” with border closures and curfews due to the high death rates as a result of the pandemic.

Chef Martínez had to close his restaurant called Mil, located in the tourist region of Cusco next to the archaeological remains of Moray, a place considered an agricultural research center of the Incas more than 500 years ago.

“Thousand depended a lot on tourism, flights, local tourism. What is happening in Cusco for us is a disaster in terms of the economy,” said the chef.

Martínez claimed that he reduced his staff from 120 to 50 people and was forced to stop the opening of restaurants in Moscow and Tokyo.

“WITH LOANS IN THE NECK”

According to the Union of Restaurant Guilds of Peru, of the 200,000 restaurants in the country before the pandemic, 70,000 closed, taking 350,000 jobs with them.

“The measures are insufficient and a financial rescue is required because formal restaurant companies are going to be limited to fulfilling their obligations,” said the spokesman for the private restaurant union, José Luis Silva Martinot.

“The restaurants that have still been able to survive were in a very bad situation and needed the Government to take certain measures such as rescheduling the Reactiva Peru loan, exemption from VAT,” said the leader in reference to VAT.

After the first harsh quarantine last year, cooks had a respite in July when the government allowed the reopening of restaurants with a capacity of 40%, but not all entrepreneurs were able to survive.

Without foreign tourists and with restrictions, the most prestigious restaurants in the country have had to face their debts without income for four months.

“We invested three million dollars in remodeling the premises and the pandemic caught us with the loan around our necks,” said chef Alfredo Aramburú, owner of the Cala restaurant, in Barranco, with an impressive view of the sunset over the Pacific Ocean.

Aramburú affirmed that it was only able to reopen seven of the 14 stores it owns in the country, and with only 400 employees of the 1,400 it had before the arrival of the coronavirus.

“It will be very difficult if the Government does not give some kind of financial bailout, I believe that half of the restaurants will go bankrupt in the next 30 days and the other half in the next six months,” said the chef.

The famous chefs now distribute their haute cuisine dishes by delivery, decorated with exotic native herbs, something that, they said, only represents up to 15% of their income.

Peru returned in February to impose a quarantine in 32 provinces of the country with “extreme risk”, including Lima and Cusco, but infections are increasing faster, according to the Minister of Health, Pilar Mazzetti, amid the appearance of the British variants and Brazilian virus.

Deaths from the disease in Peru rise to an average of 200 a day and the victims number about 44,000, with a mortality rate among the highest in the world compared to its population of 33 million inhabitants. Meanwhile, infections increase almost 7,000 daily to total more than 1.2 million cases.

Government spokespersons linked to the productive tourism sector did not respond to requests for comment. But last week the Minister of the Economy, Waldo Mendoza, announced an aid program of 2 billion soles (about 555 million dollars) for medium and small companies affected by the restrictive measures.

(Report by Maria Cervantes, edited by Marco Aquino and Javier Leira)