Marcel Vizcarra slowly carves through a piece of thick white fish. Cutting it into slices, he places them carefully on the rim of a large white bowl. Then he methodically places the cubes of bright orange sweet potato among the fish. He doesn’t take his gaze away from his creation for even a moment as he explains, in great detail, how he is making ceviche, a traditional Peruvian dish.
Vizcarra is the head chef and owner of the Llama, the only Peruvian restaurant in St. Augustine. He was trained at the famous culinary school, Le Cordon Bleu, in his hometown of Lima, the capital of Perú. But he attributes much of his culinary success to his mother.
“I learned from my mom the first steps of cooking when I was eight. Her palette is spectacular. She will remember food she tried in a different country 10 years ago and she’ll go home and she will make the same thing and make it taste the same way,” Marcel said. “She came here for our opening day and she was impressed. That’s when I realized I was pretty good.”
But Marcel made it clear that making Peruvian food taste good and look appetizing at the same time can be complicated. He considers himself not only a chef, but an artist as well. He believes that the way food is presented can evoke powerful emotions. That belief fuels a lot of late nights of brainstorming.
“I love my business. I love being a chef. It’s just hard to mix art and business. I’m constantly staying up all night thinking about what I’m going to do next, what is going to be the new presentation. How can I transform something delicious that doesn’t look that good, which is typical Peruvian food, into something very appealing?” Marcel said.
When Marcel was contemplating opening Llama, he says that many people strongly discouraged him from opening a Peruvian restaurant in the area. He was told that the community of St. Augustine was close-minded and wouldn’t enjoy food as foreign as beef hearts or guinea pig. But he moved forward anyway. His parents took out a second mortgage on their home to help pay for the purchase and renovation of the building where the Llama is now.
Then came Hurricane Matthew. Matthew blew through St. Augustine in October of 2016 only two weeks after Llama opened its doors for the first time. The storm ultimately cost Marcel $10,000 in repairs. This is in addition to the tens of thousands of dollars he had already spent on remodeling the building.
When Hurricane Irma passed through Northeast Florida in September 2017 it also caused damage to the Llama. Marcel drew two different colored lines on the wall next to the front door of the restaurant. The higher one marks where the flooding was during Hurricane Matthew and the lower one shows the waterline from Hurricane Irma.
“In the beginning it was really hard, especially with two hurricanes,” Marcel said. “But I’m just learning, starting my second year now and I heard it starts to get easier.”
The St. Augustine community has been more than receptive to the Llama’s menu. Marcel says that the beef hearts, an uncommon dish for most Americans, is now one of the most popular dishes. Many of Marcel’s American clients have also ordered the guinea pig, another traditional Peruvian dish that’s typically unusual for people outside of South America. Apparently many of Marcel’s customers even eat the brains and eyeballs of the guinea pig, something not even Marcel himself does.
“Peruvian cuisine is a whole world. Peruvian cuisine has part French, and Peruvian cuisine has part African, Chinese, Japanese, Arabic,” Marcel said, “It’s a mix of everything."