The story of nikkei has been almost inescapable over the past decade. The Japanese-Peruvian food is behind some of the buzzier restaurants in the United States in recent years, such as West Hollywood’s Rosaline and New York’s Llama San, and Mitsuharu Tsumura’s Lima restaurant, Maido, regularly nudges its way towards the top of The World’s 50 Best restaurants list. In Australia, you can find nikkei food at Inka in Canberra and (unsurprisingly) Nikkei in Sydney, among a few others.
But nikkei’s now international reputation has overshadowed what’s arguably an even more influential cuisine within Peru: chifa.
“In Peru, chifa is like cafe culture here in Australia,” Jared Thibault says. “Chifa places are everywhere, on every corner.”
A combination of Peruvian and Chinese cooking techniques, chifa emerged out of the enormous migration of Chinese people to Peru in the 19th century to work on the country’s railroads and sugarcane plantations. It combines classic East Asian ingredients such as ginger, spring onions and soy sauce with Peruvian staples like pineapple, potatoes and aji amarillo paste (made from yellow chilli peppers) to create dishes such as lomo saltado (beef and vegetable stir-fry), arroz chaufa (fried rice) and tallarin saltado (Peruvian chow mein).
Chifa cuisine is one of the major inspirations behind Casa Chow, which Thibault and business partner Vince Lombino will open in Woolloongabba’s South City Square precinct in mid-July. The other? Lombino’s years as part-owner of Chispa, a popular Miami restaurant from the mid-aughts.
“It was contemporary Latin with elements of Cuba, the Spanish Caribbean and South America,” Lombino says. “[Musicians] Shakira and Marc Anthony used to come in. Pitbull. It was a poppin’ joint. I loved the music, the vibe, the energy, the space, the place, the food, the flavours, and always wanted to do it again.
“I then worked for the China Grill group … and I started to wonder if you could ever put Chinese and Latin together. It was Jared who suggested Peruvian-Chinese and chifa.”
As a venue, Casa Chow is intended to echo the vibe of Chispa that Lombino recalls so fondly. The open-air 100-seater will be organized around one central bar with a DJ booth perched high in the corner spinning vibrant Latin pop music. The rest of the fit-out will be a mix of breeze blocks, patterned floor tiles, distressed walls, and extravagantly curved ceilings and archways. Outside, there will be a large deck surrounded by greenery.
“All the windows and doors open up,” Lombino says. “If you’re sitting inside you feel outside, and if you’re outside you’re sitting among the trees but still connected to the inside. It’s meant to provide that escapism.”
Casa will be more of a bar-led spot than sister venue Sasso Italiano next door. Thibault’s drinks program will revolve around pisco and a Pisco Sour menu, similar to Sasso’s Negroni menu. There will also be variations on the Chilcano (a simple cocktail of pisco, ginger beer and lime), an extensive range of rums, and Scorpion Bowls to share. Aether Brewing is producing a house lager made on purple rice (to reflect the purple corn popular in Peruvian food culture), and there will be a tight wine list that favors South American drops.
Still, Casa gets its soul from a chifa-driven food menu of small plates, designed to be shared. Thibault has a direct connection to Peru via his partner, Fiorella Aguila, who passed away in April after a long battle with cancer. Aguila was a qualified chef and both she and her mother, Edith Leon, regularly cooked chifa meals at home.
Sasso Italiano chef Gabriele Di Landri has been busy adapting their family recipes for Casa Chow, trialing dishes such as anticuchos de corazon (beef heart) skewers finished with aji panca molido (red pepper paste), prawn and pork chaufa, and lomo saltado. There will also be dim sum and ceviche menus, and larger plates such as steamed market fish and pollo a la brasa (Peruvian rotisserie chicken). This just weeks after Di Landri and the rest of the Sasso team rallied around Thibault at the time of Aguila’s death.
“When Chef brought out some of her recipes last week, and Jared would taste them, and you could just feel this pride and this sense of memory and emotion that came through,” Lombino says.
“It’s been amazing, Gabriele taking Fio’s recipes that they’ve had in the family for years and executing them to an absolute tee,” Thibault says. “We have that sense of family in our restaurants and I really felt it the day [of the funeral]. I didn’t even know they were coming and they rocked up and helped with the catering and the celebration. It meant a lot and it’s exactly that feeling that we try to recreate in every restaurant we open.”
Casa Chow will open at South City Square in Woolloongabba in mid-July.