This intimate space and its understated sign may seem unassuming from the outside. But foodies know why getting a table at Llama is a worthy challenge. Don’t let the challenge stop you from trying to get a reservation or taking a seat at the bar to try one of the six rotating mimosas, though. It’s worth the wait.
Chef Marcel Vizcarra calls his concept “modified” Peruvian – adding color, garnishes, and high-end service to bring a Michelin Guide-worthy element to the experience. In one moment, an aromatic plume of smoke releases from beneath a glass cloche, revealing steak on a stick over Peruvian corn. Beef hearts are a Peruvian street food that like everything here, are served with creative gastronomic aplomb.
Marcel intentionally set up his menu and trained his staff to expertly lead diners through the palate-enthusing education about what U.S. food critic Eric Asimov calls one of the worlds’ most important cuisines. The uniqueness of the Llama experience intends to get diners out of their heads and into their mouths. A petite, yet mighty culinary team of two-line cooks, two servers, two bussers, and two dishwashers support his nightly efforts, and – hopefully – lunch soon as well.
Unlike many culinary enthusiasts, Marcel experienced the rare opportunity to learn from a Japanese master when in high school, who led him through an endless apprenticeship making rice for a year and a half. Washing for two months, then adding vinegar, then cooking, then sautéing without dropping one piece. Each chapter lasted for months until his advisor was pleased. “I still dream that he gives me advice,” he says of his beloved teacher, sadly now deceased.
Marcel arrived in the US in 2010, after graduating culinary school in Peru, to work for a resort in Palm Coast, turning out 400 covers a night in a robotic swirl from one pasta dish to the next. But while creativity was not on the menu, his previous training and personal determination saw him through. “Sometimes you have to take it all and suck it up,” he says with a grin, “and I have sucked it up a lot.”
He bounced from a server position at a Cuban restaurant for four months before working as a ballroom dance instructor. “But I missed my pots and pans,” he admitted. He worked at La Cocina for the next five years. It was here that he met his wife and her brother Jacob. Today, Jacob works in a castle in Languedoc region of France on his pursuit of Michelin stars.
But, like the balanced flavor of his menu, Marcel seeks balance for life as well. Sunrise surfs keep him centered even when changes arise. “I gave myself a deadline that everything would happen for me at 27,” he says. “Many people discouraged me when I wanted to start a Peruvian concept and told me to do French cuisine, but I wanted to do something different.”
So he purchased the restaurant, took a hammer to everything, and rebuilt the space piece by piece for two months – from six in the morning to midnight – with help from his brother in law. “There was a time that I was literally sleeping in the restaurant.”
Two weeks after the opening in 2016, Hurricane Matthew flooded the restaurant, tipping the tables and sending nearly the entire inventory of freshly-purchased pottery plates to the ground. He sanded the plates, pieced them back together one by one, and now uses them to serve dessert.
Marcel’s biggest culinary influence is his mother. While managing their family with a full-time job, she created “Pasta Festivals” involving five different pastas and sauces. She led him through making each one just so. She also taught him to trust meat, veering from the usually overly-well-done Peruvian meats to more adventurous rare preparations. “Women inspire me a lot,” says the new father of a six-month-old baby girl.
The same culinary exploration demands that he source ingredients from wherever he can get them or replicate ingredients like tree sap. His inherent understanding of all of the elements that create flavor is evident. “I’ll try anything,” he laughs. “I’ve almost died from my curiosity and had to learn not to put everything in my mouth.”
A dish that perfectly encapsulates the chef’s intentionality with his dishes, his tree sap dessert captures the flora and fauna of the eucalyptus forests near Machu Pichu with a mousse created from cacao paste from the city of Quillabamba, served with eucalyptus.
When he is not working, surfing, or doting on his daughter, Marcel attends the Urban Asado events that bring chefs together monthly on Ribera Street. His hope for his daughter’s palate is that she eats everything and learns how to surf. He calls her his warrior princess. Obviously, she has amassed a serious stuffed Llama collection and a palate of her own despite her young years. She has quite a chef as inspiration.