Promises, Promises: Deliciously Kept
By Robert Waldner
Photos by Brian Miller
Have you read the story about the young man who made a promise to himself to become a master chef, put in years of hard work and training under some of the most influential chefs in his native country, Peru, and then came to the United States to capitalize on that promise? Who spent years perfecting difficult techniques and methods, combining innovative styles and tastes, and learning the artistry of food presentation in order to create the most exciting, imaginative and unforgettable dishes you’ll find anywhere?
If you haven’t, you’re about to. Meet Marcel Vizcarra, owner and head chef of the newest dining sensation on Anastasia Boulevard’s evolving culinary culture, Llama Restaurant. You can experience Vizcarra’s authentic, masterfully-crafted, and artistically-presented Peruvian cuisine in the newly transformed space which used to house Fratelli’s.
Vizcarra realized his passion for the culinary world as a boy growing up in Peru. At 16 years old, he promised himself that he would open a restaurant at the age of 27. “I learned to take my first steps in cooking from my mother. Later, I trained with some very big name chefs in Peru. My official culinary training came from Cordon Bleu Culinary School in Lima,” Vizcarra explains of his brilliantly lit career path. After moving to the United States at 22 years old, and working in other people’s kitchens for five years, in 2016 Marcel was able to purchase Fratelli’s Italian Restaurant and transform it into his own Peruvian oasis. Vizcarra officially opened Llama on September 24, 2016, at the fresh age of (you guessed it), 27! He made good on that promise to his adolescent self and now the Ancient City is reaping the benefits of Vizcarra’s passion, drive, and vision.
Unfortunately, his celebration of accomplishment was abruptly delayed in the wake of his next obstacle, Hurricane Matthew. As if more than a decade and nearly 3,000 miles wasn’t enough of a journey to
Vizcarra’s dream, after just two weeks in business, Llama was in the direct path of a Category 3 Hurricane. “We took on two feet of water. All of our equipment was upended and much of our very expensive dishware was damaged beyond repair,” recounts Vizcarra. Despite the devastation, Vizcarra and his wife Anna refused to let their dream recede with Matthew’s flood waters. Two weeks after their untimely setback, Llama was back in business. “When we reopened, I had fifty dollars in my pocket and for two weeks after I could only serve five items on the menu,” he remembers.
Now past the rebuilding period, Vizcarra is back to creating mouth watering dishes with an artistry that is unmatched in St. Augustine, while proving that the ethnicity of his cuisine is not solely what makes Llama so unique.
He and his team are the equivalents of singer/songwriters in the culinary world. Not only are they masters in the sense of how they use their ingredients and their meal preparation, but also in the way that they present their entrees. With a colorful balance of imported and locally sourced ingredients, the end results are dishes that hit all of the senses. Every menu item is a masterpiece finished with the brushstrokes of complete palate gratification. The food is so beautifully plated that it can make your mouth water in anticipation of your first bite and at the same time bring a tear to your eye at the thought of interrupting the beautiful aesthetic just to satisfy your hunger.
“My employees love to work here. I allow and actually encourage them to use their creativity. There is no drama. We all get along and we love working together,”states Vizcarra. He knows from firsthand experience what it means, as an artist, to be allowed the freedom to let your creative juices flow. He understands that his team’s imagination is ultimately tied to Llama’s success. Vizcarra passionately describes, “When we opened, the goal was to do something different. I just like to please people”
While the menu creation is almost solely the work of Vizcarra, his wife Anna is mainly responsible for Llama’s soft, modern interior design. She is the creative force behind an atmosphere that when you walk in, makes you feel instantly welcome and relaxed. With a clean, bright dining room accented by a patterned wood bar area and wood ceiling beams, Llama Restaurant gives us a glimpse into the beauty of the Peruvian coast. Marcel and Anna completed the renovations themselves, adding personal touches that allow their customers to enjoy the entire Peruvian dining experience. “Our main focuses are authenticity, innovation, tradition and quality. Anybody can sell food. We sell an experience,” Vizcarra says. As a token of the long journey to where he sits now, he has a handful of broken plates which he salvaged from the wreckage of Matthew, a symbolic reminder that the broken pieces add to the beauty of our stories.
For more information or to make a reservation call (904) 819-1760 or go to the Llama Restaurant website.