When Alexis Hernandez accepted the job as chef for Peruvian ambassador to the U.S., Felipe Ortiz de Zevallos, he had only four days to pack up his belongings and say his goodbyes before boarding a flight to Washington, D.C. That experience made Hernandez, the chef de cuisine at Boleo —the new rooftop bar and restaurant opening next week inside the Kimpton Gray Hotel— battle tested. He learned much while preparing meals for the ambassador and now sees himself in a similar role.
"For me it’s about culture," Hernandez said. "You bring your flavor, you bring your roots. Absolutely you have to do little tweaks; you can’t to the same like everybody does it. But you have to keep your roots all the time."
Boleo opens next week with 160 seats, a retractable glass roof and a DJ booth. It’s a place for a meal in the center of the 4,000-square-foot room or a snack while sitting in the lounge-style seating area.
Hernandez arrived in the U.S. in 2007. He didn’t know much English and followed a regimented schedule while cooking for the ambassador. He prepped the ambassador's meals, made food for parties and enjoyed working in D.C. while learning American culture over two years. During that time, he even visited the Mouse in Orlando, Fla. where he participated in a Peruvian food demonstrations and cooked gala dinners over at EPCOT Center in Disney World.
He’s also spent time at cooking at Dirty Martini and working for Stephen Starr when he opened Le Diplomate where they would regularly see 800 covers nightly. He learned more about Asian food over at Richard Sandoval’s Zengo.
"I felt more comfortable over there," Hernandez said. "I enjoy what I like, I’m from Peru and 70 percent of our culture is Asian."
Hernandez was charged with developing the menu at Boleo, and the food showcases a mix of Peruvian and Argentinian flavors. It’s a tidy menu of ceviches, empanadas and anticuchos. Most Peruvian menus feature some form of arroz chaufa, and Boleo isn’t an exception. Though working for a hotel, Hernandez said he wanted a menu that’s far from solely commercial. He said he won’t compromise ingredients and flavors. It’s not necessarily 100 percent authentic, but true to the foods his mother would prepare in Peru.
Hernandez has spent only three weeks in Chicago, but he’s already forming relationships with vendors, particularly in Logan Square. He doesn’t want to compromise on ingredients or take shortcuts. Hernandez won’t substitute roasted yellow peppers when a dish calls for spicy aji amarillo.
"If you’re going to do that change the name; don’t call it the same," he said. "If you’re doing something different, nice, maybe it can be something delicious, but don’t put the same name. You’ll confuse the people."
Hernandez is still getting used to Chicago’s dining landscape. As far as Peruvian food, he’s only dined at Taste of Peru. Coincidentally, his grandmother is friends with the owner. For now, he spends much of his free time walking his black labrador around Lakeview. The dog’s name is Chef, because of course it is.
Read Boleo's full menu below.