London native Nick Garrett is the head chef and owner of Korma Sutra, in the San Blas area of Cusco.
Now in its fifth year of business, the restaurant is a firm favorite with tourists and locals alike. Last month the chef opened his second venture, Tacomania, serving tacos cooked to order with freshly made Mexican fillings.
Nick first arrived to Cusco 17 years ago, with the intention of staying for a holiday. “I had a lot of friends from home who were travelling in South America, so I came out for a visit. By the time I got to Peru I had nearly run out of money, so I started working in local bars here. I ended up living here for three years that first time.”
After a few years of traveling back and forth between the UK and Peru for work back home, Nick made the move out here permanently in 2004. “I was originally a sound engineer in England. By working a one month contract in the UK, I could earn enough money to live on for a year in Peru. After a while it got tiring though… It just wasn’t working out, so I sold everything in England and moved to Cusco full-time.”
That same year, Nick opened his first restaurant here, just off the main Plaza de Armas in Cusco. “We served Peruvian food like guinea pig and alpaca, but it wasn’t traditional food, not in the slightest. I made tandoori guinea pig, crispy aromatic guinea pig, even buffalo ‘guinea wings.’ It was great fun.”
The restaurant did well for a few years, but Nick says things soon lost their charm for him. “By the time we decided to close in 2009 due to a hike in rent, I had already lost focus a bit, I wasn’t really running the business very well. I was drinking a lot and partying every night. I had turned the restaurant into more of a nightclub than a restaurant.”
Nick showing off one of his tacos (Photo: Stephen Morrissey/Peru this Week)
Later that year, Korma Sutra opened its doors for the first time. Nick says that he really had no pride in the restaurant for the first while, even though it is such a success now. “Originally three of us opened the place together as a partnership, two English guys and an Argentinean. I was the only one working there every day, and it annoyed me that the other two never showed up. As a result I never really put much effort into anything. I don’t even know how it stayed open for that first year, to be honest.”
A year later though, after buying out his two partners, Nick started afresh. “Once I was the sole owner, I stopped partying, stopped abusing alcohol, and really started cooking well and working hard. Since then the business has just gone up and up. I don’t know how I used to do it before; boozing every night and running a restaurant every day is not easy.”
These days, Nick’s work begins at 7 a.m. with a trip to the market. “I buy meat and vegetables daily so they are as fresh as I can get them. It took me a while to find reliable suppliers. Now I have my routine worked out so that I can be in and out of the market in 45 minutes.” By 8:15 a.m. he is at the restaurant preparing ingredients for the day and night ahead. “It takes me two hours to fillet and chop everything, and by 10:30 a.m. all the meat for Korma Sutra is marinating. At 1 p.m. we open in Tacomania, and about 4 p.m. I begin cooking everything for Korma Sutra, which opens at 6 p.m.”
Cooking up a storm in Korma Sutra’s kitchen (Photo: Stephen Morrissey/Peru this Week)
It’s a long day, but Nick says hard graft is the key to his success. “I didn’t take a holiday for the first four years that Korma Sutra was open. I always felt nervous leaving the business in someone else’s hands, but last year I went away for a week for the first time. I think at this stage, even if I am not there, the food in Korma Sutra will still be consistent and great quality. My staff know what they are doing.”
Of course, there are struggles involved with running a business in Peru. “A lot of ingredients just aren’t available here in Cusco. I order a lot of herbs and spices such as cardamom and fenugreek from an Indian guy in the U.S.A. Sometimes shops can run out of basic things like salt or oil, which is why I stick to the markets for the most part.”
Nick with his ingredients (Photo: Stephen Morrissey/Peru this Week)
In January of this year, when the premises next door to Korma Sutra became available, Nick made the big decision to open his second restaurant. “We were lucky because I made the rental agreement in January but our lease didn’t begin until March. So I had two and a half months to investigate recipes and work on the menu for Tacomania.”
Nick admits he had never eaten a taco himself before making his first one, but reception from customers has been great so far. “We’ve had some repeat customers already which I’m taking as a good sign. We had a Mexican woman in the other day who gave me some great recipes and tips. She was 50 years old so I’m sure she has cooked a few tacos in her time! The only way to improve is to listen to feedback like that.”
The Tacomania menu is small, with just seven varieties of taco on offer, but Nick feels that is the best route to success. “The idea for now is to concentrate on those dishes and make them as good as I possibly can before adding anything new.”
Although he hopes to visit England again in the coming year, Nick says that Cusco is home to him these days. He met his partner Katy eight years ago, and the pair have no plans to leave Peru anytime soon. “This is where I like being. Since giving up partying, I’m very happy here. I walk along the street and smile to myself for no reason. I’ve got my girl, my dog, my business… I’ve built everything I want here.”
KORMA SUTRA, Calle Tandapata 909, Cusco
Open Monday – Saturday, 6 p.m. – 10 p.m.
TACOMANIA, Calle Tandapata 917, Cusco
Open Monday – Saturday, 1 p.m. – 9 p.m.