When José Andrés opened China Chilcano in January 2015 after years of planning, he delivered a menu the District's culinary scene hadn't seen before. The cooking at the Penn Quarter restaurant creatively blends the rich culinary variety of Peru, which includes aspects of South American, Japanese, Chinese, and Spanish cuisines. It's become a gathering place for tourists, neighborhood regulars and curious diners and the Peruvian community.
Over the past twelve months, China Chilcano has churned out everything from bowls of ceviche to handcrafted dumplings. Ever the creator, Andrés even introduced quinoa pancakes (dorayaki) during brunch, and more seasonal changes are on deck.
As the restaurant rolls into its second year, chef Andrés, manager Jessica Berman and head chef Omar Rodriguez each spoke with Eater about their first year in business and what to look for as the restaurant evolves into the future.
So what was the original thought behind the concept?
José Andrés: My concepts, I usually have them planned a long time ahead — at least the idea. On paper we were talking about Chinese food — a Chinese restaurant only. I had already been traveling a lot of China and [had some] experience with China Poblano that I did in Las Vegas, which is a great concept that I love. I was kind of ready to go full-blown Chinese.
But then my team traveled to Peru and I traveled to Peru with them. One night we were having way too many pisco sours and I told [my] team, "What do you think if we opened [a restaurant devoted to] Chifa – the Peruvian cuisine?" And my team was like, "yeah."
Right there I called my partner, and I called the architect and everybody. I told them, "Wait, wait, wait! Don't do more blueprints." And we changed right there in that moment. It took a second. So that's how China Chilcano came to be.
Is there an aspect of the restaurant that you're especially proud of?
Andrés: I'm unbelievably proud of the dumplings myself. I do believe they are very ethereal, they are very light. We almost use no flour or cornstarch in the dough inside. They are so light that they float. The paper is so thin that you must be delicate with the chopsticks.
It is very easy to make a very thick dough. It's very difficult to make a very thin one. But I'm very happy with the HaKao, with the siu mai. I'm really proud of those, and we are going to be adding more. I've been working many years and learning and eating. And I'm very happy with that.
On the Japanese side, I got Koji [Terrano]. He is a very nice young talent and he has a lot of room in the future to do great things. For me it has been very exciting to have a Japanese sushi chef join my team.
Has the first year in business been a challenge?
Jessica Berman: José has so many restaurants already in the Penn Quarter neighborhood and has established his name as José Andrés. So we have the name recognition already. A challenge that we have — an opportunity — is that people aren't familiar with Peruvian cuisine entirely.
Actually, now that we've been open I've met more and seen more Peruvians in one little city than ever.
What's the reception been like to the style of cooking?
Berman: It's really great. The [guests] really enjoy it. They enjoy the flavors. José has a spin on things always, as the José mind works. He takes what's classic and he puts his twists on it. So people are excited to see the classics done in a more José Andrés-style. So, it's exciting.
Are people still confused about what type of food you serve?
Berman: People still walk in and think that we're a Chinese restaurant. We try to develop the knowledge of Peru already having the Chinese, Japanese, Criolla, Spanish influence. So people are starting to understand it a little bit more. The servers know about the whole Peruvian culture now and so they can kind of tell the guests. Some guests might be a little bit more confused, but once they start eating it kind of makes sense to them.
Have you changed out the menu that much?
Rodriguez: We haven't for the first year that we've been open. We tried to stay focused on the original menu. In this coming year, we definitely have plans to do seasonal changes, we'll definitely do a spring, summer, fall and winter change. We plan on having tastings with José to bring some new dishes on and take some old dishes off.
Have you attracted a lot of regulars? Are you heavy on tourists?
Berman: We reside in a building that has apartments above us, where we have numerous people come down all the time, sending us emails or just coming by. People that have particular tables that they like to sit at. We have relationships with a bunch of residents in the building and it's really great.
And there are guests that come from other cities who have been to José restaurants or sister restaurants that want to come to D.C. and they know D.C. goes with José.
How frequently does José stop by the restaurant?
Berman: He's here often. If he's not in town you know, because it's been weeks and you're thinking "Where is he?" When he's here you seen him walk by. I enjoy that all the restaurants have these big, clear windows and you wave and he waves back. The guests really love him. If he's in town, he tries to come by.
He makes an appearance quite often. It's nice to see your boss walking around and enjoying the fruit of his labor.