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Bay Area chef evokes memories of Peru with mom’s recipes

Bay Area chef evokes memories of Peru with mom's recipes

With Mother’s Day approaching Sunday, SFGATE asked Bay Area chefs how their mothers influenced their culinary education. Check out more upcoming features from this week through Sunday that highlight the maternal mentors of some of the area’s most well-known restaurateurs.

Through the comforting ritual of simmering home-cooked meals on a stovetop, while the pleasant sounds of bubbling pots and welcoming scents fill the kitchen with such warmth – cooking becomes an extension of a mother’s love for her family.

With every spoon, favorite recipes not only have the power to evoke childhood memories, but they can also transport Mom back to cherished moments when little hands helped peel potatoes and fava beans decades ago.

For Josefina Simon, the easiest way to relive her time in Lima, Peru, a country where she raised six children, is with a hearty pot of beef stew. Simon happens to be the mother of Chef Carlos Altamirano, a man known for his Peruvian roots in seven restaurants in the Bay Area.

A selection of the dishes available at the Peruvian restaurant La Costanera in Half Moon Bay.


Thanks to La Costanera

A selection of the dishes available at the Peruvian restaurant La Costanera in Half Moon Bay.

A selection of the dishes available at the Peruvian restaurant La Costanera in Half Moon Bay.


Thanks to La Costanera

A selection of the dishes available at the Peruvian restaurant La Costanera in Half Moon Bay.

A selection of the dishes available at the Peruvian restaurant La Costanera in Half Moon Bay.


Thanks to La Costanera


Some dishes available at La Costanera. (Court La Costanera)

Simon said eating beef was considered a luxury in her community, so it was a dish reserved for special occasions like birthdays and holidays.

“My family loved it when I cooked estofado de carne (beef stew),” Simon told SFGATE. “They knew that when I brought carrots, potatoes and English peas off the market it was going to be a special dinner, because those are some of the main ingredients of the dish. To this day they still love it when I make this dish. It’s my favorite because it reminds me of their childhood.”

As the mother of an award-winning chef, she said she is proud of her son and all he has accomplished since he left Peru. La Costanera is Altamirano’s Michelin-accredited establishment that overlooks the Pacific Harbor in Half Moon Bay.

The exterior of Peruvian restaurant La Costanera in Half Moon Bay, California, on April 12, 2022.

The exterior of Peruvian restaurant La Costanera in Half Moon Bay, California, on April 12, 2022.

Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

“As a mother, I think it’s important to embrace and support your children’s passions,” Simon said. “Carlos showed a passion for cooking from a young age, and I made sure he knew that if this is what he wanted to do in life, he had to pursue it and work hard for it too.”


The ambition Simon instilled in all her children was a driving factor behind Altamirano’s successes. In addition to La Costanera, he also operates tapas and ceviche hotspots such as Mochica in Potrero Hill, Piqueos in Bernal Heights, and Parada in Walnut Creek.

His legacy as a restaurateur over the past 18 years is a testament to his aspiration to succeed in a country he saw as a land of opportunity, a place where he could develop his genuine love of cooking, encouraged by his mother through simple lessons in the kitchen that would later lay the foundation for his culinary empire.

The interior of Peruvian restaurant La Costanera in Half Moon Bay, California, on April 12, 2022.

The interior of Peruvian restaurant La Costanera in Half Moon Bay, California, on April 12, 2022.

Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

“I was her helper in the kitchen all the time, because as a son she taught me a lot about cooking. I’m one of the few brothers she chose as, ‘Okay, you stay home and help me today. You’re going to peel broad beans or English peas or peel potatoes,” said Altamirano, sitting at a neatly set table in La Costanera. “I was that child to my mother. So that’s why she’s very attached to me in terms of cooking experience.”

‘Beautiful, aromatic, tasty food’

A cascade of windows line the restaurant’s second floor dining room with beautiful views of small boats bobbing slowly in the nearby marina. Altamirano, with jet black hair combed straight back, has a warm smile as he talks about Peruvian food. His radiant enthusiasm is manifested in many ways, from the way he describes how exactly he puts a dish on the plate to his wide-eyed when he talks about the upcoming season of fresh corn and artichokes.

Chef Carlos Altamirano shows off the cuisine at his Peruvian restaurant La Costanera in Half Moon Bay, California, on April 12, 2022.

Chef Carlos Altamirano shows off the cuisine at his Peruvian restaurant La Costanera in Half Moon Bay, California, on April 12, 2022.

Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

“I’m excited. When the summer comes, I’m going to use a lot of corn. Last season we started with fresh corn on the cob locally,” he says. “I made a nice butter for that: chimichurri butter. So you grill it like that, if it comes out you brush it with the chimichurri butter, you slice it and then you go with a little cheese mix, our sauces and then you dig in!”

He claps his hands together with so much energy, truly inspired by the possibilities of roasted corn slathered with herbaceous chimichurri butter. For Altamirano, cooking with the abundance of seasonal ingredients from surrounding farms in Half Moon Bay all the way to Atascadero is akin to cooking with its mother as a boy in Peru, where they raised chickens and used what was available at the local market.

There are many Peruvian staples that Altamirano relies on in all of its Bay Area restaurants, starting with the chiles like aji amarillo and rocoto, humble starches like potatoes and rice, followed by spices like cilantro and mint. But huacatay, a black mint used in many Peruvian dishes, is one of his favorites.

Chef Carlos Altamirano shows off some ahi amarillo Peruvian peppers that he uses with stews he makes at his Peruvian restaurant La Costenera in Half Moon Bay California on April 12, 2022.

Chef Carlos Altamirano shows off some ahi amarillo Peruvian peppers that he uses with stews he makes at his Peruvian restaurant La Costenera in Half Moon Bay California on April 12, 2022.
Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

A chef prepares some seafood at Peruvian restaurant La Costenera in Half Moon Bay, California on April 12, 2022.

A chef prepares some seafood at Peruvian restaurant La Costenera in Half Moon Bay, California on April 12, 2022.
Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

A line chef prepares lamb at Peruvian restaurant La Costenera in Half Moon Bay, California, on April 12, 2022.

A line chef prepares lamb at Peruvian restaurant La Costenera in Half Moon Bay, California, on April 12, 2022.
Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

A look behind the scenes of Peruvian restaurant La Costenera in Half Moon Bay Calif.  on April 12, 2022.

A look behind the scenes of Peruvian restaurant La Costenera in Half Moon Bay Calif. on April 12, 2022.
Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE


(Douglas Zimmerman / SFGATE)

“It is a very unique herb. You can make a sauce with it. You can just throw it into a soup, or you can make it into a chimichurri,” he said. “The aroma is very, very strong, pero if you do something with it — it turns into beautiful, aromatic, tasty food.”

It’s one of the many ingredients Altamirano uses for its restaurants’ most popular green sauce, called ocopa, a sauce he says is very traditional from Peru.

“The way my mom made it is coriander, mint and huacatay. Mix it with some queso fresco, a little bit of roasted corn, we’ll call it cancha maiz, then a little milk,” he described, tossing the ingredients one at a time into an invisible blender. “Mix it and then it turns into this green sauce, but it’s a very, very Peruvian dish. You can use it with dipping, you can eat it with rice. It’s so good.”

‘When I came to America it was a dream’

Altamirano moved to San Francisco in 1994 and began working in restaurants in his early 20s, but he never forgets the home-cooked dishes that inspired his passion for cooking. As he worked his way through the ranks of respected Bay Area cuisines, Altamirano learned from renowned chefs such as Reed Hearon of Restaurant Lulu and Rose Pistola, and Bradley Ogden of One Market Restaurant.

“Back to Lulu, Reed, my mentor, he taught me not only about being a chef, but also about being a manager, a server, and over the years I’ve learned a lot,” Altamirano said. “As a restaurateur you have to know all that. He basically raised me from scratch and taught me everything I know.”

In January 2004, Altamirano opened his first restaurant, Mochica, on Harrison Street in San Francisco, mixing his gastronomic experience with his mother’s Peruvian recipes. Guests in San Francisco ate chicharron pollo (crispy chicken marinated in lime juice with chili rocoto aioli) during happy hour, and enjoyed every spoonful of aji de gallina and lomo saltado for dinner, two of his childhood favorites.

A selection of the dishes available at the Peruvian restaurant La Costanera in Half Moon Bay.

A selection of the dishes available at the Peruvian restaurant La Costanera in Half Moon Bay.

Thanks to La Costanera

Mochica was such a success that it expanded into a larger space a decade later in the Potrero Hill neighborhood. Now Altamirano operates seven restaurants with more than 200 employees, some of whom have worked for the chef since Mochica first opened in 2004.

“When I came to America, it was a dream. So when I give a check to my employee I feel so lucky because they can feed their family with it,” he said. for the family, for the wife, for the child for school, and they are happy.”

It’s a point of pride for Altamirano, who sits straight from his dining room chair. He said there is no better feeling than cultivating young talent, encouraging the creativity of his chefs and instilling the values ​​his mentors have taught him throughout his career.

Chef Carlos Altamirano poses in front of a Peruvian flag at his Peruvian restaurant La Costanera in Half Moon Bay, California, on April 12, 2022.

Chef Carlos Altamirano poses in front of a Peruvian flag at his Peruvian restaurant La Costanera in Half Moon Bay, California, on April 12, 2022.

Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

But whenever he walks into his restaurants and the chefs are simmering aji de gallina, his mother’s comforting, creamy chicken stew in large pots on commercial stoves, the aromas and homely feelings it evokes evoke Altamirano to a time when he was helping. Mama peeling potatoes in their kitchen in Lima.

“I remember my mother cooking when I was a small child, back home in Peru, and she always made soup. Soup was part of our lives,” he said. “When I come to the restaurant in the kitchen and I see them making the aji de gallina, I say, ‘I was there in Peru when my mom taught me how to make the aji de gallina.’ It turns out like this yellow creamy chicken stew. I love aji de gallina. It’s so good.”