There was never any doubt that Pía León’s debut solo restaurant was going to be a big success. As the former head chef of seminal Lima restaurant Central, she has been at the forefront of Peru’s famously stellar food scene for the best part of a decade.
But the speed at which Kjolle - which opened in 2018 in the Peruvian capital’s trendy Barranco neighbourhood - has made its mark on Latin America’s food scene is nonetheless impressive. Kjolle (pronounced KOY-ay) made its debut on the Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurant list in 2019 at 21 (it picked up the Highest New Entry Award) and earlier this year León was named The World’s Best Female Chef 2021 sponsored by NUDE Glass by 50 Best.
Previous recipients of The World’s Best Female Chef title include Daniela Soto-Innes, formerly of Cosme and Atla in New York, in 2019; the UK’s Clare Smyth in 2018; Ana Roš of Hiša Franko in Slovenia in 2017; San Francisco-based Dominique Crenn in 2016; and French chef Hélène Darroze in 2015, so León is in good company.
Like the bright orange flower that gives the restaurant its name, Kjolle’s dishes are extremely colourful, and offer a taste of ingredients from all over Peru. A nine-course tasting works through sea bass with razor clams, a selection of tubers including yucca, olluco and potato, and cured duck with squid, onion and kañiwa, a grain similar to quinoa.
The space is fashionably stripped back; an open-plan dining room offers a full view of León and her team in the kitchen, with all furnishings made from 100% Peruvian materials. Even the tableware is made from cedar and capirona wood sourced from the Amazon rainforest.
León remains a co-owner and integral part of the team at Central, which placed at number four on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list earlier this month. She joined the restaurant at 21, working her way up to head chef in just five years (she is now married to the restaurant’s founder Virgilio Martínez).
The human aspect
The pair have created a mini-empire in Peru that also includes cocktail bar Mayo and destination restaurant Mil near Cusco in the Andes. Standards have been maintained by focusing on what León describes as the “human aspect” of restaurants.
“One must keep in mind that you are working with people, not with machine parts, replaceable, adjustable, movable,” she explains. “People with different lives, with different motivations, with different backgrounds, with sometimes complex family lives, with worries, with emotions. In this era, we have been able to cope with sad and happy moments, and to sustain ourselves as people in a working environment has been very important.”
Since being named the World’s Best Female Chef sponsored by NUDE Glass, León has inevitably been asked a lot of questions around the lack of female representation in kitchens. While she is a fierce advocate for women in restaurants and runs a gender-balanced kitchen, she says that she hasn’t put anything specific in place at Kjolle to attract women.
“We aim to offer a friendly, highly professional and very demanding working environment, but where there is respect and consideration. I have never thought that I need to offer something special to make more women feel that Kjolle is ideal, but that it is understood that with me they can develop in this occupation, grow if they want to, be free to contribute ideas if they have them, and to just do the hours if that is what they are looking for. I also respect the personal path of each individual.”
That said, she does believe that women have a different - and more effective - leadership style to men. “I think it’s also very important to say it. That we are looking for equality but we can probably bring differences. I speak from my experience. There are more women than men in management positions here, partly because we are more organised, more detail-oriented, more careful.”
The near identical number of male and female cooks in Kjolle’s kitchen is not mirrored in the wider Peruvian restaurant scene, with men typically outnumbering women, as they do in most other parts of the world. León - who prior to Central cooked at a string of more traditional Peruvian restaurants - says that she did get treated differently in kitchens when she was starting out because she was a woman.
“I felt invisible. I was one woman among many men, all chefs, all with similar training and experience in other similar kitchens, but it was a little harder for me to get noticed. Things have changed dramatically these past few years. Not only in our kitchens but everywhere. Of course, there is still much room to be better.”
León advises kitchens that are struggling to recruit more women to ensure the working environment is friendly and respectful. Those in charge should also seek to properly get to know their staff. “I care a lot about getting to know the people who work here on a personal and family level, not to gossip but because I like to understand why they choose to be here and spend time with us, what motivates them, and what their vision of life is in the short, medium and long term,” she says.
So what advice would León give a young woman embarking on a career in kitchens and looking to reach the very top of their profession?
“Be very determined with the path you seek and be certain that it will be difficult, and walk it with joy. Enjoy the process,” she says.” Cooking is demanding, but amazingly, it is an occupation that also tends to expand in actions. You can get experiences that fill you with personal satisfaction.”
About Nude Glass
Istanbul-based global design brand NUDE is the creator of contemporary glassware for modern living. With the ethos ‘simple is beautiful’, it designs and manufactures crystalline glassware for the service and retail industries. Its extensive offering has a focus on handmade yet innovative design, spanning statement table and drinkware, decorative objects, and unique vases and lighting.
Epitomising its innovative approach is the award-winning Stem Zero collection, a revolutionary stemware series that uses ‘Ion Shielding Technology’ to create incredibly tough, yet exquisitely fine, lead-free crystal glass designed to satisfy the most discerning wine connoisseur.
Established in 2014 by Şişecam Group, a world leader in glass manufacturing with more than 85 years experience, NUDE combines a wealth of expertise with a modern approach to design. Its vast portfolio of glass collections is designed by a pool of leading international talent including: Ron Arad, Defne Koz, Space Copenhagen, Studio Formafantasma, Sebastian Herkner and Brad Ascalon. Its dynamic approach to collaborations extends to industry experts too, seen in a cocktailware range made with world renowned mixologist Remy Savage. Operating on an international scale as part of the Şişecam Group, it exports to 150 countries around the world.