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Denver's Carolina Zubiate could be next Hispanic Top Chef

"It's huge for me to be able to share my culture and my family," she said
Peruvian Chef Carolina Zubiate
Posted at 11:18 AM, Sep 29, 2023

DENVER — With flames erupting from her wok and delicate flowers and micro greens adorning her plates, Carolina Zubiate brings together her Peruvian culture and chef training.

Zubiate moved to Denver almost a decade ago, looking for community.

“I'm very glad I did,” she said. "I found chefs that want to help me... and see me grow into my own.”

Her growth as a chef will be put to the test this October in the Hispanic Top Chef competition. Zubiate will represent Denver against Hispanic chefs from across the country, and one competitor from Mexico. The Hispanic Restaurant Association will host the event at the CSU Spur Campus.

Denver7 met up with Zubiate to get a sneak preview of the kinds of Peruvian delicacies she hopes will win her the competition.

Zubiate was born and raised in Peru until she was 13 years old. When she moved to the United States, food became a way to stay connected to her home country.

"I grew up watching my grandfather cook for me. So, that really inspired me to continue that once I missed him so much," she said.

Zubiate is currently a line chef working under Chef Penelope Wong at Yuan Wonton, which started out in 2019 as a Chinese dumpling food truck and is now open as a brick-and-mortar restaurant in Park Hill.

On the weekends, Zubiate goes back to her roots. Through pop-ups, private dinners, events and catering, she shares traditional and fusion-style Peruvian dishes with Denver.

“It's huge for me to be able to share my culture and my family because every dish reminds me of family memories or my parents or my grandparents. So that's what I really like,” she said.

Lomo Saltado
Lomo saltado, a Peruvian beef dish cooked in a wok and served with vegetables and french fries.

Lomo saltado — a beef dish stir-fried with soy sauce and Pisco, a Peruvian white brandy, and balanced out with tomatoes and both green and red onions — reminds her of her grandfather.

“This one gets finished in the wok with a little bit of French fries and rice because we love starch in Peru,” Zubiate said with a laugh.

Her mom’s favorite dish is chicken served with the three traditional sauces of a Peruvian rotisserie restaurant: a mayo flavored with Peruvian yellow pepper known as aji amarillo, a sauce made from spicy rocoto peppers and a refreshing sauce made from cilantro and huacatay, a Peruvian black mint.

Since most people don’t have access to a rotisserie, she marinates the chicken and crisps the skin over a plancha, or flattop grill.

Chef Carolina Zubiate rotisserie chicken
Chef Zubiate serves her version of rotisserie chicken with fried yucca.

She also loves to bring her own twist to ceviche, a Peruvian classic of raw fish marinated in citrus and spices, which is her father’s favorite dish.

“What I would say is unique about Peruvian food is the brightness,” she said.

That brightness comes through her leche de tigre marinade, which brings acidity from lime juice and spice from onion, garlic and aji limo, small colorful peppers that pack a lot of heat.

“I just love [Peruvian peppers] so much. Like, if you have a ceviche, you can continue to eat because it's just like a little bit of heat that's just sitting there, but not nothing crazy,” she said.

Chef Zubiate's ceviches start with a traditional leche de tigre marinade, then she adds her own twists like crispy sweet potato or fried quinoa.

Sometimes, recreating those flavors in Denver takes some creativity.

"Because we are in Colorado, and Peruvian ingredients aren't as available, I've adapted with using Mexican peppers,” she said.

At times, she’ll replace Peruvian aji amarillo with a blend of habaneros and red bell pepper.

"I think that it's important to never stop learning,” Zubiate said.

At the Hispanic Top Chef competition, she hopes to bring her own twist to ceviche – like a Japanese-inspired version she prepares with sesame oil, oyster sauce and pickled sweet Peruvian peppers known as sweety drops.

"I think one of my favorite things about Peruvian cuisine, that's important to me, is how many different cultures it took to get here,” she said. "So why not share it?"