Chef Maritza Paz brings Peruvian cuisine and generosity to Milwaukee
For many, both food and giving to others are integral parts of the holiday season.
A local Peruvian chef, Maritza Paz, embodies that spirit year-round. She’s sharing her cuisine and culture — and helping local communities along the way.
Walk into the kitchen of Chef Paz restaurant in West Allis, and you’ll hear the sounds of cooks preparing dishes like the traditional Peruvian “Lomo Saltado.” It’s tenderloin steak sauteed with purple onions and tomatoes and served along with rice, crispy French fries and an herby green sauce.
If you don’t know much about Peruvian food, know that French fries are just one of the many ways roots like the potato and the yucca are used, says chef Paz.
“You remember potatoes are from Peru? We have more than 2,000 kinds of potatoes in Peru,” she says. “The best gift given [to] Peru and the world is the potatoes.”
Paz opened self-titled Chef Paz restaurant on National Avenue nearly 10 years ago.
When she first moved to Milwaukee, she knew people might not be familiar with her cuisine.
“When I make this restaurant, I [did not] put 'Peruvian cuisine' because the people sound some people close the mind for opening a new cuisine,” she says. “For this reason, I put Chef Paz, not put Peruvian cuisine, I say I want to capture each customer [and] yeah, I did.”
Paz grew up in Iquitos, Peru along the shores of the Amazon River—it’s in the north near Colombia and Brazil. “My mom was chef. My grandma too,” she explains.
Paz first came to this country 21 years ago, and quickly discovered the culinary industry is dominated by men. But her story is one of triumph. “When I come at this country, I remember I went to one kitchen in Miami because I work in Miami,” she recounts. “They are 10 men, and I am the unique woman. I started washing dishes.”
“Almost six months later I was the boss,” Paz laughs, “because this was a Peruvian restaurant.”
The head chef had gotten sick, and Paz knew the common Peruvian dishes. “They say ‘who knows 80 dishes?’ I say ‘I know!’ [they said] ‘You serious? you can do?’ ‘Yes, give me the opportunity.’ For this reason, I started as a chef,” Paz recalls.
Her knowledge of those 80 dishes also came in handy in Milwaukee. Her restaurant features one or two dishes from each Peruvian state. “We have 24 states. I take the best dishes from each state. I want to show the more representative dishes of my country,” Paz notes.
Peruvian food has roots in Incan, African, Japanese, and European cuisines. There’s also a popular fusion with Cantonese Chinese food called “Chifa.”
“Chifas is the fusion of the Peruvian and Chinese,” describes Paz. “It’s one fusion is so important in my country. You can find Chifas or Chinese fusion [on] all blocks in my country.”
One small example is the Lomo Saltado tenderloin steak dish. Paz and her chefs use soy sauce for flavoring. Paz is proud of her Peruvian heritage and that it’s a melting pot.
“We feeling proud about [being Latino] because we are mixed cultures. In my roots, we have white, Black, Chinese, Peruvian, tribals and other ethnicities.”
She says 90% of her kitchen staff is Hispanic, and they’re from all different backgrounds, as evidenced by the music you’ll hear coming out of the kitchen.
“My Mexican personnel put rancheras [and] put on Mexican music, I love it. My Peruvian cooks they put Peruvian salsas, different music, you know. Puerto Ricans put on other things, we are mixed...we enjoy all [types of] music,” Paz says.
Paz believes everyone who wants should be able to work. Including people who just got out of jail, who she’s hired as dishwashers and drivers.
“I talk a lot with these people they need communication, they need love. They want people interested in [their] life now because they feel alone,” Paz says.
She also helps the homeless. “Five years [ago], I supported one organization that is now closed. Now, I support Street Angels with 150 proteins two times for four months for the homeless.”
Paz brings chicken, turkey, pork — and Street Angels provides the sides. “All over Milwaukee,” Paz notes. “And now we have almost 160 homeless...that the Street Angels support.”
And why is it important for her to give back like that? “Always I do this. Yeah,” she says. “Because I like [to] support the community.”
She’s even gone beyond giving food and jobs to those who need them and offered to help people remake their lives. “I say you can work with me. I pay, I fix your papers. I try fix your life or I rent one room.” She says she’s done this for about 10 people throughout her career.
In the kitchen, Paz is serving up a special Peruvian drink, chicha morada. Paz boils purple corn from Peru for many hours with cinnamon, cloves, and fig leaves, then adds lime juice and sugar.
It’s a sweet reminder of Paz’s culture, which is one of the many gifts she shares with others.