Seledonia is a Peruvian chef who conquered many palates in Cusco with her unique flavors and our hearts with her charisma. Commemorating International Women’s Day, we interviewed her. We want to bring you the story of an inspiring woman as Seledonia Montalvo.
Seledonia was the owner and main chef of Seledonia’s Mesa, one of the top-ranked restaurants in Cusco and, of course, one of our favorites, too. The small but charming local restaurant was very popular because of the fantastic food and the warmth of Seledonia, or Selia, as her friends call her.
Hi Seledonia! It’s great finally talking to you. How are you, and how has it been for you those past months?
Hi Carmen! I’m fine, thanks. I re-opened the restaurant. It was closed [due to the pandemic], and finally, we came back last September.
I’m happy that you are doing better with the restaurant. I remember that I first knew about you because of Seledonia’s Mesa, your previous restaurant. Our travelers used to visit you and loved that restaurant! So, I’d like to know why did you decide you wanted to pursue this career or set foot in a restaurant for the first time?
Honestly, I remember I was around 7 when I started. I was sent to a relative’s home to work as a cook. Sometimes the food I made was delicious, and sometimes it was awful. But I better make it delicious; otherwise, the punishment was hard. Since we didn’t have a stable economy at home, I just had to endure it. But little by little, I learned how to cook and got to know new flavors.
Then, when I was around 15, I worked at another house. They were so surprised when they tasted my food and liked it. So, they gave me a popular cooking book, from which I learned a lot. This family also helped me continue my studies by paying my tuition fees.
Thanks to that, I attended high school. I could participate in a festival, where I entered a cooking conquest with a vegetarian dish ‘Picante de queso’. I won! That’s when I thought that if I had a restaurant one day, that dish would definitely be on the menu.
That’s how I started liking cooking.
Seledonia’s Mesa, the turning point
Opening a restaurant was not on my plans. I was working for others during the last months of my last pregnancy when I was told that I couldn’t keep on working at that restaurant anymore. They said that the risk of accidents was too high. So I had to leave that kitchen to continue my pregnancy at home.
One night, I walked into a small café to drink Almond milk. I found the place [her previous restaurant] that night. I was very curious about the Almond milk, but there was no almond milk at all when I ordered it. But I stayed to drink ‘ponche de habas’. The owner of the café told me that she opened her business just a month ago, that her children promised they would help her, but none of them came. I noticed she didn’t have cooking experience. So I asked her how much the monthly rent was for that place. She was surprised by my question but answered me that it was 450 soles [about $120]. I said to myself that it was affordable for me. I could pay for that. So I just asked if she wanted to hand that place to me. The next morning, she called me to make the paperwork to hand me the café. I was so happy but sad at the same time. I was wondering what to do. With whose money was I going to pay for that?!
I went to a local bank to get a loan. I paid the rent and bought tables, chairs, a small stove, 6 dishes, and 6 glasses with that money. That’s how I started [Seledonia’s Mesa].
[It was during that time that] I met Guido, a friend of mine that visited the restaurant and fell in love. He posted my restaurant on TripAdvisor, and a month after that, we reached the number 1 restaurant in Cusco.
Many people came, but when they saw the restaurant for the first time they used to say “is this number 1 restaurant in Cusco?”. I was a little afraid but tried to cook my best and plate beautifully.
Once they tried my food, they changed. The customers hugged me and thanked me, moved by the food. Some even ended up paying double just because they liked the food so much. They thanked me a lot. I was so happy.
I think that is the result of your passion for your cuisine. Were you ever afraid or worried about opening your first restaurant? What did your family and friends say to you?
Actually, no, I wasn’t. The opportunity just came to me overnight. So I didn’t have time to share it with anybody. Honestly, I wasn’t even afraid to fail. I just didn’t think about that at all. I was sure that place was going to make it in my mind. I don’t know. I just knew.
You had confidence in your cooking skills.
I was totally confident. To be honest with you, nobody ever asked me that question in my previous interviews, so I never thought about it until now.
I am so happy that I went that way. I also know that you work with women going through a similar situation as you, right?
Before the pandemic [and Seledonia’s Mesa closure], I only worked with women. Mainly single mothers who didn’t have help with their kids and had zero experience in restaurants. Many of them came to work with their children, so we opened an [kids] area on the restaurant’s second floor where they could sleep or play. However, since there were no customers at all until recently, I was the only one working at the restaurant at the time. My husband and kids are also helping me.
The first year of the pandemic was so difficult for everyone. Seledonia told me that she and her family were doing fine. Still, it was tough to see many hotels and restaurants closing and moving out of the city. It was very sad and heartbreaking for her.
However, she is a woman that can not stay still. She opened a pair of businesses during the lockdown and kept herself busy. It was finally in September of 2021 that, after many people requested it, she decided it was about time to open her kitchen to the public again. That’s how her new restaurant, Mamá Seledonia, was born.
A woman chef and her dreams
Have you ever felt any challenge as a woman chef in the industry?
Not really. I have never felt that being a woman chef is a difficulty. Maybe at first, when my teacher introduced me to a big restaurant here in the city. The first day, the chef, called the ogre, tried to scare me. He handed me roughly a pot of boiling potatoes and ordered me to make mashed potatoes. It was so hot, but I took it anyway and cooled it down as fast as possible. I made those mashed potatoes the best I could and handed them to him quickly. He looked at me so surprised because he didn’t expect me to do it so fast and in the way he liked it. From that day and for a long time, I worked in that kitchen. I was the only woman there, and the ogre and I became friends.
Working at a restaurant is not easy at all. You have to work under pressure and do it fast, but it was never trouble for me.
Finally, what are the future plans for your restaurant and your career?
I have a dream. I would love to have an area in my restaurant where women that work with me can leave their children, like a kindergarten. I also want to travel to other countries. I want to visit other countries and volunteer in the kitchens of big restaurants in those countries to learn new things.
Thank you very much, Seledonia, for agreeing to this interview. I was very happy and excited to be able to talk to you.
It was a pleasure to meet the amazing woman behind Mamá Seledonia and her inspiring story on such a special day as today. If you are in Cusco and would like her incredible cuisine, visit her at Mamá Seledonia. She’ll be happy to welcome you.