Clarification: This article was originally published on August 11, 2021. It was updated by the Luces Awards.
During the years he served as culinary critic for New York Times, Ruth Reichl (Manhattan, 1948) used to dress up every time she had to go to a restaurant. Ella reichl she used different wigs, makeup, fillers and costumes depending on the character she had to play. Her technique had been perfected to such a level that the journalist came to have a wide range of “personalities” in which she immersed herself, depending on the appointment on duty, to try the chosen menu. That life was fascinating, no doubt, but that was only viable in the nineties. when there wasn’t smartphones (with the fair ones were the first versions of cell phones), social networks or digital cameras. When going unnoticed was still -disguises involved- possible.
In the gastronomic Lima of 2021, where the circle is still relatively small, achieving a similar feat is unlikely. The Cholo Mena (31) has made a mark of his look: his mustaches, his cap, his glasses, his tattoos. He usually wears colorful clothes and has a good part of his left arm tattooed; soon he will have his first gastronomic tattoo: a fork and a knife. Everyone knows how she is and everyone wants to have him at his table. Being invisible is not an option.
But he tries. After three years dedicating himself to sharing gastronomic content -from Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Youtube and now Tik Tok- and more than 1 million followers combined between all his platforms, few are those who do not know who he is and what he does. A communicator by profession, radio host (he is found every morning at Studio 92) and owner of his own content agency, Gabriel Humberto Mena Llanos is the most famous gastronomic YouTuber in the country. Going to eat with him at a restaurant has become an experience that paralyzes kitchens and steals glances from the diners around him. Cholo Mena can’t be invisible anymore, even if he wants it that way.
It all started with a salted loin; after the cebiche, perhaps the most sacred dish in our national cookbook. Four years ago, the publication of a gastronomic blogger went viral when he warned about the portion and the price of the lomo saltado that was served in a restaurant in Lima. About 65 soles were charged for said dish, which included -according to the post- few portions of meat. The response was overwhelming: on the one hand, there were those who criticized the place for the costs; and on the other, those who criticized those who dared to criticize. El Cholo Mena -nickname he shares with his father; in his family they still call him “Cholito” – he saw an interesting opportunity there. The first thing he did was the most obvious: go ask for it.
Without having considered it, Cholo Mena consolidated a concept that he did not invent -he explains- but he did know how to make it his own like no one had done before. The “versus” where he faces the same dish served in two restaurants, with two experiences and -above all- two totally different prices have become his hallmark. He has been to Maido, Astrid & Gastón and to all the huariques in the city; He has eaten cebiches for S/150 and S/15, and a panettone for S/1400. He never accepts invitations and it is he who covers his own costs. “I cannot put at risk the relationship of trust that I have built with my followers. Everyone calls me, but for that very reason the magic of discovering new things is lost a bit. You are no longer anonymous,” he maintains.
He knows that he has haters, but he has already learned to live with them. She sometimes even texts them.
Cholo Mena’s rhythm is hectic. He posts two food videos a week (“it’s a lot of work, I take care of everything,” he insists) and visits at least one restaurant every day. When he doesn’t eat out, he orders delivery: he never cooks. “During the first months of quarantine I had to stop. Then I started uploading content with the deliveries and I even shared some videos with super easy recipes, like making bread with butter. No one had ever done it before, right?” she recounts. That also worked. After three years, practice has made him expand his knowledge, it is true, but Cholo Mena continues to define himself as a food lover -like any other- who only seeks to share the tables he knows.
“Food is the only space of peace we have during the day: lunch, dinner, food… when I’m eating I hardly touch my cell phone. If I’m with friends, it’s strictly forbidden. When you eat, you are in a safe space,” she indicates. After everything seen and tried, there is still room for surprise at the Cholo Mena table. His favorite restaurant depends on the whim and is always on the lookout for new formats. But among all the snacks and menus that he has tried in this time, there is one dish that he always returns to.
“Priceless. Does not enter rankings. Perhaps he is not the best in the world, but he is the one I love the most, ”she concludes. In Cholo Mena’s lists there is only one winner: his mother’s chicken chili.
Youtube channel: https://www.youtube.com/user/elcholomena