Restaurateur and master distiller Johnny Schuler said a number of provocative things while he drove my wife and me from Lima to Ica for our culinary tour of Peru. (The upshot on two subjects: He’s not fond of Chilean pisco or Peruvian bureaucracy.) But the comment that shook my foundation was something Schuler said about his own dad.
“My father is the inventor of pollo a al brasa.” Schuler said, matter-of-factly.
I expressed my doubt in a classic American way: NOOOOOOOO!
“Google it! Google Roger Schuler,” Johnny Schuler dared me. “Even the Congress recognized him.”
It’s true, though in a more limited way than you might think. While the elder Schuler didn’t create the concept of cooking chicken over charcoal, he is widely credited with inventing (along with his fellow Swiss native Franz Ulrich) the six-spit rotisserie that would become the centerpiece of every polleria from Lima to Arlington. The invention has its roots in sheer poverty.
After working for the U.S. government in Bolivia during World War II, Roger Schuler eventually made his way to Peru and started a chicken farm outside Lima, his son told me.
“And he went bankrupt,” Johnny Schuler said. “We had to make our shoes stretch for years. We had no money.”
In an attempt to make money, Roger Schuler started selling chickens by the side of Central Highway in some Lima province neighborhoods. The birds were advertised as “all the chicken you can eat for S/. 5,” Johnny Schuler said, and they were immediately a hit. (That would be about $1.95 today.) The rotisserie was the men’s solution at grilling more birds faster. In 1950, Roger Schuler and Ulrich opened what would eventually become one of Peru’s most celebrated pollerias: La Granja Azul in Lima, which Johnny Schuler and his partners now own.
When you ask Johnny Schuler what defines superb pollo a la brasa, he’ll immediately single out one element: “Mesquite wood! That’s all,” he says, invoking the charcoal made from the ubiquitous tree in Peru. (Others mention charcoal made from the Algarrobo tree as a key to Peruvian chicken, too.)
He went on to discuss Granja Azul’s streamlined approach to pollo a la brasa. “Mine doesn’t have anything. It doesn’t have a brine. It doesn’t have seasoning — only salt,” Schuler says. “This is only salt, and it’s the best barbecued chicken, I guarantee you, in the world.”
Big words, and I’m sorry to say that due to travel schedules and a bad case of Atahualpa’s Revenge, we were never able to decide for ourselves if Granja Azul lives up to the hype. But we did sample Peruvian chicken from two separate establishments — one in Cusco (El Tablon) and one in Lima (Pardos Chicken). Both were far closer to the birds that Schuler describes at Granja Azul than those bloated babies available in the D.C. market, which tend to be loaded with cumin, garlic and herbs.
The striking differences between Peruvian and Peruvian-American chickens made me wonder whether pollo a la brasa in the States adheres to a more-is-more philosophy, the result of immigrants suddenly living in the land of plenty. Carmen Perez quickly disabused me of this idea. She is co-owner of the Crisp & Juicy chain (along with her her husband, Jorge Perez, both Lima natives) as well as general manager of the Rockville location. She said she is also the creator of the chain’s seasoning blend.
Carmen Perez says that every polleria in Peru has its own secret recipe, and that no two are alike. Generally speaking, Lima’s rotisserie birds are “more natural,” she notes, meaning that they rely on fewer seasonings and flavoring agents, whether cumin or achiote paste or garlic. The version found in the Andes, however, tends to be swimming in seasonings. “They use a lot of spices” in the mountains, Perez said.
But as the Crisp & Juicy owner mentioned, there are exceptions to all these rules: My El Tablon bird in the thin air of Cusco would be one such challenge to the established order.
Aside from seasonings and type of charcoal, one other factor might play into the flavor differences between pollo a la brasa in Peru vs. those in America: the chicken itself. Two people told me that Peruvians typically raise their birds on “fish meal,” compared with the grain-heavy diet here in the States (which may or may not include arsenic and caffeine).
And yet: There appears to be one undeniable connection among all Peruvian chickens, no matter where they’re produced: the owners’ firm belief in their own birds. When I told Perez I was writing about pollo a la brasa in Peru and in the Washington area, she promptly interjected:
“They’re much better here! I’m telling you!”