We love having Alex Dellis-Harcha as a Creative Director at Curiosity. She’s extremely talented and a whole bunch of fun to work with. But, what do we really know about Alex? We sat her down between masterpieces for a few minutes to chat.
1) Why did you leave Peru to live in the US? Tell us a little about your time in New York and Texas.
I left Peru—and medical school—to become an artist. I didn’t know what graphic design was, I only knew I wanted to be an artist, whatever that meant. It was “something” where I saw myself making things all day. My parents and my culture are quite conservative in that regard; they don’t consider a career in the arts something as prestigious and ’smart’ as medicine, law, or engineering are. After three years in med school, I had my fill, not because I didn’t like science—I quite enjoyed it actually—but deep down I knew it wasn’t my calling. All I wanted to do then was create things and it is all I want to do now. Spent a few months in New York first, coming on vacation and switching my visa for a student visa, which made my parents quite mad, especially when I told them I wasn’t going back. But I could not afford a New York lifestyle and schooling on my own, so I went to Texas; first to Houston, then all the way to west Texas to Amarillo and a few other cities in between. I finished school in Texas on a full scholarship, didn’t have the opportunity to intern, but was fortunate to have one of the most amazing and well-respected designers in the state as my mentor. I worked with her at her personal studio, then got hired as a special publications lead designer at the Amarillo Globe News. After my stint in the newspaper industry, I worked for Texas Tech University and Hale Publishing, and then made the move to Cincinnati.
2) Tell us about your empanadas and how you came to start your own business.
One of the things I love to do and had a passion for ever since I was very young, is cooking. I learned from my grandmother, who was an incredible cook with a very refined palate, yet had no opportunity in her life to be formally trained in culinary arts. But even chef friends praised her dishes and the most curious blend of flavors and cuisines she’d come up with. From her, I learned at an early age how to cook and pick produce, and I learned about seasonality, simplicity and complexity.
Yet, I have never worked in a commercial kitchen…that is, a restaurant. I did however, have an empanada business, my dream being having an empanada truck or empanada window or “fuente de soda” (a type of café typical to Lima, where you might stop in for a coffee, fruit juice, small snack like empanadas or a small dessert like flan or rice pudding). I was working 60+ hours a week at a regular full-time job plus three days a week cranking out empanadas with the help of my then-boyfriend, all by hand and from scratch mind you, the same way that you’d make them at home. These were also baked, as Peruvian/South American empanadas are. And that’s the thing about empanadas—everything has to be made from scratch. Fillings ranged from Peruvian to vegan. Experimenting with flavor was so much fun. People must have liked them, because I would get several catering orders and sell out at the different places, including Market Wines and Japp’s. I even took a private 24-hour class at a culinary school in Lima that year to learn to make them more efficiently and for commercial purposes. Eventually it was too much to handle on my own and I was faced with either quitting my job or quitting the empanadas. Life had different plans, and I chose design over cooking at the time. Will I go back to it? Maybe!
3) What is a nerdy thing about you? (e.g., are you a Star Wars buff? Do you know a stupid amount about a particular book, period of history, or hobby?)
I nerd out about anthropology, specifically pre-Columbian civilizations and human relationships to food and clothing throughout history. A History of Food in 100 Recipes is a thick tome I’m reading right now—to imagine what people ate, why it changed, how it has changed, what has remained…It is fascinating!
4) Tell us the story of how you met your fiancé and how that led you to live in Cincinnati.
I was in Cincinnati for a conference I was attending to represent Texas Tech University. There were many attendees from all over the US and Canada from other organizations, but no one from my region. I was here for nearly a week and at dinnertime, I would go to the Newport Levee on my own, since most attendees kept to themselves or preferred to dine in the hotel and this was the place the hotel concierge had recommended. I met my fiancé the first night dining alone, at the restaurant where he was working at the time. He was very nice and handsome, I thought. Very friendly. And it was a Japanese restaurant, which is my favorite, I can eat sushi every day and not be tired of it. It was convenient, was open late, served food late, and he was really nice. So it became the place I’d go eat dinner every night. We exchanged numbers. The day I left, I got stuck in Chicago’s O’hare airport, he called to see how was my flight and I was panicking a bit because my bags with everything I needed to bring back for work—and the reason I was at the conference in the first place—were lost. Also, with over 1000 people stranded there were no hotels close to the airport available. As I’m telling him all this, he says to me, “I’ll be there in a few hours.” Knowing nothing about how far Cincinnati was from Chicago, I thought it was not a big deal, or that he wouldn’t really show up. He did. I was amazed and grateful. He came to help me figure things out, helped me talk to the right people to find my bags, was a lifesaver all around. We dated long distance for a year and a half, visiting each other every couple of months, and then I decided to make the move to Cincinnati. I’ve been here for six years now!
Today, I get to think and create all day, every day. It is wonderful.
5) Tell us how you got connected with Bob Bonder (co-founder of Rhinegeist, Tazza Mia and 1215 Wine Bar). How did that help you grow roots in Cincy?
Bob had just opened Tazza Mia in West Chester and I was looking for a job—in the middle of the recession—as the opportunity I had been looking at starting when I moved went away in a takeover/absorption situation. He and I bonded about Brazil (which is my maternal side’s background), about art and about coffee. I worked for Bob at the West Chester, then Kenwood, and then Downtown locations, learned to roast coffee, make coffee properly, learn about everything coffee, and worked with an excellent group of people who were serious and really passionate about coffee. It was a really fun job. I would even have dreams about making the “perfect espresso,” which, according to my dream, takes 26 seconds flat, at a 96° water temperature, 10 atm water pressure, for 18 gr of light roast espresso grind. And yes, I did try making this and got a fantastic crema. My dream wasn’t too far off. But in my dream, I got awards for this. In reality, the espresso went into someone’s latte, sadly.
As far as growing roots, it was a great experience that allowed me to meet new people every day, have great conversations about something both the new person and I throughly enjoyed (proper coffee!) and my coworkers are still in my group of friends today.
6) Of all the cities you’ve been to, which did you connect with more than any other? Why?
Chicago. It is currently my favorite city in the US. Big enough to have a lot of things to do, yet less hurried than NYC. Spanish language everywhere!
7) Tell us about the coffee rituals in Peru.
For starters, we are a lead global coffee producer and exporter, yet surprisingly, EVERYONE has a can of Nescafé instant coffee at their kitchen table. This is imperative to have for breakfast or “lonche,” which is your late afternoon/early evening meal. Our meals are a big breakfast consisting of fruits, coffee, cheese, olives, bread; our lunch is at mid-afternoon, say 1 or 2PM, and consists of what you’d have for dinner in the US, an actual entree; and then Lonche is at around 6 or 7PM, which consists of instant coffee or hot tea and a small sandwich or treat, like a cup of pudding or cookie or fresh fruit. So Nescafé is on every table, literally, because the coffee can lives on the family table along with the sugar dish.
Yet, we are also picky about coffee. We take a “coffee break” in the afternoons after work, like they do in the US for happy hour. We sit at cafes and drink espresso or cappuccinos while we people watch and catch up on the latest celebrity gossip. This is where you meet your friends, colleagues, first dates, flirt with others, meet new people, etc. Cafes are the social places where everyone gathers; they are open as late as bars are.
We also do not like paper cups, we do not do the to-go coffee thing very well. Iced blended coffee drinks are relatively new there, so it isn’t a thing people do when they tell you, “We are meeting for coffee,” it means, order “real” coffee. Espresso, cappuccinos, ristrettos, americanos, “pasados,” cubanos—all valid choices. We normally don’t eat anything with our coffees, but a small butter cookie is usually what comes with it.
A lot of people still smoke there, so a coffee and a cigarette while reading a book at a cafe, sitting on a patio, is not unusual and practically a rite of passage for every young person. It’s what you do. There are traditional cafes that have been around for over a century, where the time has stood still. Same furnishings, coffee makers for “pasados” (Italian stovetop or “moka” pot) that are as old as the waiters, which are usually old men. At these places you find cafe con leche and cured ham sandwiches served on kraft paper, and it is a Limeño bohemian tradition. You get a wonderful coffee extract that comes in a small pot that you dilute with hot water or milk in your giant glass cup at your leisure and taste. Brown unrefined cane sugar is used to sweeten this rather than white.
Also, if you eat any dessert, coffee must be present…Nescafé, that is.
8) If you could read only one story for the rest of your life, what would it be?
It would be 100 Years of Solitude. It is one of my favorite books, long enough to keep me entertained, magical enough to always find something new in it.
9) What is the dumbest thing you did when you were a kid?
I was around five years old when this happened. My cousin and I were thick as thieves, her being a year younger than me, I’d sometimes lead the mischief we’d get into. Thick as thieves is right for this story. One day we really wanted candy and my grandma wouldn’t give us any pocket change to buy any. She said something along the lines that we’d have to work for it. So we decided to be entrepreneurial, but instead of making lemonade or doing chores like any normal kid would have, we had a moment where the light hit our minds, like the holy spirit itself had told us what to do to get that much-needed candy. Back home, churches send people from the parish from time to time to collect donations door to door. They carry a little statue with the patron saint of the church on a nice silver platter covered with flower petals. They say a prayer for you, maybe even give you a little prayer card. We decided we had the pick of the crop, as my grandfather kept an immaculate rose and flower garden at their home, my grandma had plenty of trays, and as far as the saint, there had to be for sure SOMETHING around the house. And if we couldn’t reach it, a Barbie could pass for Mary in a pinch if we put something around her head.
So, we sneaked into the kitchen, took the shiniest platter we saw, took a little saint prayer card grandma had, put a handkerchief around Barbie, raided the garden, and off we went. We knocked on neighbors’ doors and hey, we must have looked legit, since they all gave us change! After collecting enough for our candy (maybe a whole sol, which translates to maybe a whole dollar) we went to put the tray behind some bushes in the garden so we could run to get the candy… Lo and behold, my uncle, mom, and dad were onto us. We got scolded and they made us go door-to-door returning the money and apologizing to the neighbors and then made us go to church and tell the priest what we did. He said the Lord would forgive us and not to do it again. I think they were all trying to keep a straight face including the priest. We were so scared about God being mad at us.