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Luis Guzmán: From house cleaner to owning two restaurants

Hailing from Lima, Peru, Guzmán was raised by a single mother in a middle-class neighbourhood and remains close with his family and brother, who also works as a chef back in Peru.

With his family seeing more opportunities in Australia, Luis came here to stay with his Auntie.

“It was very tough at first because I didn’t have good English at all and didn’t know anyone other than my uncle and auntie. It was a very lonely time until I started making some meaningful friendships.”

He worked as a house cleaner and labourer for the first couple of years until his English improved. In 2012 he landed a job a TimeZone and worked his way up from guest service to supervisor, venue manager then Operations Area Manager for TimeZone NSW overseeing existing venues and opening of new ones in NSW.

“This is where I developed most of my professional career and knowledge. During this time I was proactively educating myself in leadership and management and anything that could help me do my job better.”

Entrepreneurial and ambitious, he launched a side-hustle growing Instagram accounts in the early days of the app’s launch.

Then, in 2016, he received shocking and devastating news that his mum had been diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer which she succumbed to. He had to sell the Instagram pages he’d been growing to raise enough funds to return to Peru and spend the last moments with her.

“This was definitely the hardest thing for me to overcome but gave me a huge purpose once I had gotten through it. My passion for food was instilled in me by my mum; she was always happy cooking and I could see how she enjoyed watching everyone loving her meals. She cooked with love.”

“I’d never considered being a restaurant owner before, but was always passionate about hosting, which I got from my mum and grandma. Everyone that came to visit had to be well fed and taken care of. That homely hospitality has always been with me since growing up. Hospitality came naturally to me.”

When Covid hit, like many others his job was put on Freeze.

“I really took on this cooking phase as was the only thing I could do really confined to home, I was watching videos on how to cook in Youtube from other Peruvian chefs, and following the recipes, my partner and I were impressed with the results.”

 When restrictions eased he began inviting groups of friends over to try the meals, which impressed and were shared on Social Media.

From there, it snowballed. Luis was getting Facebook requests from friends of friends asking if they could buy the food he was making, so began regularly hosting groups of 10-12 people in his home for a small fee to cover the cost of goods.

“I really enjoyed getting people to try Peruvian food and loving it, it was something very personal for me to see them have that first bite and close their eyes in enjoyment.”

Demand grew too big and he decided to lease a restaurant in the wake of the pandemic when rents had dropped significantly.

Before signing a lease however, his cousin, restaurant manager at Nikkei in Surry Hills stepped in and said “You’re crazy” convincing him to try a pop-up first to make sure this was really what he wanted to do.

In October 2020 he ran his first pop-up out of Nikkei’s kitchen on a Sunday, getting a crash course in restaurant operations on the job.

“I had to go to the Flemington markets early every Saturday to prepare for the pop up, spending most of the Saturday doing the prep for the next day, and leaving early in the morning on Sundays to the fish market to grab the freshest fish for the pop up ceviches.”

It ran just over a year, with live Peruvian music added to the mix to the complete the cultural experience. Booked out a week in advance and reaching a growing audience with every pop-up, demand was high for a permanent restaurant.

With an investor on board, Luis finally took the plunge and signed a lease, only to have the investor pull out at the last minute due to pandemic fears.

Still working their full-time jobs, Luis and his wife Valeriya managed to negotiate rates on the early months of the lease and DIY’d the restaurant fit out, laying concrete, painting and building furniture themselves.

Living paycheck to paycheck, investing back into the restaurant, Warike, eventually paid off when they were customer ready.

Today, Luis Guzmán and co-owner/head chef Hector Chunga run two successful operations: Warike and Lima (formerly Folklor) introducing Sydney-siders to Peruvian cuisine with bright dishes that are as colourful as they are flavourful.

Stand-out dishes on their menus include a wide range of ceviches – the hero being the Clasico made with kingfish and sweet potato puree and a melt-in-your-mouth charcoal octopus.

Guzmán credits his family as his main source of inspiration, saying “I want to be an example for my kids that good things happen to those that work for it. I am also very driven by the thought of leaving a positive mark. I value that my actions towards other can have a lifelong impact, so I try be a positive influence in everyone I come in contact with. Life’s too short as I learnt from my mum’s sickness. I just try to do my best day by day to be remembered as someone that did something good for my family and society, like she did.”

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