On a bright morning recently, I made the short trip to Braddon for a coffee and a stroll. Used to arriving at The Hamlet for lunch or an evening snack, it was strange to find it quiet, but the minute I took in the smoky cooking aromas, I became a convert to the early stop. There, I found Carlos Ramirez Roldan, the founder and force behind Mr Papa’s Peruvian street food, who found the time for a chat, while the Hamlet was waking up.
Carlos is an advocator of making plans, but is aware that plans change and is very comfortable following a different path when they do. His route to Mr Papa is an example of following the opportunities instead of the plan. His catering life started early when he got involved in his grandparents’ catering company. From the age of eight, he would go in the van with staff to market, spend 20 minutes loading the van with produce and return for the day’s cooking. By 13, he was put in charge of buying supplies. Carlos’ journey from Lima saw him cross the Pacific a roundabout way. He studied hospitality management in Lima before securing an internship for a hotel chain that led him to America and five years with the Hilton group. On his return to Peru, he started a restaurant with a friend, until his father in law planted the seed that studying at ANU for a Masters would be a good idea. (He himself had studied in Melbourne.) Before he even started a course here, he was offered a job with another hotel group that offered residency, so the course was put on ice for a while.
While working in 2012, he started helping one of his colleagues out at the Multicultural Festival. He admired this colleague’s “life perspective” and relished the opportunity to contribute to the community, but found that he equally enjoyed catering within the market environment and the seed for Mr Papa was sown. The name Mr Papa was easy to find. “Papa” in Peruvian is a type of stuffed potato, and as this was the first dish on his menu, he quickly adopted his now-famous title. In 2014, he was the only person in Canberra offering Peruvian food, making him unique and in-demand. He was asked to cater for 800 people at the Gold and the Incas Exhibition at the National Gallery and as a result, the enrolment at ANU might have to wait a little longer.
The business now operates in three areas. His van at the Hamlet serves the Braddon regulars and Mr Papa can be found at markets and festivals as a pop-up stall. But it’s the catering arm of the business that is thriving and growing beyond expectations. With a trend towards festival style weddings, the crew is busy with at least two weddings every month. Customising a canapé style to suit the theme of the wedding, Carlos and his team go above and beyond, creating an entire bar from scratch for example. He is also popular at the Peruvian embassy – recently catering during the Peruvian general election.
Mr Papa is also a regular at Handmade, serving hundreds of specials to our hungry shoppers. Carlos says that Handmade is a “market on a different level” with more attention to detail and creativity than any other market he knows, reflecting the openness to new things that is characterising Canberra at the moment. He is amazed and delighted that Canberra is growing its own vibe, citing “so much creativity” as the defining feature of his new home.
Showcasing Peruvian culture is what drives Carlos. Around 60% of his ingredients are from the Canberra region and he relishes working with local suppliers and producers to get the best of what’s on offer. However, the remaining ingredients are shipped every 3-4 months from Peru itself, allowing him to retain the authenticity of the brand. He wants to provide his customers with an experience. “I don’t just want to sell you a bottle of water,” he says, pointing to the bottle in front of him. “I want you to remember who you bought it from.” In keeping with this authentic style, he is currently customising a 1962 truck, previously used to transport racing cars, to become a mobile van. Combining street food, Peruvian culture and vintage style is a recipe for success and a plan that he is definitely seeing through.