Chef Javier Uriarte says though the food he serves at his restaurant is Peruvian inspired, it is absolutely akin to the comfort food Southerners love. Comfort is not a portion or a style, he said. It’s a feeling.
The chef/owner of Ratio in Northeast Columbia carved out a space for his tapas style menu with an authentic Peruvian twist – during a pandemic – and what has resulted is a dining experience that represents who he is, and where he’s from.
Uriarte came to the United States from Peru when he was 14 and began working in restaurants in the Maryland and Washington, D.C., area as a means to make ends meet. When he moved to Columbia in 2013, opportunities in the culinary industry turned into the realization that he could make food a career. From starting as a line cook at the then Garabaldi’s to working at Cola’s, getting his shot as a sous chef at Motor Supply Company Bistro and playing a key role in the development of Hendrix, Uriarte learned, progressed and prospered through each moment.
Then, when the owner of the space where Ratio is now located reached out to him about starting a restaurant of his own, he knew he had to do it.
“The owner was like I know you are talented. I know you have some following being at Hendrix. I think you could do great things. Why don’t you come look at the space,” Uriarte said. “I was like, my gosh. This is happening again. This is crazy. These opportunities I have been blessed with. It’s been so many in so little time.”
Uriarte said he saw potential and could envision what the restaurant would look like in his head. Even with the pandemic and uncertainties, he knew it was the perfect time.
“If I was to go back to Hendrix or any other place, I would never have time to pursue my dreams of opening my own restaurant because I couldn’t juggle both of those things at the same time. So I was like, I’m just going to do it. I’m going to do it and go for it,” he said.
Uriarte kept hearing that restaurant goers in the Northeast liked their steak and potatoes, and big plates, so he decided to do the complete opposite.
“I made it a tapas place because one, I think it’s the right portion – that’s where the name Ratio came from – the right ratio of food on a plate, but also the right ratio of ingredients in there. Also, it makes it so that everybody who comes in there has to have at least two plates, so therefore you are kind of pushed to be more open to try different things and learn and have fun with it. … I’m the only Peruvian place really. People are not jumping off their couch to go to the Peruvian place, you know. So to me, if I can make them try two or three things when they come in, one of them at least they will love. And that’s what makes them come back.”
There was a time when Uriarte thought he should be a high-end chef, cook French food or as he settled in the South, make Southern food. That changed during his time at Hendrix. He changed his focus back to a familiar place.
“I come from a country, Peru, that is very high on the culinary scene in the world. I am proud of who I am and where I’m from, and I actually should be focusing on doing that and promoting that,” he said. “I think we need a little more diversity in Columbia in terms of food, so when I opened Ratio I thought if we’re going to do this, we’re going to do it all out. We are going to do it exactly the way that I want it to be. Nothing else.”
When one thinks of comfort food in the South, dishes like collard greens or fried chicken may come to mind. But Uriarte says to him, comfort food is more than that. It is made by emotions. Comfort food takes him back to being a little boy in Peru, eating the dishes he loves.
“When I was thinking about the food for Ratio, I knew that I wanted to do Peruvian food. It’s that comfort food for me because when I was little, I ate Peruvian food, “ he said. “If I can just make that emotion into my food and they can feel that when they’re eating that strange Peruvian food, they will appreciate that. They will be like I can taste the love, I can taste the commitment, I can taste the intention, I can taste that they do care about what they are doing.
“We’re doing comfort food it’s just not Southern comfort food. Its Peruvian comfort food.”
Ratio is open Wednesday – Saturday from 4 – 10 p.m. and is located at 566 Spears Creek Church Road in Elgin.