When asked to lead a new restaurant at a trendy hotel on New York City’s Lower East Side, Peruvian chef Diego Muñoz was taken aback by the opportunity.
His initial reaction wasn’t about the job itself. Rather, it was more so about the timing. In 2021, hotelier Ian Schrager offered Muñoz this position amid preparing for the reopening of the PUBLIC Hotel that year.
“I was thinking, ‘wow, this guy might know something, because he’s already planning [so] far ahead,” said Muñoz, who already had worked for Schrager at his property, The Bodrum EDITION in Muğla, Turkey.
“It was a difficult time to travel but we finally got the hotel open on June sixth of last year. It wasn’t easy; there was so much uncertainty everywhere,” remembered Muñoz. “Now, after a year, I’m happy; so confident. The team is solid. We pretty much have the same people who started with us and [they are] growing and enjoying it.”
Now known as POPULAR, Muñoz jointly oversees this globally-inspired restaurant at the PUBLIC that soon will reach its one-year anniversary.
Popular is also marking spring 2022 with new F&B offerings. In early April, Muñoz and New York City Chef John Fraser unveiled a spring menu with seasonal dishes and cocktails, a four-course tasting menu, a ceviche bar and a continental breakfast buffet.
The Chef’s Table, which is named “La Mesa de Afuera,” consists of a four-course pre-fixe menu with half portions of POPULAR’s original dishes and selected ones from their spring menu. It is priced at $185 per person and includes the restaurant’s POPULAR Pisco Sour; dishes can also be ordered a la carte. For an additional $75, diners can opt to add on a wine pairing.
For the first course, “La Mesa de Afuera” includes a·Ceviche Nikkei with Ahi Tuna, Miso, Ají Panca and Shiso, or the East Coast Oyster, with Leche de Tigre, chive oil and chalaca. The second course has a choice of Yuca, Escabeche and Fried Huancaína, or Sticky Prawns, Chow Mein and Toasted Peanuts.
The third course includes the option of a Grilled Swordfish Steak, Anticuchera, which reflects this Peruvian skewered street food; it is served with shrimp rice, shallots, escabeche and an ají amarillo mayonnaise. The fourth course involves a Lucuma, Blackberry, Pistachio and Rosemary Bombe Alaska, a play on the classic dessert.
“La Mesa de Afuera” will be served at POPULAR’s Cantina & Pisco Bar. Situated across from the main dining room, this bar area celebrates the national spirit of Peru (it is also for Chile) through classic and creative cocktail recipes.
Muñoz said he introduced the idea about a Pisco program to Schrager “because it is something that is so Peruvian.” Along with serving the Classic Peruvian Pisco, Muñoz explained that this Pisco Bar will prepare cocktails pairing this grape brandy with botanicals made from spices, herbs, fruits and vegetables and presenting other drink variations. “We now have an infused Pisco dirty martini, and it’s fantastic,” Muñoz said.
Spring-inspired cocktails include the Chicha 2022, with Agave de Andes Reposado, cherry, lime, passion fruit and egg white. The Apricot Sidecar also contains this spirit, but with lemon and an apricot gomme syrup; then, the Ponche 1890 has 1615 Quebranta with lemon and a spiced pineapple agave.
Originally from Lima, Muñoz left Peru in his early twenties to pursue his culinary education in Europe, with his training at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and stints at Mugaritz and El Bulli in Spain. Muñoz then moved to Australia and became the head chef of Bilson’s, a restaurant in Sydney, where his work led him to be nominated as “Chef of the Year” in 2011.
After this role, Muñoz returned to Peru to lead the operations of Astrid & Gastón in San Isidro. He helped to land the restaurant on the top of the “Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants” list in 2013.
Between 2017 and 2019, Muñoz was the executive chef of Peru’s first luxury sleeper train, the Belmond Andean Explorer; he started Diego Muñoz 3 Gatos Projects, a culinary consulting firm, in 2019. Amid those years, Muñoz embarked on a global gastronomy tour, as a nomad chef applying his kitchen skills throughout Europe, the Americas, the Middle East and Asia.
Within New York City, Muñoz noted that the Peruvian dining scene also encompasses Contento in Manhattan’s East Harlem and Brooklyn’s Llama Inn. The latter is led by chef Erik Ramirez and business partner Juan Correa. “They’ve been doing an amazing job,” said Muñoz.
In describing Peruvian cuisine, Muñoz referred to how Peru’s different microclimates foster its agricultural splendor. He also noted how the country’s diversity has shaped its epicurean culture, with pre- and post-Spanish culinary influences intertwining with Chinese, Japanese, Italian and African.
Yet in the Big Apple, Muñoz draws upon New York grown produce for Popular’s menus. He also jokingly pointed out a culinary contradiction with their seasonal additions — springtime in New York is “when the winter comes in Peru.”
Popular is located at the PUBLIC, at 215 Chrystie St. on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.