Aurora Blanchard draws on experiences in the kitchen, traveling for Peruvian Spanish-to-English …

Aurora Blanchard
Aurora Blanchard

Aurora Blanchard’s time working at Astrid y Gaston, a fine dining restaurant in Lima, Peru, inspired her Peruvian Spanish-to-English pocket guide. It’s designed to help culinary professionals traveling to Peru and will include translations, pictures and the scientific names of regional fruits, herbs and vegetables. There will also be a separate section covering kitchen equipment. (Photo by August Jennewein)

Aurora Blanchard has carried the idea for a Peruvian Spanish-to-English food dictionary with her since 2016.

Inspiration for the culinary pocket guide struck after she discovered a new world of unique ingredients from the Amazon rainforest and the Andes while working at the fine dining restaurant Astrid y Gaston in Lima, Peru.

Now, as an English student at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, she’s finally writing it for her senior capstone project. The dictionary is meant to serve as a “field guide” for quick reference to ingredients and equipment in the kitchen.

“I thought, ‘Wow, if somebody else was in my shoes, a book like this could be really helpful,” Blanchard said. “My intention is to help other cooks and make life easier for them when they want to travel.”

Blanchard’s interest in Spanish dates back to childhood.

“When I was about 7 years old, I tried to check out books in the library that were written in Spanish,” she said with a laugh. “I wanted to learn Spanish so badly.”

She took the first opportunity available to study the language when she was in eighth grade. As the years passed, she also dreamed of studying abroad to improve her Spanish. However, it would take exploring another path – studying anthropology at the University of Missouri–Columbia – before deciding to pursue her other passion: food.

“After attending Mizzou for two years, I got restless,” Blanchard said. “I decided to quit school, move back to St. Louis and see if I could be a cook at Sidney Street Café.”

The experience was eye opening for the aspiring chef.

“I started to see the possibilities of a career in food,” Blanchard said. “It was there that I developed confidence in the kitchen and the confidence to eventually apply for culinary school.”

When Blanchard was ready to make the leap, she set her sights high, applying to the premier culinary school in the country – the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. The advantage of attending CIA wasn’t just classical training. It was also the opportunity to connect with people who had traveled and cooked around the world.

It’s how she finally found a way to live and work in a Spanish-speaking country.

“When I was a tutor there, I helped out a student with her externship manual,” Blanchard said. “The place that she had gone on her externship was Astrid y Gaston. That’s where I ended up going subsequently because I had helped her, and then she decided help me in return.”

Despite seven years of formal Spanish education, Blanchard was lost in the kitchen trying to understand her co-workers. It felt like a completely different language than what she had been taught in the U.S.

“When I first arrived in Peru, I really struggled with the language barrier,” she said. “Luckily, I was working really long hours, and I was working five to six days a week. Slowly, the exposure over time sunk into my brain, and I acclimated to the unique dialect.”

Blanchard came back to the U.S. to complete her culinary degree and worked in several New York restaurants before returning to Sidney Street Café. Throughout, the ingredients, flavors and dialect of Peru never left her.

“Peruvian flavors are five times that of anything I’ve experienced in North America,” she said. “There is a taste that I crave every single day, an herb called huacatay. It’s also known as Andean mint or black mint. Basically, it has a minty flavor, but it has sort of a sweet finish. It’s used in a lot of Peruvian sauces that go with chicken. I know I’m never going to be able to find it here, but it’s still something that I’m craving four years later.”

In 2018, Blanchard enrolled at UMSL to study English with the ultimate goal of breaking into food or cookbook publishing. The food dictionary is part of her professional writing capstone class, which requires either a summer internship or independent project. But the COVID-19 pandemic made an internship impractical.

“That’s when I decided, ‘Hey I should write this book that I’ve been thinking about since 2016,’” she said.

The manuscript for the dictionary is still in progress, but it will include sections for equipment, fruits, herbs and vegetables with a translation and picture for each item. Ideally, it’s aimed at other chefs and culinary professionals who could refer to it on the job in Peru.

Martha Caeiro, associate teaching professor of Spanish, checked the spelling on all the Peruvian Spanish translations, and then Blanchard double checked them with a chef that she worked with in Peru. Additionally, Carolina Romero, a botanist at the Missouri Botanical Garden, has helped gather the scientific names of each ingredient listed.

“For me, the Latin name is really important because some of the products are so regional to Peru, and that’s what makes them unique,” Blanchard said. “Some of them can’t be found in North America, so I wanted those botany-minded people to know the difference. Chefs who get really into product variation will appreciate the scientific names.”

After four years, she was worried that it would be a struggle to write, but the project had the opposite effect.

“I found that, because I had put it off for so long, I was like a windup toy with this project,” Blanchard said. “I had been wound up for so long that when I started it I was full speed ahead. I was really excited to reconnect with the life that I had in Peru, just by thinking of these kitchen terms again.”

Soon the finished product will be ready to send to publishers along with a proposal that includes a general overview, market research and an author biography. Blanchard credits Associate Teaching Professor Jeanne Allison with helping her prepare the proposal and providing valuable insight into the publishing industry.

The fate of the completed manuscript is uncertain but bringing her dream into existence has been worth it. Blanchard might even start working on a Peruvian Spanish-to-English food dictionary for the country’s bounty of seafood.

“There’s absolutely no guarantee it will be published,” she said. “I’m still learning a lot about the process, which is exciting. I’m excited for the future.”

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