I met Rachel, the head chocolatier of Chaqchoa, two days after I arrived in Arequipa. I was living with my boss, Javier and sometimes he would have employees come over for lunch. Over a Peruvian meal of purple potatoes, and adobo de chancho I became acquainted with Rachel’s strong Italian character.
We ate together, I didn’t say much because I still need to earn my acceptance into the community. So I just listened and observed the dynamic between Rachel and Javier. Although Javie runs the place, Rachel puts him in his place. She skips small talk and gets right to the chase, overflowing with ideas for the chocolate shop. “Javie, what if we made matcha chocolate bars with dried raspberries, or if we made tarts with white chocolate ganache and figs, or we take tiramisu and put it in a chocolate bar! Ohhhh I love tiramisu.” I was a little intimidated by her force and wasn’t sure if we would become friends.
It wasn’t until a few days later when she trained me in the coffee shop that we quickly bonded. Rachel is so good at her job that she openly insults customers while serving them the best cappuccino of their lives- she can get away with it. In between helping customers, cutting cakes, and her teaching me how to froth foam like a boss, I found the topics that make her her hard chocolate shell of an exterior melt and reveal the complexity within her. Her internal world is constantly questioning and fighting what traditional Italian society expects from women. It was was fascinating to hear a first-hand experience of tenacious gender roles in the modern Roman world. Her hard exterior shell began to melt at room temperature once we started talking about how women are treated in Italy. “ Women work, we pull a lot of weight, we are emotional supporters, and still get paid less. We still get no credit and are still harassed on the streets.” I started picking her brain about sexual assault in Italy. “It happens everywhere no one has respect for women.” In a survey by United Nations, 14% of Italian women had experienced attempted rape and 2.3% had experienced rape in their lifetimes. The problem with rape is that the vast majority of it goes unreported. A part of me felt saddened and at peace- I too had been a victim of the Italian masculine force. I felt connected to this woman who had an entirely different language, culture, and was raised thousands of miles away from my home- but we shared the same fears about our gender and safely, which kept us up at night under the same moon.
But for the most part, we kept our conversations very food focused. I have never seen someone who has such an intrinsic understanding of food, kind of like how children just pick up languages; they don’t question the mechanics of it, it just becomes part of their being. Like most Italians, food goes beyond the gastronomic basics and is a deeper experience, she doesn’t just make food, it is the essence of her being. And like most Italians, family has also shaped who she is, being raised by a mother who didn’t like to cook and a father whose blood is wine, she told me how at a young age she gained independence in the kitchen, while able to question the traditional roles of women in Italian society.
This is another two-parter conversation. Half of it is via Skype a year later and the first part of this conversation in the chocolate factory, a large brick room which would cool us from the Peruvian sun. Excuse the crinkle of the candy wrappers and our boss shouting things in the background, we are in the midst of making chocolate. Here’s her story.