Jose Aste moved to Lansing in 2013 after growing up in Miami. Aste gave up a career in aviation for his true passion: cooking. He began in the commercial kitchen space of the Allen Neighborhood Center, selling food at the weekly farmers market. He named his operation Tantay, an Incan word that means, “To bring people together.” Aste, 35, has become known for brightening folks’ days at the market by sharing his love of Peruvian cuisine, and Tantay will be a fixture in the upcoming Allen Place expansion.
What inspired you to leave aviation behind to become a chef and budding restaurateur?
It was kind of a chain reaction, but I was reevaluating everything and listening to my heart. I always enjoyed cooking for my friends in college and hosting little dinner parties. So, I discovered what I really wanted to do, but I needed some help. I told a dear friend, “Listen, I have this idea. I want to set aside aviation and start something of my own. I want a restaurant. I want people to try Peruvian cuisine.” And then he challenged me: “You know, that’s not it. There has to be more.”
What I figured out is — because I love people — my goal is not just to open a restaurant, but also to create an environment that is all-inclusive. I wanted to make something different, something for families; something for everybody. I wanted to become a restaurateur and start building the footsteps of the environment and climate I want to create when people come and dine with us.
Who taught you how to cook? How did you learn to prepare Peruvian cuisine?
It starts with eating. Man, all we ate was Peruvian food at my house. My mom and my dad [both Peruvians] cooked; they were always cooking. They were entertainers. We always had people coming over. I got into the cuisine by loving the food and, obviously, my culture. But the passion for it really comes from watching my parents. They were great at cooking and they were awesome entertainers. We always had family over; there was always party or a reunion. And where did everyone gather? The kitchen. I really love that, and that’s something that I carry in my heart all the time. That’s the vision. That’s what I want to do, but on a bigger scale.
How did you get involved with the Allen Neighborhood Center?
I heard from my mother-in-law they had a commercial kitchen incubator. I called and spoke with the kitchen manager, who is now a really good friend of mine, and she told me what I needed to do.
I looked at the kitchen and I said, “Holy smokes, this has everything that I need.” And I just hit the books. I got my liability insurance, my licensure — everything. And then I wanted to first dive into farmers markets.
My intention from the beginning was to create an organic following. I decided to start my business by going into people’s homes. I decided to start it off by word of mouth. The intention was to provide a genuine, proven experience in people’s homes. But at the same time, I wanted to learn from them. What do Lansing people want in terms of a restaurant experience? I was always hitting multiple birds with one stone. I always try to do that, because by going into aviation and then restaurants, I had a lot to learn.
Tantay is a word from the native language of the Incas that means, “To bring people together.” Can you tell me how food can connect people from different cultural backgrounds?
Food has so much power. Especially something like Peruvian cuisine, something that’s not from around here. It’s even more powerful, because it’s something totally different. I saw it when I was going into people’s homes — especially the ones that had never tried Peruvian cuisine. They had their guests over, there’d be six to 10 people, and they would all be going through the same experience for the first time. There’s a lot of power within any food, in terms of bringing people together by having them talk about what they’re eating. It’s not only about the taste and whether it’s grass-fed or something like that, it’s also about discussing, “Who is making the food?” “Where are they from?” “Where is this cuisine from?” “How did it originate?” Food has immense power in terms of bringing people together.
(This interview was conducted, edited and condensed by Skyler Ashley.)