Writer & Sociologist

Jorge Aliaga’s Cafe-Peña

Cafe-Peña Jananti by Felipe

by Francesca Greene


“Jananti” says the sign, at the corner of St. Stephen Street and the old Stockbridge Meat Market.  In Peruvian that means “top of the mountains”, set above a soaring condor, it points the way down to the warmly welcoming atmosphere of Jorge Aliaga’s Cafe-Peña, the only Peruvian restaurant of its kind in the UK.  Jorge serves a largely meat based menu, though he caters for vegetarians if warned in advance.

What is a Cafe-Peña?  A concept apparently of the Surrealist movement in Spain during the 1930′s.  A place to eat, drink and enjoy the exchange of ideas.  Adapted and developed by Latin-Americans returning home.  ‘The Victor Jara Café’ perhaps the most famous example.  The focus for Jananti., for Jorge has two aims, is to run Jananti as a viable business and to create a centre “to atract people who are interested in Latin-American culture and issues.”

Jananti started up as a fully fledged cafe in September of last year.  How Jorge achieved this is a tribute to a man who is deceptively retiring.  A former President of the Worker’s Association of the National Institute of Culture in Peru, he was heavily involved in the Trade Union movement for more than eight years.  Feeling in need of change he came for a short holiday with his future wife Anne, to visit an aunt in the South of England.  Invited by her to Scotland, he stayed and married six months later.  That was in 1981. Jorge took a job modelling at the Edinburgh College of Art, became involved in NUPE and was elected shop steward.  His stay here was fairly well documented by the national press for he succeeded not only in supervising their first strike, but in conducting it to a triumphant and successful conclusion.  His achievement?  A 200 – 300% increase in wages for his fellow models and himself.  He asked to change the grading of the work structure and was able to discuss this creatively with the college governors.  As a result artists’ models were promoted to a greater status.  He recalls that when Sean Connery was a model at the College of Art “conditions were more terrible, more awful than when I was there”.  He got renewable contracts for models, which meant security of job tenure, also cleaning and clothing allowances.  He argued about heating conditions and persuaded the authorities to install thermometers in every classroom to ensure that the temperature was correctly registered and never fell bellow the statutory minimum of 16/17 C.

After five years Jorge left.  His fellow models were happy.  He, on the other hand, was interested in creating an “artist” status for his job.  He did extensive research into practices of Eastern European countries, and in particular, China.  He discovered that, there, artists’ models were considered as artists in their own right.  He tried to push forward his philosophy, but, in his own words, his fellow models “were not at this particular level of consciousness”.  They were happy with what had been achieved.  Five years of modelling in it self was enough for Jorge.  The job is very demanding both physically and mentally, and a model can easily become ill if he does nothing else.  He decided to move on and look for further challenge elsewhere.  He found it at the Gateway. “The only thing I can do to get a job in this nation of (then) more than four million unemployed at that point,” he recalls, “I decided, I am a professional administrator, let’s start a small business.” He was, however, without capital.  He answered an ad in the Scotsman for someone to run the Gateway cafe.  He went for an interview with twenty other people and got the job.  They wanted to let the premises under certain conditions, special prices for members and a commitment to support the charitable activities of the Exchange – people suffering from alcoholism, ex-offenders, and the mentally ill.  ”Because I agreed with this and had already much experience in the Trade Union movement, they gave me the opportunity to start.” He paid £20.00 a week to share with the Gateway office in the same room! – and set up cafe peñas there as a piece of personal market research.  ”I proved that there was potential to develop Jananti as a small enterprise”.  Jananti was still an idea at this point, he says. Then change.  The Gateway approached the council and got a grant for £50.000.00 and renovated the cafe, “it was very, very attractive”.  Jimmy Boyle wanted to negotiate a new contract. “I was charging members of the public 15p a cup of tea, 20p a cup of coffee.  It was the friendliest cafe in the area of Leith/Abbeymount.  He increased the rent from £20.00 to £100.00, thats a 500% increase.  He asked me to pay rates, contribute to electricity and general expenditure of the Gateway Exchange.  Do you think I could afford it?  I didn’t have capital.  ”I needed to move.  I wasn’t in the Gateway Exchange with the freedom to develop my ideas because I was under the supervision of the administrative committee. They would dictate certain policies, timing, prices, decoration, which I would have to abide by.  I decided to find my own place and develop my own potential for myself”.  The move took him to St. Stephen Street.  And to Jananti.  In July he opened a craft shop, then applied for permission to operate as a cafe peña.  Initially this was weekends only, but these soon proved so popular that extended to Tuesday to Sunday. Mondays, so far monthly, are cultural evenings.  In August a press conference for Guanaco, the colourful Salvadorian exponents of street theatre who gave powerful performances on the Fringe at the West End during the Festival. A social to raise funds for the Chilean people in September.  In October a Celebration of the 70th Anniversary of the Russian Revolution which coincided, most appropriately this year with Remembrance Sunday.  In November an evening of slides by the Edinburgh University social anthropology student, Rosa Murphy, newly back from researching womens’ weaving patterns among the Shipibo-Conibo Indians of the Ucayaly river in Peru.

Over the last month opening time has gone back from 7pm to 6pm.  Booking at weekends is advised.  Parties are welcome. Evenings, particularly at weekends, extended into entertainment.  Music.  Live.  And dancing.  The surroundings are attractive.  Hangings illustrate women at work from the economically depressed region of San Pedro de Cajas.  A photo of Machu Picchu, fabled lost city of the Incas, a special place at sunset, inspiration for Victor Jara and Nobel Peace winner Pablo Neruda.  A poster of the golden Tumi, logo of Peruvian doctors, and Inca knife used for brain surgery, or trepanning.  Real “Panama” hats from Panama.  These are part of the original craft shop and are part of Jorge’s future plans for the restaurant.  Not surprisingly, given his record, his main preoccupation will be to encourage fair deals with artisans in Latin America by buying direct from co-operatives of workers.  And of course food.  Traditional Peruvian dishes, popular and tasty.  Try “Papa a la huancaina” as a starter, cold potato in an amazingly piquant sauce, “Guiso de Pollo”, chicken in a largely tomato sauce on a bed of rice with a salad, and for pudding a fantastic dried fruit compote called “Mazamorra morada”.  So,  a fascinaing restauranteur.  A lesson in economics to a nation who so often divorce Art from Business.  A lesson too in humility.  How often the British prided themselves in the past in “helping” under-developed countries.  Here is abundant evidence of how much richness and vitality can be brought to this nation and learn precisely from a member of the so-called Third World. Arts Council take note!

A poster of a Russian Peace dove dominates the south wall of the restaurant.  It suggests how much one individual can do at this time of great upheaval in world affairs, practically, towards fostering peace, understanding, communication and good will between nations.