Life After Layoffs: How Empanadas Gave Me a Sense of Belonging

On finding the perfect empanada dough, fulfillment in work, and acceptance by local Peruvian mamás.

July  8, 2020
Photo by James Ransom

When COVID-19 reached the United States, I was working full time as an in-house content writer for a company that was about to launch a credit card review website. I kept coming into work each day feeling secure that this pandemic surely wouldn’t affect the industry I worked in. It wasn’t long before human resources decided that I, along with other creative team members, were costing the company too much in the midst of this health crisis and dismissed us.

I drove home, thinking about what I was going to do. It felt as though something greater than myself took over, and I made a detour to my favorite Latino grocery store. I felt myself guided towards the ingredients I needed to make Peruvian-style empanadas: a cartload of red onions, a big hunk of beef eye round (what is referred to as “boliche”), butter, lard, ají amarillo chilies, cumin, and oregano. I loaded my trunk with the groceries, pulled out my phone, and announced to my social media followers that I had just gotten laid off and would be selling Peruvian empanadas that week.

There was only one problem: I realized that I didn’t quite know how to make Peruvian empanadas yet.

All I had were my taste memories—the perfect buttery, crumbly crust and moist beef fillings I had tried in Lima—and various, lackluster attempts at home. In the past, I had thrown out more botched turnovers than I’d like to admit—crusts that exploded in the oven, fillings that were too soupy and leaked all over the baking tray. Empanadas weren't something I wasn’t quite comfortable serving to guests, much less selling for profit. What was I thinking?

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Top Comment:
“I was irritated by the store-bought pie crust stuff and using ground beef but your response to people is really irritating. I can understand why you feel you don't want to share the recipe for the crust (well, actually I don't, chefs always think people are going to steal their recipe; nobody's going to make these things for a living, they'lll do it once and that will be it) but in that case don't give a recipe at all. ”
— James R.

I assumed I would get a handful of orders from supportive friends, and that I’d maybe sell a dozen of these tender meat pies by the end of the week. But the next morning I woke up to find more orders than I had ingredients for.

It then dawned on me that whoever or whatever took over me when I decided to start selling empanadas was a genius. (Or maybe I was the genius and needed to give myself more credit.)

All my life, I’ve had dreams of owning a small food business, but I never knew what to sell. I didn’t know what food—signature dish, let alone cuisine—I could call mine. Miami is a major hub for Peruvian immigrants, and while my birth country’s cuisine is extremely popular with locals, there is also a lot of competition. I couldn’t simply cook Peru’s greatest culinary hits and expect to make a mark. There were already dozens of my compatriots doing the same thing, and they had a lot more experience and resources to work with.

But, I realized there weren’t that many purveyors of Peruvian-style empanadas around me. These are unique in Latin America in that the crust is crumbly, buttery, and melts in your mouth much like shortbread. In fact, there were only two Peruvian bakeries in the tri-county area that I knew of, and I wasn’t a big fan of either bakery’s empanadas— the fillings were dry, and one bakery’s crust reminded me of a soggy fast food biscuit. I wanted to make the empanadas that I wanted to eat— ones with delicate crusts made with good quality butter and lard (instead of margarine and shortening) and juicy, savory fillings.

When developing and testing my dough recipe, on a whim, I experimented with—and was pleasantly surprised by—store-bought frozen pie crusts. They wholly deliver on the buttery, rich texture I'm after, much more consistently so, and yield a final product that's not unlike the traditional Peruvian empanadas I remembered from Lima.

Miami’s population is roughly 65 percent Latino, obsessed with any type of savory hand pie, and—like much of the world—has been quarantined for months. I was offering an injection of excitement into their diet and free delivery to almost anywhere in my corner of Florida. I started finding myself busier than when I was employed; in early June, I even purchased a second refrigerator to keep up with the orders.

Perhaps the biggest revelation has been the amount of satisfaction I could derive from work. Few things compare to having a complete stranger purchase something you create week after week, and tell you how your food brings them pleasure during such a dreary time.

As someone who is bi-cultural, I've never felt wholly accepted by either of the communities I have one foot in. After 30 years of living in America, I feel like I've finally found that sense of belonging: a Peruvian customer’s mamá—herself a caterer—called to commend me on my empanadas.

I have tried adding some fusion dishes to my menu as a nod to my multicultural upbringing—I was particularly proud of a Peruvian riff on pimento cheese sandwiches—but my customers wouldn't even consider it. They wanted the foods that reminded them of home, and that’s what made me truly Peruvian in their eyes.

I named my budding business 3 Coronas (“corona” means crown in Spanish). The name is a tribute to not only the city where I was born—Lima, the Thrice Crowned City of Kings—but these very strange times, in which I, very strangely, found myself.

What foods are giving you comfort in these times? Tell us in the comments!
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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • JasonB
  • TheEmpanadaStud
  • Carolyn Warfield
    Carolyn Warfield
  • Claire Reilly Buff
    Claire Reilly Buff
  • Mary Pearlman
    Mary Pearlman
I was born in Peru to a Limeño father and a Texan mother. We moved to Miami when I was five, and I grew up in the "Kendall-suyo" neighborhood—often called the 5th province of the Inca Empire because of its large Peruvian population. I've been writing about food since I was 11 years old, and in 2016 I received a master's degree in Gastronomy from Boston University. A travel columnist at Food52, I'm currently based in Hollywood, Florida—another vibrant Peruvian community—where I am a writer, culinary tour guide, and consultant.


JasonB February 17, 2021
Wonderful Carlos thank you. I have been all about these lately, tried making the dough from scratch but then I realized I was more interested in getting creative with the fillings so I started buying the frozen wrappers; this works for my purposes and allows me to explore all the great flavors of Latin food.
TheEmpanadaStud August 23, 2020
To Readers that Thought this Article Did Not Meet their Mental Orgasmic Expectations:
Get over it! This was a great human interest story related to food. I applaud Carlos Olaechea and Food52. "Que Viva el Peru, Carajo!
TheEmpanadaStud August 23, 2020
To All Readers that Thought this Article Did Not Meet their Mental Orgasmic Expectations:
Get over it! This was a great human interest story related to food. I applaud Carlos Olaechea and Food52. "Que Viva el Peru, Carajo!
Carolyn W. July 21, 2020
Carlos et al, irrespective of the furor over editorial choices, I'm so glad to hear that you are finding a way through the miserable job loss situations so many people are experiencing.

However, speaking from almost 20 years of HR experience, I can 99% guarantee you that HR was not the decision-maker on which positions would be eliminated. We get to deliver the bad news and take the heat, but the business owners make the call. Obviously that doesn't change the outcome and most HR professionals understand that it's safer to be upset with us than with people you'll need for references, but we do get work down being blamed.
Claire R. July 21, 2020
I can't find the recipe, store bought crust or not! Where is it?
2tattered July 21, 2020
Guess the author or editors couldn’t take the heat, so they took it off this page. But put ‘empanadas’ or ‘empanadazo’ in the *Recipe* search box, and you’ll see it titled, ‘Empanadazo (Peruvian-Style) Giant Empanada’. The recipe isn’t worth the effort of looking for it, frankly.
Brinda A. July 21, 2020
Hi Tracey, thank you for weighing in.

I am the Editorial Lead of Food52 and am happy to explain this further. The purpose of us publishing this piece was to share a story about the author's experience starting his own business in the face of the economic fallout of the pandemic. It's a poignant and relatable experience to so many who are experiencing economic uncertainty and hardship in this time. We wanted to provide a recipe to add color to this piece, and I believe that was where we made a mistake, for which I apologize. That is because the recipe we provided—the author's streamlined, at-home version of the empanadas he enjoys, and not the version he related in this piece at hand—was proving confusing for readers, and understandably so. Thus, we removed the recipe from this page to alleviate confusion. That being said, the recipe on its own is a completely worthwhile and tasty cooking endeavor, and we encourage readers to look it up if they are interested.

Brinda Ayer
2tattered July 21, 2020
Well, kudos for admitting to a mistake and apologizing. That is rare these days. Yes, it’s kind of a rough crowd here but I, at least, have come to expect more from this site than Mr. Olaechea’s recipe delivered. I don’t think readers were ‘confused’, I think they were let down and disappointed. The subtitle of the article led us to believe we would find a recipe for ‘the perfect empanada dough’, but instead we get frozen pie crust. Many of us are experienced cooks looking for interesting challenges, and don’t necessarily need recipes that are ‘approachable for the home cook’ maybe some of us also felt a bit condescended to. Dan had it right from the start, and kbakich made some excellent points. Thank you for your honesty.
Mary P. July 20, 2020
Cute story, but I expected a recipe. Did I miss it?
Ann R. July 19, 2020
I want the buttery pie crust recipe! Wasn’t that the point of what Carlos was trying to achieve with his empanadas?
Rosalind P. July 19, 2020
BIG fan of Food52 but come on! Crummy article, crummy recipe. Anybody remember Womans Day? Yeah, that bad. Most comments were about the crust bait and filling. But I want to know about that hunk of meat...the boliche...and how to turn that into a great fulling. Oh, well. Everyone's allowed a mistake now and then. Hope the Food52 folks learned from this doozie.
Rosalind P. July 19, 2020
Typo! Meant bait and switch.
kgw July 19, 2020
Wow...A lot of gourmet cooks here, I see! But it seems like all they really desire is Another pie dough recipe. How many do you have already?

Lordy me! I must admit it does not surprise me at the amount of whining here, given the current state of the 'union.'
2tattered July 19, 2020
Please elaborate on the relationship between ‘whining’ about a substandard recipe and the ‘current state of the ‘union’ ‘.
SageDawn July 19, 2020
It's an Empanada crust recipe I was expecting. Have made hundreds of pie crusts, never an Empanada.
kgw July 19, 2020
Leaving "substandard' out of the picture, a lack of compassion is evident in in many of the current statements...
I refer to the relationship of oneself to oneself: it is immediately apparent. Be nice. To oneself.
Lindsay S. July 26, 2020
Everybody is on edge. That’s what isolation and fear of losing your livelihood does to people. Oh and riots.
kbakich July 19, 2020
Food52, I have been a quiet but appreciative and loyal reader for many years. I’ve tried to overlook your overwhelming trend toward sponsored posts that I think detracts from the initial spirit of this community that was so appealing from the start. I applaud you for the diversity of perspectives you offer, and surely the author’s story of resiliency is one to celebrate and share. But I agree with other posters below that publishing an article extolling the virtues of a traditional Peruvian crust and then offering a recipe with a store bought pie crust doesn’t align with the values of this community. Your defense that it makes the recipe more accessible is a mockery to those of us who come here for meaningful food experiences. Please have a conversation about refocusing your posts in a way that speaks to those readers who helped to make this site what it is today.
Coral L. July 20, 2020
Hi kbakich, thanks for taking the time to offer your feedback.

We wholly acknowledge that this might have been a confusing experience, and have amended the article to better explain why and when Carlos uses store-bought frozen pie crust.
cosmiccook July 19, 2020
Might as well just buy some frozen ones from a Latin Market.
Tricia July 19, 2020
What? Frozen pie crust? Thought there would be a crust recipe somewhere! Do Peruvians use frozen pie crust??? Too bad.😏
Taevia July 19, 2020
The article itself was good, it's the email header that got me to look at the article was click bait. Don't promise a buttery empanada recipe in the email then give me one with store bought crust. Make your email titles match the article and it would have been fine.

Also an realization of the mistake and apologizing for it would go a lot further than justifying it. It was click bait, no matter how it's tried to be framed otherwise.
Coral L. July 20, 2020
Hi Taevia, thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts.

We hear you, and acknowledge how this might have been a confusing experience. We've amended the article to better explain why and when Carlos uses store-bought frozen pie crust.
Mischa_nyc July 19, 2020
This is disappointing. Your dough recipe is yours to keep, but It would serve in the future be explain from the beginning that the intention is not to share it. There is no need to disparage an entire community in the process.
Coral L. July 20, 2020
Hi Mischa_nyc; thank you for writing in.

Hi kbakich, thanks for taking the time to offer your feedback. We've edited the article to better explain why and when Carlos prefers store-bought frozen pie crust to homemade.
Mischa_nyc July 19, 2020
Though the use of store bought dough in the recipe was a let down, the bigger let down was the indictment of the anglo-American and Peruvian communities in Miami. Your dough recipe is yours to keep, but be explicit from the beginning that the intention is not to share it. There is no need to disparage an entire community as your reason for not sharing it. I expected more from a “feel good” article.
SageDawn July 19, 2020
Wow! I enjoyed this article as the fantasy of having a little food business has always been a small daydream for me, but then I read the recipe. My first thoughts were (out loud) What! How could this be? Such a lovely, enticing build-up and then: ground beef, no chilies, store bought crust, optional bouillon cube and powdered sugar. For a brief second I was actually a bit angry at this bait & switch let-down. So as I read others comments including the author's responses I actually did become a bit angrier. I too as a member of the 52 community feel this issue presented is in very poor taste. No real pun intended. As a child one of my greatest desires was to learn how to make a real, buttery, flaky, pie crust. Having learned this one well, as an adult I am a bit more adventurous with all things dough. I would have loved the challenge to attempt this author's recipe, but instead we have all been duped.
Dan July 19, 2020
After having the same disappointment as others, and after reading all of the responses by the author and editors, I encourage you to simply remove the recipe. You sell one thing in the article, and then publish a recipe that can't be close to what is described in the article. I heard a needle scratch (just dated myself) when I got to the recipe.

Without the recipe, this is a feel good post detailing how one person used food to overcome adversity.

Replace the recipe with a paragraph that explains the crust is complex to make, includes ingredients that are difficult to source, and that the author still throws out batches of dough because they just didn't work.
Coral L. July 20, 2020
Hi Dan! Thank you for the feedback. We've amended the article to better explain Carlos's reasoning for store-bought crust over homemade, and have unlinked the recipe from the article.
stacey H. July 19, 2020
This article was poorly written, poorly edited and the recipe looks like something from On a positive note, it was refreshing to feel irritated about something trivial! It felt pre-Covid. I did enjoy feeling outraged with the other commenters. So, thank you for that and I guess I'll stick to serious eats for recipes and food writing. I don't think Kenji hides his recipes...
2tattered July 19, 2020
Serious Eats is my go-to. Lopez-Alt is The Man.
janet G. July 19, 2020
Frozen pie crust? And he responds by saying make your own? I expected more from this site. Why not just recommend Hamburger Helper?
Susan O. July 19, 2020
What times we are living in. This is a story. And a recipe. It is an invitation for your viewing. And maybe, your trying. And maybe your own spin on it such as homemade pie crust. Seriously, ask yourself how your mother/father would have responded to a recipe offering from someone else.