Catalan chef Ferran Adrià, the man behind elBulli, and Peruvian chef–restaurateur Gastón Acurio introduced filmmaker Jesús María Santos's 70-minute documentary Perú Sabe — the title means both "Peru knows" and "Peru tastes" — to America at an invitation-only screening on June 11 at the United Nations in Manhattan.
The two chefs also star in the film, which follows them around Peru, visiting farmers, chefs and cooks, and above all culinary students — of whom, we learn, there are currently an astonishing 80,000 studying around the country. That's one in 375. Peru has always had a reputation for some of the finest food in South America — "Wealthy families around the continent often have Peruvian chefs as a status symbol," an Argentinean friend once told me, "just like people from elsewhere in Europe once had French chefs" — but mightn't this be a little excessive?
Apparently not. Peru, we learn from the film, has an unparalleled wealth of raw materials from both land and sea and extraordinary biodiversity. Its cuisine has roots in ancient indigenous cuisines but is also rife with influences from not just Spain but also Italy, Japan, China, the Middle East, and Africa. Though there are contemporary chefs who worship at Adrià's ovens, traditional cooking is apparently thriving, being rediscovered and disseminated. It is at heart a simple cuisine. One man featured in the film, who has a small cevichería, is shown dicing up immense, glistening-fresh sole and mixing it with what looks like not much more than bits of chile and wisps of onion — yet he says "I would be really happy if I could think of one more ingredient to take out of it."
Perú Sabe is a little stagey in places, and it's repetitious (it could easily lose 15 or 20 minutes and get all the same points across), but it's an engaging look at a genre of cooking that remains little known in this country — so far. It has ambitions to be much more than that, though. The film's sub-title in English is "Cuisine as an Agent of Social Change". In Spanish, it's considerably more to the point: "La Cocina, Arma Social" — "Cuisine, Social Weapon". The point made throughout by Adrià and Acurio — and seconded by such international celebity chefs as René Redzepi, Michel Bras, Massimo Bottura, Dan Barber, and Alex Atala (of D.O.M. in Saõ Paolo, ranked number 4 on this year's list of "The World's 50 Best Restaurants"), captured when they were in Lima last year for a gastronomic festival — is that teaching people, and especially the young, to understand and appreciate as well as be able to cook the food unique to their culture can help improve health and nutrition, and even social conditions and the environment as a whole.
Can it really? The point can certainly be argued — as indeed it recently has been by Thomas Keller, among others. But Adrià and Arcurio seem to be convinced. "Peru is as good as it gets right now," said Adrià after the screening. "This is unique." Acurio spoke of "the power that food has to change things" and declared that "Peru can be the world leader in integrating food and social change." In the brief question-and-answer period after the film, a Bolivian man asked about the place of quinoa in the scheme of things, noting that the UN had declared 2013 "The Year of Quinoa." Acurio responded, "Before we speak of quinoa in the larger sense, we must find how to use it in our own countries. For centuries, our governments have been trying to combat poor nutrition by bringing in pasta, canned foods, and things like that, instead of turning to quinoa, one of the most nutritious foods we know." Another questioner, nationality unrevealed, brought up the question of those 80,000 culinary students. Could there conceivably be enough work for all of them? he asked. "I will take the example of Japanese food," replied Acurio. "As Ferran will tell you, in Spain 20 years ago, there were almost no Japanese restaurants. Now they are everywhere. If there are not enough jobs cooking Peruvian food in Peru, then we must take Peruvian food to the world."