Chef Diego Muñoz: Running The Show At Astrid Y Gaston, Part 1

This is the first installment in a three-part interview with chef Diego Muñoz. You can find the second installment here and the third installment here.

An ideal day for chef Diego Muñoz begins on the beach in his hometown of Lima, Peru as he prepares to ride his surfboard over the sparkling waves of the Pacific Ocean. These days, more often than not, his surfing passion takes a backseat to his ever increasing responsibilities of running the kitchens of Astrid y Gaston, the shining star of the Lima restaurant scene. After stints at gastronomic temples such as Le Grand Véfour in France, El Bulli and Mugaritz in Spain, and Bilson's and the Palazzo Versace in Australia, he came home to Peru when chef Gaston Acurio handed over the reins of his Astrid y Gaston kitchen to new head chef Velasquez in 2012.

Rapidly after Muñoz's arrival, Astrid rose from the 42nd position on the list of The World's 50 Best Restaurants in 2011 to #14 in 2013, and in the same year it placed at the top of the first 50 Best Restaurants of Latin America list. In 2015 it is still at #14 on the World's 50 Best restaurants list and #2 in Latin America in the annual game of musical chairs played by these popular lists. The next Latin American 50 Best restaurants will be announced on September 23 in Mexico City and Astrid is expected to be in the top ten.

Interestingly, in 2011 when Bilson's lost its third chef hat award (Australia's top recognition for restaurants), his former boss turned to Diego, who helped reclaim it for the restaurant which has since closed. Even though Acurio has not been at the pass in the kitchen since 2012, it is only recently since he announced his retirement that Diego Muñoz, the face and name behind the food at Astrid, is beginning to emerge. It is not an easy task for Muñoz to gain the spotlight as Gaston Acurio's rockstar status in Peru casts an immense shadow.

Muñoz's exquisite cuisine at Astrid is flawlessly executed with a complex layering of flavors and attention to detail. In the exceptional gastronomic climate of Lima where many other chefs have emerged with all the international attention the region has received, Muñoz's cuisine with its own unique sensibility stands alone. According to Muñoz, besides the opportunity to work in a great restaurant it was the new gastronomic impetus in his country where social gastronomy and organic ethics existent since the time of the Incas drew him back. He recognizes that his experience and success will inspire other culinary professionals striving to make a name in this developing region where new restaurants seem to pop up every day. Peru has a unique multi-cultural and multi-ethnic identity because of migrants from Japan, South Asia, China, Italy, Spain, Mexico, Arab states, South Korea, and many other parts of the world. In this crucible a very unique food culture has taken shape which is original to Peru.

The palpable energy of the gastronomic revolution in Lima is visible during the morning rush hours in Lima when you can spot young men and women in professional whites making their way either to work or to culinary schools that abound. Lima is a busy bustling city where the old mixes in with the new and skyscrapers exist next to historic structures, even ancient adobe pyramids where the wild "Pulpo Fiction" Gelinaz event took place two years ago.

Formerly located in a rambling colonial building in the upscale Miraflores area of Lima the restaurant moved last year to Casa Moreyra, a 300-year-old hacienda that now houses the restaurant, terrace, taller, and its Garden of Eden. The stunning restaurant is where the chef and his team serve a tantalizing menu that may include charred octopus in infused broth, guinea pig folded in delicate crepes, or other exotic tastes that tend to linger on the palate.

Muñoz is seen often at international events , including being the one of the most lauded of the 300-odd chefs at Alain Ducasse's 25th anniversary celebrations for his Louis XV in Monaco, or at congresses like the San Sebastian Gastronomika, chef Sache, Ikarus Hanger7, Identia Golose in Milan, or recently at the OzHarvest event in Australia.

We sat down with the chef to find out more about this dynamic culinary character:

The Daily Meal: Are you still keeping up with your passion for surfing? After moving Astrid y Gaston to a larger location last year has your work load increased?
Chef Diego Muñoz:
Yes I am surfing but not as much as I could earlier. It's wonderful to get out on the water anytime. Around the opening of the new location my schedule was crazy and I had no idea how heavy this new house was going to be until we got there. We were supposed to get the new premises around Christmas of 2013 and it was delayed till March 2014. We had planned to open the doors in February 2014 but we actually got the premises two days before the opening and it was an ordeal to get it together before the opening party.

Did you have any input into the design of this new kitchen?
Everything in the kitchen and house was planned and designed by me and Garcia, the architect.

Did you install a music system like the one you admire in the Osteria Francescana kitchen in Modena?
No, unfortunately not, though I would have loved to since I love how Massimo Bottura has done that in his kitchen.

How did the kitchen handle the transition?
The staff here barely knew how to turn on the new stoves, and we had a big press party scheduled with journalists and chefs from around the world right after our move. We had Ferran Adria, Andoni Aduriz, and the Roca brothers, so you can imagine the stress.

You were in Milan in June for the Identita Golose at Expo Milano. What did you cook there?
For one intense week we did a sample of a new Peruvian restaurant serving four dishes. We started with a ceviche, then crab causa, followed by a lamb stew, a classic recipe, and then a street food dessert which was a variation of a purple corn pudding and rice pudding. People loved the food we presented and it felt good since I chose the dishes to present. [pullquote:right]

Did you run into your friend Massimo Bottura at the event?
It was funny that it happened accidentally when Massimo did a pop-up in Milan during the time I was doing a press conference, and so it was really cool that we connected.

How and where did your professional career begin?
Guy Martin's Grand Véfour was the first professional restaurant I ever worked at after I graduated from culinary school. It was a wonderful internship  at a grand and classic restaurant. Then I worked on the Relais & Chateaux cruise line Silver Sea, and right after I moved to Australia and started working at Palazzo Versace which was a beautiful thematic Versace hotel.

After that stint I landed in chef Andoni Aduriz's Mugaritz, and after that I returned to work on cruise ships for two years. Then it was back to Australia and I joined Tony Bilson's restaurant Bilson's as a sous chef, moving up to head chef.

Then it was back to Europe and El Bulli in Spain from where I came back to Lima, Peru. Things didn't work out for me here with the project I had come to work on and back to Australia I went. I worked with Ted Hunter at his then one hotel. Following that I went back to Bilson's in 2011 which at that time had lost one of its three hats. So I jumped in to try and get it back, which we did. At that time I got the proposition from Gaston to come back to Peru at Astrid y Gaston. Ever since 2012 we were planning Casa Moreya and in February of 2014 we finally started cooking here.

This is the first installment in a three-part interview with chef Diego Muñoz You can find the second installment here and the third installment here.