Interview with Chef Gaston Acurio, Leading A Peruvian Food Revolution
The charisma of this 48 year old Peruvian chef who has led the charge to popularize Peruvian cuisine is evident from his rock star status in his homeland. Probably one of the first chefs to earn such mass adulation he handles it with admirable humility, responsibility and sometimes emotion. Over the years the celebrity chef, author, restauranteur, TV personality and speaker at international food events has become a familiar face around the world for propelling Peruvian cuisine as the vanguard of international gastronomy. Acurio's food based initiatives for his countrymen have made him one of the most liked public figures in the country as evident by the crowds that tail him at food events like Mistura one of Latin America's largest annual food events. There was even conjecture that he would contest for the premier post in Peru but when asked about it in our conversation he put that rumor to rest once for all.
Born in a wealthy family in Lima his life was pre charted for him and he was sent off to study law in Madrid but the chef in him rebelled and off he went to France to learn the culinary arts against his family's wishes. While in Europe he met Astrid Gutche his wife, a pastry chef with whom he opened his eponymous restaurant in Lima in 1994 originally as a French restaurant that has since morphed into a temple of haute Peruvian cuisine. Astrid y Gaston restaurant in 2016 is placed at #7 on Latin America's 50 Best Restaurants List and 30 in the World's 50 Best restaurants list released annually by Restaurant Magazine.
Recently he was honored with a tribute at the San Sebastián Gastronomika congress in Spain, one of many accolades he has earned since opened the doors to his Astrid y Gaston restaurant in Lima 22 years ago. The restaurant relocated from its old location in Miraflores into spacious new quarters at Casa Moreyra a stately old hacienda in the San Isidro neighborhood in 2014. Acurio currently has 33 restaurants spanning several continents and 12 countries. The brands now include Tanta, Panchita, La Mar Cebicheria, Los Bachiche, Chicha and Madam Tusan. Manko-Paris, his first Parisian venture, opened its doors in the city of lights, realizing what had seemed as an impossible dream when he trained at the Cordon Bleau years ago. Lately he has turned his focus inwards on his own country and people actively assisting farmers to maintain the cornucopia of bio diversity, driving the charge to ban GMO's in Peru, even going into the manufacture of indigenous chocolate and tackling the problem of child malnutrition in the still-developing country.
We have had numerous conversations over the years in many different parts of the world and it is apparent that his social initiatives are powered by a genuine passion and close to his heart. We recently sat down for our latest in-depth discussion.
The Daily Meal: Looking back at the time when you changed the cuisine at Astrid y Gaston from French to your own Peruvian cuisine, did you foresee that you will be the catalyst for all these big changes in your cuisine or country?
Gaston Acurio: Of course! Though at that time it was a frustration inside of us. Why are we cooking French food? Why are we representing other cultures in our country? Why are we importing and using ingredients from abroad like frozen mushrooms from France or raspberries from somewhere, while we have so many ingredients in the Amazon. These were questions we had all the time but we were afraid of losing our customers if we changed our direction. Customers those days were looking for French food and not Peruvian food and fine dining for them was European while Peruvian was for family meals at home. We felt nobody would like our culture so tried to put some ceviches in the middle of a terrine de foie gras menu!
One day it all changed just like stories in the history of the world when certain conditions or circumstances happen at the same time changing everything. We were a generation of chefs trained in France making the same cuisine everyday while our country was developing economically. The world of cuisine was looking for diversity and they discovered Peru as the country with the most diversity. People wanted to taste what we have in Peru and it was then we decided to become a movement for this change and after a couple of years we came up with a strategy. We decided we will cook as Peruvians to put a value on our own ingredients, culture, traditions.
Then came the realization that it could be an important weapon to promote our country, our ingredients in the world especially as a tourist destination. We had fear of losing our identity, our multi-cultural society and instead of competing amongst ourselves we realized that period is over and done with. Peruvian since has become an international brand and there are Peruvian restaurants opened by Peruvians and others around the world that have become our embassies and now there are four/five Peruvian restaurants opening somewhere in the world every day. We need to now put a value on our ingredients like quinoa, avocado, limes, etc. which are in demand all over the world. Lima has become a food tourism destination but we are in the middle of a new period now. We have done the job internationally now we need to look inside our house.
Now we have to figure out how to take this amazing food to every single family in Peru. We need to take these recipes, ingredients to remote territories inside our country. 40% of the kids are malnourished so we have to use the power of Peruvian cuisine for them, for the protection of the farmers in the Amazon whose livelihood is endangered by illegal activities like mining, lumbering etc. We need to start working now simply to bring all the happiness that Peruvian food can provide to Peruvians themselves now. We need to concentrate on this effort for the next ten years so our farmers are well paid, improve infrastructure be able to provide these amazing ingredients at a price that every family can afford.
The ceviche that is the topic of conversation everywhere in the world could be a treasure that every family can afford once a week. It is not only for those with the budget so we need to build a more democratic and better economy in our own country and I think if we concentrate as we did internationally we can do this.
Do you predict that more changes are coming in Peruvian gastronomy within the country in the next five years?
Yes, I hope I am going to convince the newly elected government that we really do have an opportunity without major investment to create the proper chains of nourishment and production in everything, from the farm, to the ocean to the table. If the government believes in this, then four million kids in public schools could have menus picked by their mothers with ingredients bought locally from local farmers instead of from large companies. It's not an easy task because the diversity in our country gives the opportunity to do 2000 different menus every day since the products differ everywhere. These big endeavors are not easy but are doable.
We also want the kids to be involved in cooking and want the government to understand that they have a huge weapon in cooking because it touches every life since we all eat, cook and consume food. It is an opportunity to solve many of the problems in our country. Internationally we have a new generation of chefs that are getting involved and should focus on these issues in the coming years. In my case I need to focus on my country now.
Chefs have so many roles now. Is social activism also a part of their job?
Yes but always through food. Chefs are related to these diverse fields and issues but only through food. They communicate through food for example ceviche represents a lot of elements. It's not just a delicious dish but much more. It's the work of the fisherman who worked all night for that fish, and instead of asking him to charge less you can pay more so he can continue to fish. Maybe you can put his name on the menu next to the fish he brought in for your ceviche and give him pride in his work. The same would apply for the chili and lime producers since they all contribute to make the ceviche dish. It's a cultural thing, a way by which we Peruvians can provoke the world to love us, make our country part of their dreams while giving it more value. This also gives recognition to the other products that come from Peru. As a chef you have a choice to just cook but I feel then you are missing the opportunity to do much more.