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.

The most amazing thing about Peru is how different cultures coexist and mesh into each other. What makes this beautiful assimilation of people possible?
Now that I am actively back in my kitchen in Lima for the first menu the we designed  a bed, not a beautiful one but an ugly one because when you come to Lima you see a family where the mother is from China, the father from Africa, whose own family might be from Italy or the Arab world. Sometimes a mother is Arab and father Eurasian, or of Incan descent like my wife is from Germany and my father is from Machu Pichu. How did this happen? How people fall in love with someone so different? There are families where grandparents are from Japan, or from Italy and of course they were afraid when their children fell in love, maybe they hid it initially fearing acceptance. I designed a bed for the menu where there are Italian, Arab elements and others like a celebration of love with five different cultural contributions. It's like my own life from Inca, German heritage or my chefs from Italy, northern Peru all represented in our Peruvian celebration of love. Peru is a true melting pot and is proof that we don't have to be afraid of our differences. It's proof that when we are bound together we can do bigger and lovely things instead of war. That is why in Peru you won't find neighborhoods like little Africa or little Italy. For example my attorney is from Canton but his last name is Perez from the Andes while a friend's first name is Mufarish from Lebanon and his last name is Vertego, Italian. As you know all of us are like that and once a week at home we will eat chifa or Chinese fried rice, or a Peruvian spaghetti al pesto the next because that is Peruvian home cooking. We are an example of co-existence.

What is the story behind your chocolate manufacturing venture?
The main idea behind this operation is to bring forth the story from the past into the present. Countries that produces cacao or grow cacao are poor while every country that produces chocolate the final product from cacao is wealthy or rich. Why that happened in the case of cacao beans is because our farmers and cacao growers were not being paid a fair price for their products. That is why when you go to the Andes and Amazon and you discover cacao beans you also see the poor economic condition of the cacao farmers.

Compare that to chocolate manufacturing, which is a flourishing industry. This picture is totally unfair so we created this company to change that picture and to change the lives of cacao bean farmers. We travel to the remote areas in the jungle or hours by boat on the Amazon River to get to the farmers in order to help them not only to recover the beans but to learn the next few steps in the process. We help them learn to make cacao bean paste which has more value, to do the fermentation and other processes themselves. I hope this is going to change the market and if we buy this amazing product by paying fair price, making amazing chocolate we will provoke other companies from Switzerland, France etc. to buy this product by paying even more than what we are paying which will be great for me since it means that I have done my job. By using this great product I am provoking others into needing that chocolate themselves and instead of paying $2 to pay $12 instead to the producers. It's a very emotional job that we are doing.

The stories on your plates and your social endeavors are very reflective of the emotional part of your personality. So are you a very emotional person?[pullquote:left]
Cooking is about emotions and not about competition, marketing, being recognized on TV, or gracing magazine covers. Cooking is about sharing, the love of a mother for her children, feeding them the best she can, it's about celebration, learning to love other cultures. It's when you go to visit a friend from another culture and discover new tastes. I remember when I was eight years old I met a Korean friend on the street near my house and he brought me to his home where everybody was dressed in the same outfit. It was all very strange for me and I had lunch there and discovered kimchi and Mandu a Korean dumpling. It was a couple of years later that I discovered that the house I had visited was actually the North Korean embassy!

At present the world of gastronomy is more about competitiveness and ego is at play. You have achieved so much in your work and life at a fairly young age. How do you stay humble and mindful of your place in the world?
I am 48 years old and have been cooking professionally for twenty five years or more. I remember when I was twenty years old and had trained to be a chef I went out with a girl on a date. At the end of the meal she told me that she would never go out with me again and when I asked why she said that the whole night you tried to show off how much you know about food and cooking. She said I was critical of the food and the service all night and right there I learnt an important lesson. Up until then  I thought that I knew everything about food and could teach others because I had trained in Europe. For me it was that one day when life incidentally explains or reveals to you what is your true role in this world as a chef, and especially a Peruvian chef in my own country.

It's about looking in the mirror every day and not paying attention to the vanity and ego which we all have inside but looking at what you can achieve further. Sometimes that ego and vanity comes from fear, you are afraid to lose what you have achieved and sometimes it's a way to defend yourself. You need to put this vanity and ego to sleep every day because it's the worst thing for you and cooking delicious food.

Are young chefs delving into the history of cuisine and understanding the foundations laid by others who went before them?
Yes though you will find some confused chefs there are some wonderful young chefs around who are doing amazing work. Chefs of my generation learned all the history on our journey, but when we trained nobody talked about sustainability, social responsibility, even nutrition. It was all flavor, technique, customer service, professionalism, precision and that was it. The young generation of chefs has all these values inside of them and I am sure that they are going to do many more important things in life through food than we have been trying to do till now.

This is very important because right now we have three big issues in the world hunger, sustainability and peace. In those three areas food could do a lot. Imagine if every single family in the world starts cooking the right way, meaning following the seasons, not throwing anything away, buying mainly local ingredients and celebrating cultures. If you learn to love other cultures and what they are and professional chefs start working this way they can convince families around the world to change lives by cooking. Its small things like not looking for the perfect apple but looking for small, shy apple that can also provide the same balance in your diet. Eat meat only once a week and more vegetables on others to prove that the GMO way is not the only way to provide food for everyone. If we cook in the right way it will benefit the farmer, the environment, health, local economy while changing the world of intolerance by building a world of tolerance. I am very optimistic about what young chefs will do regarding these issues in the future.

So you stand behind the concept of food with a social conscience?
For food lovers the good news is that there will be more delicious food. It's not about political movements or protests on the street it's about change through your food, finding deep flavors that express this new way of looking at beauty. Food is emotional and cultural and by trying to build this new food environment we can change what customers experience in restaurants. It has to be more than "Oh! This is delicious!"

The market is much better for this change now since earlier it was vertical. It was all fine dining restaurants that very few people could afford these and then there was street food, regional food etc. Now it's horizontal and you can have a fine dining experience for $20 in a small place by a chef who didn't have the budget for a fine dining restaurant but is doing amazing food. This is all possible because millions of customers are connected to information about this food. This is another reason why it's impossible to go to all restaurants in any city because there are so many great options at every price point. The market has adapted to consumers and food lovers, not only for the wealthy but for everyone and that is a great thing.

You held back GMOs for ten years in 2011. Are you working towards what will happen when that period expires?
The other day I was traveling with some farmers who are exporting products from Peru around the world. One of them told me that in the beginning he was very angry with me because he thought I was hampering the higher production capabilities possible by using such technologies but now after five years he finally understood it. He was now selling Peruvian blue corn and plantains all over the world and every buyer has now asked for a certificate stating that it is free of GMO's. This is what the market is asking now and our country is in an advantageous position because this country is free of GMO's.

This is not an environmental issue, but an economical issue which is a matter of pride in our diverse country with so many products. We are ahead in this aspect in our country since the worldwide market is looking for these products while at the same time we can feed our people while staying away from soy GMO, yellow corn GMO, wheats that were planted in the fields everywhere. It was the pressure exerted by big companies that was responsible and not because they didn't want to plant purple corn or because of the environment. The big companies needed a lot of land because they couldn't have big profits otherwise. As a commodity it is a cheap thing but the good thing is that there is no demand in the market for such products.

Now we have a better and argument as a political policy of state in Peru to defend our position of not allowing GMO crops on our lands. Two years ago was a difficult phase because big companies were pressuring the government and the congress. During recent elections when we explained this to the candidates they immediately understood. We informed them that every single product exported from Peru needs a GMO free certificate and it simply means that this is the market now. At the beginning everyone said as a country we will lose a lot of money if we don't export soy, yellow corn etc. but now we can prove that in the balance it is much, much more profitable for our country to be GMO free.