Interview with Chef Gaston Acurio, Leading A Peruvian Food Revolution
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?Cooking is about emotions and not about competition, marketing, being recognized on TV, or gracing magazine covers.
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.