El Cocinero : New Worlder

Every once in a while Gastón Acurio, the chef that has been the driving force behind a culinary revolution in Peru and throughout Latin America for the past two decades, gets up from a chair in his office and adds an ingredient or two to the dishes he has drawn in washable marker on the glass wall that overlooks the stone courtyard of Casa Moreyra, the seventeenth century hacienda that’s the setting of his restaurant Astrid y Gastón.

He’s surrounded by shelves full of books. Cookbooks, culinary history books, books written by friends. He is thinking about food all day. Not just what the restaurant is cooking a few feet away, but about the potato farmers high up in the Andes where shrinking glaciers have taken away the source of their water that has been there for thousands of years or the artisanal fishermen in places like Pimentel who suddenly have too few fish to catch. He’s thinking about the tens of thousands of small restaurants and hundreds of thousands of cooks across the country and how, through their shared ideals, can unite to create real, meaningful change.

The test kitchen is just beside the office and a few of his best cooks, like  César Alonso Bellido who works at one of Acurio’s restaurants in Spain, and Felix Loo, who re-invented Peruvian dim sum at Acurio’s chifa Madam Tusan, are there experimenting with new dishes. Throughout the morning, they send plates over to Acurio to taste. He’ll tell them it needs more paico, an Andean herb, or to try using cacao from Piura instead of Junín. A lenguado comes out covered in flowers. He picks them off so the fish can be seen. “This is the star,” he says.

His role has evolved from what it once was. He no longer needs to be the center of everything; to be the face of Peruvian cuisine. The rise of those around him has relieved much of that pressure. He offers his unwavering support to chefs like Mitsuharu Tsumura and Virgilio Martinez “so that they are the ones that keep shining and that there are others who like them in the future to surpass what they do today,” he says.

He maintains his close relationship with Peru’s culinary community – the cooks, the ingredients, the producers, the diners – trying to understand what new opportunities there are, what new challenges arise, and what new terrain can be explored, both inside the restaurant and out. He appears almost like a politician, which many want him to be.

A parade of people come to his office throughout the day. First, there are school kids. They are at the multi-million-dollar restaurant to visit the small farm in the front and to learn about sustainability, nutrition, and Peruvian ingredients. Later, they come into the courtyard near his office and Acurio goes outside for a few minutes and talks to them about what they like to eat. They are all smiles. He’s their hero, Barack Obama and Lionel Messi rolled into one.

A marine biologist comes to talk about the state of Peru’s ocean. It’s bleak. Fish stocks are dropping and even more pressure is being put on the same species. He asks questions, but mostly he just listens.

A group from the World Food Program comes in dressed in suits and carrying briefcases. They’re discussing a marketing strategy surrounding an event about sustainable food in Peru. He tells them they need to promote an apple with as much marking force as liquor or processed food.

“An apple doesn’t have an insignificant value,” he says. “There are lobbies all over the world fighting against it.”

They need to think more about sustainable lifestyles and not just splashing a few exemplary ingredients and chefs on a stage, he explains. They want him to be the face of it. He points out that he has just 0.0004 percent of the Peruvian restaurants in the world. He admits it seems like more. He lets them know he’s just a small piece of the puzzle. They need to think about the person in their car that is eating a bag of chips while they drive. Someone is walking by selling the chips and they are within reach, so they give in. They don’t even think about it. They need to find a way to break that mentality. It’s an entire system that needs disruption. Yet, he insists that the message needs to be positive.

“The message cannot be about what we are against,” he says. “It’s about what we are for.”

Outside the kids he met with earlier are laughing in the courtyard and it catches his attention.

Esto es guerilla pura,” he says.

Acurio is repeatedly asked if when he was going to run for president even though he has expressed absolutely no interest in ever doing so. Since independence, Peru has had a chain of mostly corrupt and inefficient presidents. Many of the most recent are in jail or being prosecuted for crimes while in office. The country is hungry for someone to step forward and lead. Every election cycle he appears, without his permission, on billboards beside other politicians he once took a photo with but never endorsed. He has always stated him being president will never ever, ever, ever happen. “When I’m 60 I want to drink all day,” he says. “We’ve already had presidents that have done that.”

Before the late 1990s, Peruvians had nothing to believe in. Fútbol teams were never any good and politics was always a disaster. Everyone with means left the country. Acurio left, too. He went to law school in Madrid, only to drop out and enroll in culinary school in Paris, fulfilling his secret dream since childhood. He visited the great kitchens of France and Spain and they were his inspiration when he and his wife Astrid Gutsche opened Astrid y Gastón in July of 1994.

Around this time something began to change in Peru. A violent conflict, which left an estimated 70,000 people dead and had closed off the coast from the rest of the country for more than a decade, was ending. A free flow of people and information was restored across the country. Native ingredients like kiwicha and olluco began to be explored with contemporary techniques by a few chefs and writers. Realizing the potential of the diverse set of ingredients around him, Acurio saw an opening. He and Gutsche began applying their international culinary experience to regional recipes like cochinillo and lomo saltado. Soon, Acurio was the biggest name in the history of Latin American cuisine. His name was on billboards, he authored dozens of cookbooks, and he hosted a television show, Aventuras Culinarias, which explored rural and urban kitchens and selflessly promoted the recipes of many of the Peru’s deserving yet unacknowledged cooks.

In 2005, he opened La Mar, a cevicheria concept that gave the Peruvian version of the dish international recognition. The restaurant has since been replicated around the world. Other concepts followed, though Acurio regularly helped promote Peruvian cooks and restaurants of every form, wherever they were. With his support, an eighty-something year old anticucho street vendor became a celebrity and, for a time, even had her own flavor of potato chips. It seemed like he personally visited every small restaurant in every province in Peru, as evidenced by proud pictures hanging in all of them. He helped launch a high quality culinary school in an impoverished area on the outskirts of Lima that regularly sends its students to work at restaurants like Mugaritz and El Cellar de Can Roca. He has helped give rise to discussions about the livelihoods of artisanal fishermen, farmers, and sustainability. He has fought against Monsanto coming to Peru and calls out those who do not respect fishing bans. It isn’t even all related to food. One time, after reports of racism against Andean people at a Lima movie theater, he went there dressed in a poncho and chullo in protest.

Peruvians used to complain about how little they had. Acurio’s message has been the opposite. “Look at how much we have,” he said. A country so rich in diversity, both cultural and biological, has the potential to do anything. He gave them something to believe in, but in the process he wasn’t just a cook anymore.

Not long ago, Acurio had the distant dream of leaving his restaurant empire behind and opening a small restaurant where he could just cook. He could imagine what it was like. It wouldn’t be about money or fame. The food would be based on the seasons and what he could find at the market. He would make everything from scratch and it would be accessible to everyone. Just simple, honest, tasty food. He would just be a cook again.

“A kind of return to the beginning, of a gratitude of life combined with premature retirement,” he says. That restaurant will be called El Bodegón and will open soon. However, Jimmy Zamora, a chef that has worked for Acurio for years, will be the one in the kitchen.

Acurio hadn’t think about going back to Astrid and Gastón until the restaurant’s chef, Diego Munóz decided to leave. “Life gave me a lesson. Nobody said you had, could, or should retire. Lesson learned, my retreat is no longer a possibility. To work with enthusiasm and curiosity like the first day until the last day, that is my destiny.”

When he first returned to the restaurant, he started working the line. He hadn’t been in a kitchen full-time in years. Twenty-year-old cooks were zipping by him. It was running at another speed. Now, he stays in the taller and checks their technique. There’s less staff and they work less hours, but he can get more out of them, he says.

It was always his intention that Astrid y Gastón would be a place for Peruvians. However, as it climbed the ranks of the World’s 50 Best Restaurant list and the menus became longer and more expensive, the clientele became almost entirely foreigners. It’s a problem that many of the top restaurants in Peru face.

“Why should we have a restaurant that people in the city we are in don’t come to?” he debated with Gustche when they decided to come back to Astrid y Gastón.

The entire structure of the restaurant changed since he returned. Casa Moreyra is no longer segregated into two separate restaurants like it used to be, with La Barra on one side and the tasting menu on the other. It’s one restaurant where you can order the tasting or a la carte. The courtyard, once a place of lonely sculptures, now has a bar that comes alive at night.

There’s no longer a maître’d from El Bulli or a famous kitchen team. The staff is young and has the world at their feet. For those that are expecting the theatrical 24-course menus of a few of years ago, complete with souvenir notebooks and dishes with props and whimsical stories, those days are gone. There are no plates with 40 techniques and ingredients on them. The food has been stripped down to pure flavor. It’s more soulful, more like it was when it was back in the old dining room on Calle Cantuarias in Miraflores. Now, the clientele is up to fifty percent Limeño and he wants that number to rise.

Some of the old dishes have returned, like the Pekín Cuy, his Chinese-Peruvian version of guinea pig, served alongside new ones, like tortellini made from mashua. There are oversized share plates of arroz con pato served in a cast iron pan and ceviches and tiraditos that are as balanced as any you will find in Lima. The menu isn’t getting a mass overhaul every six months, rather it’s evolving in small amounts each day and Astrid y Gastón might be better than it has ever been.

After lunch service, Acurio meets with his staff about Yuntémonos, an event at Lima’s Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú that would later bring together government ministers to form a dialogue with various culinary disciplines about working together to reduce rural poverty, protect biodiversity, and promote sustainable development. He’s helping pick the right pieces so that the conversation moves forward and the right voices will be heard and that it isn’t an event about him. They convene and he walks through the courtyard, pausing momentarily to salute the man sweeping away the dust off the stone tiles. On entering his office he picks up a cloth and wipes away one of the plates he had drawn on the glass. Then draws another.