El Cocinero

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 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 looks out on the stone courtyard of Casa Moreyra, the seventeenth century hacienda that’s the setting of his world renowned 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 Yakumanka in Geneva, and Felix Loo, who re-invented Peruvian dim sum at Acurio’s Chinese-Peruvian restaurant Madam Tusan, are there experimenting with new dishes for different restaurants. 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 tells me.

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. Their Lionel Messi.

A marine biologist comes in 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 a few 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.

Prior to the late 1990s, Peruvians had little hope in their country. Fútbol teams were never any good and the economy was a disaster. Everything foreign was considered superior, including the cuisine. Anyone with means left the country. Acurio left too. His father was a senator and he went to law school in Madrid, expected to follow in his father’s footsteps. Within months he dropped out. He visited the great kitchens of France and Spain and enrolled in Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. There he met a German classmate, Astrid Gutsche, and fell in love.

It was around this time things were beginning to change in Peru. For so many years the people in Lima turned their nose down at native ingredients that many had forgotten what they were. It was a process of erasure that began in the fourteenth century during Conquest, when the Spanish forcibly removed indigenous foodways while installing their own. When culinary schools were formed, they didn’t even teach regional Peruvian cooking. But something happened after the violent internal conflict that left an estimated 70,000 people dead and closed off the coast from the rest of the country for more than a decade. In 1980, Fernando Belaúnde Terry was re-elected president and returned ownership of the press to private citizens. A free flow of people and information was restored across the country. The way people ate in Lima and on the rest of the coast was about to undergo a major transformation.

While writing under a pseudonym El Comensal, or The Diner, in a column called Fin de Semana, the journalist Bernardo Roca Rey started writing about the food being eaten by migrants that had been displaced by violence in the Andes, which ballooned the capital’s population and drastically changed the city’s demographic landscape. He sat for meals with them, asking questions about native ingredients, like kiwicha and olluco, and asked how to prepare them. Maca, arracacha, yacón, alpaca meat, and mashua started to be re-introduced to the city through his column.

In 1986, during a cooking competition at Huacachina, an oasis surrounded by sand dunes in the desert near Ica, Roca Rey was critical of the authenticity of the dishes being prepared, which were supposed to be traditional Peruvian recipes, but consisted of mostly international ingredients and recipes. The chefs were angry and suggested he should cook something himself. He went to the local market and tossed everything he found in a clay pot: rabbit, chicken, huarango, lima beans, pisco, wine, and stock. It was called “La gran olla Huacachina.” This was the start of what would become known as Novo Andina, or New Andean cuisine.

A circle that included the writer and anthropologist Isabel Álvarez, food critic Rodolfo Hinostroza, researcher Rosario Olivas, journalist Raúl Vargas, and several other intellectuals started to build on this idea of a new school of cooking that embraced a much larger range of Peruvian flora and fauna. They applied European techniques to ingredients like quinoa, which was turned into a risotto like dish called quinotto. They started working with coca leaves, then a controversial subject, and the TV chef Cucho La Rosa flavored a pisco sour with them, called the coca sour, and also baked bread with coca flour and mashua. They tried to make peasant food, the inferior label it was given, and remake it into something gourmet. Rather than change the public’s perception, they changed the product.

In 1992, when Abimael Guzmán, the leader of guerilla group Sendero Luminoso, was captured, foreign investment started to pour into Peru. New opportunities of every sort were being explored in Lima. Five-star hotels were built and brought modern kitchens with them. Many chefs that had trained in top schools in Europe or the United States started to trickle back home.  

After graduation in Paris, Acurio and Gutsche returned to Lima together and borrowed $45,000 from family and friends to open Astrid y Gastón. When it opened, in July of 1994, they were cooking French food in a small dining room with white tablecloths. The restaurant was well received and Acurio quickly established himself as the country’s preeminent chef. He could have settled with what he built and have just continued cooking French food and had a pretty good life, but he didn’t.

Inspired by the growing culinary movement that was forming, he began to take a closer look at Peruvian ingredients. He saw their potential in a way that no one else had. He and Gutsche began applying their international culinary experience to regional recipes like cochinillo and lomo saltado. For Peru, this was like when Bob Dylan went electric, and it sent reverberations throughout Latin America. Soon, Acurio was the biggest name in the history of Latin American cuisine. He opened another branch of Astrid y Gastón in Santiago, Chile, and a Peruvian café called T’anta in Lima. 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 Peru’s deserving yet unacknowledged cooks. He did just join the movement but took control of it and brought it to the masses.

In 2005, he opened La Mar, a concept based on the rustic cevicherías around Lima like Sonia in Chorrillos. It wasn’t fancy like Astrid y Gastón, with its white tablecloths and fancy garnishes, but it wasn’t rustic like the other cevicherías in town either. The atmosphere was lively and convivial, and the service was as good as the best restaurants in town. The menu wasn’t unfamiliar, made up of mostly classic Peruvian seafood recipes, but with the occasional Nikkei or Mediterranean touch and using a greater sampling of the sea. There were scallops from Pucusana and sea urchin from Mollendo and every bit could be traced back to the fisherman that caught it. Open only for lunch, lines stretched down Avenida La Mar and everyone who was anyone was trying to get in during those first few months. The food was Peruvian, but the pulse was global. La Mar completely redefined what a Peruvian restaurant could be and put Peruvian-style ceviche on the world map.

In March of 2006, at La Universidad del Pacífico, he gave an ambitious speech to, not culinary students, but business and economic ones. He spoke of brands and concepts, but he conceptualized Peruvian cuisine in a way that he thought could fundamentally change the course of the country.

“If we can imagine a scenario where, in 20 years’ time, just like there are now 200,000 Mexican restaurants worldwide there will be 200,000 Peruvian restaurants of all types and in all parts of the world, a future where when we walk along any European street we’ll be able to find an anticuchería next to a pizzeria, a Peruvian sandwich shop next to a hamburger stand, a cebichería alongside a sushi bar, or a criollo restaurant besides a Tex-Mex one, then we can also imagine all the benefits this will bring for our country,” he told the auditorium. “The demand for such simple products such as the yellow potato, ají, red onion, rocoto, or Peruvian limes, will multiply exponentially and with that we’ll finally be able to end one of the worst evils our country faces and that generates so much internal conflict which is then taken advantage of, the poverty of our Andean farmers.”

He described how Italy exports $5 billion worth of culinary products each year just because pizza exists. With the massive potential of Peruvian concepts, they could dream even bigger. Not only would this benefit the culinary community, but renew interest in Peruvian fashion, jewelry, music, and industry. Peruvians just needed to take pride in themselves. Their culture, with its centuries of mestizaje, this mixing of many types of people, the same thing that made their cuisine so unique, can be used to inspire Peruvians to accept themselves and love their country, he explained.

He went on. “It is that national spirit, a positive national spirit, open to the world, willing to question itself, to tolerate itself, to embrace itself, to seek its integration, to cheer success, and not the nationalism that laments, condemns, divides, closes itself in, and protects mediocrity, which will finally allow Peruvians to attain the definitive essence of our nation and with it, finally, our long-desired prosperity.”

He ended the speech by pleading the audience to not leave Peru. There was opportunity there and the people needed them, the country needed them, and history needed them. When he stopped speaking, he received a standing ovation. Major newspapers and news channels reported the speech, and copies of the text were shared on blogs and through email. It went viral.

The speech wasn’t just a speech. It was a business plan. Over the next decade, nearly everything Acurio called for would become true. The La Mar concept expanded around the world, with more than a dozen locations in places as far away as New York and Madrid. Astrid y Gastón expanded to other Latin American cities. A torrent of other concepts followed in Peru. There was Madam Tusan, a current take on Chinese-Peruvian food with weekend dim sum for breakfast. A family-style criollo restaurant. A gourmet burger joint with Peruvian touches. An Italian Peruvian restaurant. Regional Andean restaurants in Cusco and Arequipa. A Limeño tavern. A menu built around the food from the port city of Callao. Some worked, some didn’t. There were good partners and bad ones. Money lost, money gained. However, with each opening he came in with so much enthusiasm that the message of Peruvian food and its unstoppable power began to spread around the world.

Despite his own restaurant portfolio to support, Acurio regularly helped promote Peruvian cooks and restaurants of every form, wherever they were. With his encouragement, 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.

His hands were in everything. He was the first chair of APEGA, Sociedad Peruana de Gastronomía. Its mission was to rescue and give value to Peru’s regional kitchens and support the small farmers that made them. To achieve this, they created a cook-farmer alliance between Apega and two Peruvian agricultural organizations, Conveagro (National Agrarian Convention) and ANPE (National Association of Ecological Producers) in 2009. It gained greater visibility at Mistura, Lima’s annual culinary festival, which, for a time, was bigger than Munich’s October fest, where the rural farmers and regional cooks were celebrated for their work in preserving biodiversity and featured alongside the chefs as equals. Still, as much as he fought for equality, he was still the face everyone looked. Anytime I ever saw him try to walk through the crowds at Mistura like an every-man, he would be mobbed with people trying to hug him or take a photo with him.

There were so many initiatives outside of his restaurants it’s a wonder he ever slept. He built a 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 in Spain. He helped give rise to discussions about the livelihoods of artisanal fishermen, farmers, and sustainability. He fought against Monsanto coming to Peru and calls out those who do not respect fishing bans. It wasn’t even all related to food. One time, after reports of racism against an Andean family at a Lima movie theater, he went there dressed in a poncho and chullo in protest.

At one point, he started to reimagine Astrid & Gastón more as a flagship of his restaurant empire, which now number in the dozens and spanned the globe. It wasn’t so much about money but proving to Peruvians that their restaurants could be just as great as French or Spanish ones, officially. In 2011, he brought in Diego Muñoz to be the executive chef at Astrid & Gastón. Muñoz worked at El Bulli, Mugaritz, Astrance, and Bilson’s and had the most impressive experience of any Peruvian cook in the world. Together, they created an elaborate tasting menu in 2012, that explored the evolution of Peruvian cuisine, beginning with La Naturaleza (Nature) and El Hombre (Man) before going into El Encuentro (the Discovery), El Refugio (The Refuge), and Hoy (Today). The 17-course menu included dishes like cuy, or guinea pig, cooked Pekín style with a layer of its crunchy skin on a purple corn tortilla, and marcianos, or popsicles, served from a street vendor’s hand-cooler. The second menu was even more whimsical, with a foreword written by Massimo Bottura and cinematic trailer, plus a menu that told the story of a Ligurian immigrant to Peru in the nineteenth century that featured a whole series of props. The restaurant entered the World’s 50 Best Restaurant rankings, and with each new menu climbed a little bit higher.

The restaurant, now luring in gastrotourists from every corner of the globe that reserved months in advance, had outgrown its small space in Miraflores. They secured a deal to take over Casa Moreyra, an old hacienda originally constructed by Lima aristocracy that was only passed between a few families for centuries. It was mostly used for weddings and special events, but its condition could be improved. After a rumored $6 million renovation by renowned Peruvian architectural firm 51-1 Arquitectos, the compound was gutted and modernized, without diminishing its history. Five modern kitchens that were collectively as sophisticated as any restaurant in the world were added, as was a spiral garden and contemporary Peruvian artwork throughout. A good part of the staff of El Bulli was hired to lead service and it was very clear that Acurio was hoping for a Peruvian restaurant to be named the World’s Best.

It never happened for Astrid y Gastón though. In the years that followed two other restaurants in Lima, Central and Maido, surpassed it in the rankings, something that never would have happened if Acurio didn’t lay the groundwork for them. It would appear that Acurio was a victim of his own success. Some felt sorry that this likely meant he was missing out on this goal, but they misunderstood his objective. It really didn’t matter to him which restaurant would be named number one. If the restaurants of Martínez or Tsumura made it there first it was all the same. Lima became the only city on earth with three restaurants in the top 50. That’s something that Paris or New York or Tokyo couldn’t do.

Peruvians used to routinely complain about how little they had. Acurio’s message has been unswervingly 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. No other single person in the history of Peru has been able to unite the entire population, from a Quechua speaking oca farmer in a remote Andean valley to the bank executive in a San Isidro office tower, around a single idea. He gave them something to believe in, but in the process, he stopped being a cook.

He is repeatedly asked if he is 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 have ended up in jail or were prosecuted for crimes while in office. The country has been 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,” I once heard him say. “We’ve already had presidents that have done that.”

For years he talked about his dream of leaving his restaurant empire behind and opening a small restaurant where he could just cook. He imagined 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. It never happened.

He hadn’t considered going back to Astrid & Gastón until 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,” he told me in his office. “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. He realized he could be more effective out of the way, so he mostly 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 return to the kitchen. The entire structure of the restaurant changed when they came back. Casa Moreyra stopped being 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, became 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, with Jorge Muñoz, formerly of Barcelona’s Pakta, at the helm. For those that are expecting the theatrical 24-course menus of 2014, with souvenir notebooks 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 when they started out. Now, the clientele is majority Limeño.

Some of the old dishes come and go, like Pekín Cuy, and are 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 evolves in small amounts each day.

After lunch service, Acurio meets with his staff about 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. He wants them to know that it isn’t an event about him. None of them ever were. They convene, and he walks through the courtyard, pausing momentarily to salute the man sweeping away the dust off the stone bricks. 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.

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