Peru's superstar chef, the prolific Gastón Acurio, is bringing his beloved cuisine north, one anticucho at a time.
Author JANE BLACK Photography INES MENACHO ORTEGA
AT FIRST, the only sign that Gastón Acurio is the Gastón Acurio is the muscle that accompanies him when he meets me at a street cart in the ritzy Miraflores neighborhood of Lima, Peru. He’s wearing shorts and a gray cotton T-shirt. The humidity clings to his mop of curly hair as he and his bodyguard get in line for a plate of anticuchos, skewers of meat — in this case, chili-marinated beef heart.
Then the crowds see him, and out come the camera phones. Anyone within a few yards starts to take pictures. A mother shoves her baby into his arms, snaps a photo, then hands her camera to me so she can have a picture of all three of them. Happy chaos breaks out. It’s as though Brad Pitt happened by a New York hotdog stand, ordered one with kraut and stuck around to chat as he ate it.
In Peru, the 41-year-old chef is as famous as Pitt and as popular as Barack Obama is in the U.S. His fans love him for his success — Acurio has 29 restaurants worldwide, several television cooking shows in Peru and more than twenty Spanish-language cookbooks to his name — but mostly for his outspoken passion for the food of his homeland.
A champion of local ingredients and traditional recipes, Acurio has instilled pride in Peruvian cuisine at home and has begun the slow process of introducing it to a global audience. Last year, he opened a stylish ceviche joint in San Francisco, called La Mar Cebicheria Peruana, and he has plans for places in Dallas, New York and possibly Las Vegas.
“Gastón” — everyone calls him Gastón — “is the one who has reconstructed Peruvian food and made us realize how important it is,” says chef Mitsuharu Tsumura, who will open Maido, a Peruvian-Japanese fusion restaurant, this summer in Lima. Another fan, 24-year-old engineering student Fernando Baca, raves, “Gastón can make you hungry even if you already ate.”
Acurio says he wanted to be a cook from the time he was eight years old. As a child, he would go to the market for ingredients, then try to make elaborate recipes by the great French chef Auguste Escoffier. “I made ten-year-old versions of Escoffier food. Now I understand why nobody liked it,” he remembers. Which was just as well for Acurio’s father, the youngest prime minister in Peru’s history, who had grand political plans for his son.
In 1989, Acurio was sent to Madrid to study law, although food was still his passion. After he enrolled, he made a pilgrimage to a restaurant in San Sebastian run by Juan Maria Arzak, the father of Spanish cuisine. He went by himself on a Saturday night. He ordered wine. He savored every bite. “All the waiters were looking at me like, Who is this crazy South American guy eating alone?,” he remembers. The next day, Acurio went back to Madrid and quietly dropped out of law school. His father continued to send money, and Acurio used it to enroll in a culinary program.
When he finally confessed — three years later — his father was furious, but he forgave him on one condition: If Gastón really wanted to be a chef, he would need to go to the Cordon Bleu in Paris to get a proper education. So he did.
Acurio returned to Peru in 1993 with his new wife, Astrid, a trained pastry chef, in tow. The next year, they opened their first restaurant, Astrid y Gastón, in an old colonial house in Miraflores. It was, of course, a French restaurant. “Our dream was to be the best restaurant in Lima,” Acurio says. And to be the best, it was understood that the food must be French.
Attitudes were changing in Peru, however. While Acurio had been away, a new style of cooking, dubbed novoandino, had emerged. These new Andean cooks glorified traditional ingredients such as the potato (which was domesticated in the Andes more than 7,000 years ago), tropical jungle fruits and guinea pig, a popular meat dismissed by city sophisticates as peasant food. Chefs also began to incorporate flavors brought over during a century of Chinese, Japanese and Italian immigration. Acurio was interested in the novoandino philosophy, but he didn’t want to be restricted by it. Instead, he began to experiment, applying French techniques to traditional Peruvian dishes. “Suddenly things happened in the world, not only Peru,” he says. “People were starting to have a new relationship with their environment.” Suddenly, making French food in Peru didn’t feel fulfilling. “We weren’t building anything.”
A year after he opened Astrid y Gastón, he added a ceviche, the classic Peruvian dish of fish “cooked” in lemon juice, chili and onion, to the menu. A year later, on went a tiradito, a kind of Peruvian sashimi in which the fish is cut into thin strips and flattened, then covered in a creamy chili sauce. It wasn’t long before Astrid y Gastón was the hottest restaurant in the city. And, for 15 years, it has remained so. Visitors today will find nothing French on the menu. The velvety Dover sole is served in a shiitake broth with broccoli fried rice and a poached egg, an only-in-Peru fusion of Chinese and Japanese flavors. The delicate tortelli, inspired by the Andes, are stuffed with roasted baby goat, cilantro, chili and Peru’s famous fermented black corn.
Acurio quickly parlayed success at Astrid y Gastón into other franchises. There’s La Mar, the cevicheria with a buzzy, South Beach feel; T’anta, a Peruvian-style tapas bar; and Pasquale Hnos., a fast-food sandwich bar that competes with popular American chains KFC and Burger King.
His latest addition is Panchita, a stylish grill that showcases anticuchos, those Peruvian skewers usually sold on the street. A huge wood-burning oven in the center of the room is used to bake breads and roast suckling pig and guinea pig. Acurio’s goal is not to change traditional flavors, just to dress them up
“It’s like a perfume,” he tells me. “How can you sell it in a bag? You have to put it in the most beautiful box and bottle. We offer presentation, ambience, atmosphere and service. But the flavor is home.”
So far, culinary critics have embraced his approach. At this year’s Madrid Fusion, the most prestigious gastronomy conference in the world, Acurio was lauded not only for his food but for its contribution to the preservation of biodiversity in Peru. When the outpost of La Mar opened in San Francisco, Gourmet swooned, calling the seven ceviches on the menu “the Goldberg variations of raw seafood.” Anticuchos, even the ones made with beef heart, are also flying off the menu. And Acurio is inspiring not only eaters but new chefs as well. In the early 1990s, there wasn’t a single culinary school in Lima. Today, there are 35.
It is that fact — not his restaurants, cookbooks or superstardom — that pleases Acurio most. He didn’t become a politician as his father had hoped. But he has become Peru’s most important cultural ambassador. And to hear him tell it, his work has just begun.
“Thirty years ago if you said to someone, ‘Lets eat raw fish and seaweed,’ they would say, ‘What are you talking about?’ Now there’s a sushi bar on every corner,” Acurio says. “Why can’t we dream that we can do the same with Peruvian food?”
Washington Post food writer JANE BLACK never had a pet, though a guinea pig sure would have been nice.