Worldwide Ambassador of Peruvian Cuisine
Our tastes in food are closely connected to our childhood; what are your first memories of food?
Memories are the most important ingredients in cooking. We exist as chefs because of them. My first memory of food is ceviche, raw seafood marinated with lime juice, on the beach. Others are the smell of the chupe de camarones; a soup of crayfish and Peruvian aji panca or tomato paste, on Sundays; calamari fried with garlic, chiles, and lime; and causa limeña, a potato cake with tuna, after school; and anticuchos, beef heart kebabs, Peruvian street food.
Your father is a politician and hoped you’d follow in his footsteps; when and why did you decide to become a chef?
I was born to be a chef. At 8 years old I was already reading cooking books at home, going to market with my mother, and dreaming of the restaurants I would visit with the family on weekends.
You studied in Paris at Le Cordon Bleu, but it seems as if you returned immediately to Lima without European working experience. Can you give me a brief summary of your early career?
I first studied in Spain and then I worked as an intern in two Michelin-starred restaurants in Madrid “Irizar” and “Juan de Alzate” that don’t exist anymore. Then I moved to Paris, where I interned in some Parisian classics, before working as a chef at “La Grand Cascade” and then as a chef at the great local bistrot, “Je thé… me.” I learned so much there.
Who was your mentor? What did you learn from him or her?
I’ve had a lot of mentors in my life, but the most important one was Juan Mar Arzak.
You are considered the father of Peruvian Cocina Novoandina and at Identità Golose in Milan last February you showed a video about Peru, but can you describe Peruvian cocina novoandina for my readers? What are its traditional dishes?
Peruvian food is very diverse from one geographical region to another. Perhaps cocina novoandina is my modern adaptation of traditional Peruvian food. It’s the challenge of using our history and biodiversity to create new flavors. My dishes are Peruvian, modern, and connected to nature and society.
You and your German-born wife Astrid have always worked together; how do you divide the responsibilities?
Astrid is in charge of the dining room and the sweets.
You own around 30 restaurants all over South America, in Miami, and in Europe; can you give me a list of their names and locations?
“La Mar” in Miami, San Francisco, San Paolo, Santiago de Chile, Bogota, Lima, and soon in Buenos Aires; “Tanta” in Chicago, Barcelona, Madrid, Guayaquil in Ecuador, Santiago de Chile, and Lima; “Panchita” in Lima; “Astrid Y Gastón” in Lima, Mexico City, and Bogota; “Madam Tusan” in Lima, Santiago de Chile, and Bogota; “Papachos” in Lima and Cusco; “Chicha” in Cusco and Arequipa; and “Los Bachiche” in Lima.
Soon I’ll be opening my version of a steakhouse in Lima. The menu will include many different types of grilled meats but also ceviche and other snacks of raw fish Peruvian-style. At the bar I’m going to serve lots of different artisanal beers and sandwiches. It will be called “Los Vallentes” which means “The Courageous”.
Do I understand that they are all franchises, so does that mean they all have the same menus?
No, they are not franchises; their restaurateurs are our partners. We’ve trained each of our young partners, almost always also a chef, to run his or her restaurant, to be in charge and to promote the cuisine.
Nearly thirty restaurants is an empire; how frequently do you visit each one?
Only once in a while to encourage its team. We give them our recipes and they use a few Peruvian, but otherwise local ingredients.
You studied to become a chef, but do you still consider yourself a chef, or are you a restaurateur?
All chef/owners are restaurateurs, but, as I said before, I was born to be a chef, so I’m a chef.
What are the essential qualities of a top chef?
Curiosity, humility, generosity, sensitivity, passion and perfectionism.
Of a top restaurateur?
In a nutshell how would you describe your cuisine?
Peruvian, modern, and down-to-earth.
What are your specialties?
Pulpo anticucho or octopus kebabs; sacha cilantro or jungle cilantro; and sea urchin ceviche.
What do you like best about your job?
Making people happy.
The stress of satisfying my guests.
What’s your culinary philosophy?
I’m always looking for something new, which blends well with cooking, which benefits people, the environment, and society in general.
Can you list the dishes of your tasting menu “Viru” at your world-famous restaurant “Astrid y Gastón” in Lima, which you’ve recently moved to your Casa Moreyra, a multi-faceted gastro-centre? I’ve read that they are a journey through the five different landscapes of Peru: The Pacific Ocean, The Desert, The Andes, The Altipiano (High Plain), and The Amazon?
For the Pacific Ocean our proposals include: sea prawns and pickles; Melon cucumber, sea urchins, and clams ceviche; anchovy alfajor or anchovy paste in a sweet biscuit; seaweed and peach; Pisco beach or raw scallops, spicy chili, yogurt and toasted coffee; lobster, pacae ( a sweet legume known as the “ice cream bean”), and maca (a native Peruvian radish-like vegetable but spongy rather than crisp); for The Desert: Memories of Cantalloc (pisco, pumpkin, cocoa leaf, and cotton candy); southern asparagus (Asparagus with parmesan and frozen egg yolk); mackerel escabeche (with tomatoes, seaweed and onion); crab and stinging nettle; for The Andes: corn, cheese, rocoto or large chili; sacred coca; huatia (potatoes baked in a huatia or dirt oven); fruttilada and molle; for The Altopiano: quinoa sprouts; trout, with apple custard and duck sauce; beef shank with watercress; goose and lamb with sage; and for The Amazon: toasted pig jowl with sachaculantro; chocolate; aguaje, lucuma, and purple corn; zapote and lima.
What do you think are the reasons for your success?
Peruvian food. We can’t help but be successful promoting such a varied and delicious cuisine. We are not successful because we have lots of restaurants. We have lots of restaurants because Peruvian food is delicious and other nationalities want to learn about it. It’s an honor to represent our food culture and we do so from our heart and soul.
Up to now we’ve talked about Gastón Acurio the chef and restaurateur; I’d like to know more about Gastón Acurio the person. For example, what are your favorite foods?
Ceviche, anticuchos, niguiris or sushi appetizers, and Spanish rices.
You were born and grew up in Lima, and have restaurants in many places, but besides your own cooking is there another national cuisine that you love?
Spanish food in general, Argentinian grilled meats, and traditional Mexican.
You met your wife at Le Cordon Bleu, so she is also a top chef; does she or you cook at home?
We grill, stew, and bake together at home.
If you were on Death Row, what would you order for your last meal?
Peruvian potatoes with Peruvian aji or tomato paste.
What is never missing in your refrigerator at home?
Peruvian chiles and aji.
A dish you dislike?
Your favorite wines?
The last one I drank.
Your favorite dessert?
Peruvian picarones. They are a kind of doughnut made of sugar and sweet potatoes and covered with syrup made from chancaca or raw unrefined sugar crystalized with honey and often flavored with orange peel.
We met briefly last February at Identità Golose in Milan, but how often have you been to Italy?
I come to Italy at least twice a year for Identità Golose in February and Il Salone del Gusto in Turin at the end of October. I also come other times when I’m on juries.
Italian chefs that you particularly admire?
Massimo Bottura, Davide Scabin, and Fulvio Pierangelini.
A restaurant in Italy that you especially love?
Massimo Bottura’s “Osteria Francescana” in Modena.
Non-Italian chefs and restaurateurs that you admire and why?
Ferran Adrià for his creativity; Alex Atala for his commitment; Enrique Olivera for his sensitivity; Andoni Luis Aduriz for his philosophy and Joan Roca for his talent.
Chefs are well-known for having collections, often of motorcycles, fast cars, or watches; what about you?
I don’t anymore. I used to collect cookbooks, but I gave them all to our cooking school.
When you studied in Paris, or when you travel for work, what do you miss most about Lima?
Everything, but especially my family and the flavors of our cuisine.
Where do you like to go on vacation?
A new place each time.
Your favorite cooking utensils that you would never be without?
You are a world-famous chef, but you too have received some negative reviews and your New York restaurant closed; what is your opinion of food critics and guides? What was your reaction to the negative reviews; were they devastating or challenging?
They’re challenging. You have to learn from every experience. Challenges and exams never end.
If you hadn’t become a chef/restaurateur, would you have become the lead vocalist in a heavy metal band?
Probably or maybe a politician.
What is your dream for the future?
Today cooking is an important aspect of culture and tourism. I would like to continue in that direction making cooking one of the most powerful weapons of peace, fraternity, and happiness.
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