"We can use our cuisine as a weapon of change."
He's nothing short of an icon in his home country of Peru; Gastón Acurio is acutely aware of the responsibility he shares as a symbol of hope & prosperity for his people.
Out of the ashes of slavery and colonisation, a country of 31 million people has started to emerge with an altogether new voice. Plagued by dictatorships, hyperinflation, poverty and an enormous inferiority complex, after hundreds of years of turbulence an unlikely space has brought them to the world stage: food.
What’s happening there is nothing short of a miracle. Within the space of ten years, two restaurants based in its capital Lima are now within the top ten in the world.
Chefs like Virgilio Martinez and Rafael Osterling are not seen as chefs but as gastronomic explorers charting new territory; its exotic produce has become a destination for foodies across the world.
Gastón Acurio is responsible for all of this, in fact, he’s built an empire out of this rags to riches story. His flagship restaurant Astrid y Gastón has become the anchor.
A philanthropist, activist, politician and most notably a world-famous chef, he’s about to accept one of the world’s highest honours for his profession. Gastón opens up to us about the sordid history that has plagued Peru, why money remains a weapon for him and why getting home to see his country play in the World Cup remains the most important thing for him.
You’re about to receive the Diners Club Lifetime Achievement Award for 2018. How does this feel for you?
Well, I just turned 50 years old, but I’ve been in the kitchen more than 25 years. I’ve had my own restaurant almost 25 years. I was very young when I opened my restaurant with my wife. At that moment our only dream was to have a beautiful small restaurant where we could live a beautiful life, support our family, that was it.
But other vital missions arrived in our lives. We became part of a movement in Peru. We realised that we had an opportunity to share our cuisine with the world and to give something that was deeply ingrained in our families and homes.
Suddenly after a couple of years, we saw that the world had fallen in love with Peruvian cuisine. Chefs from France, Spain, England and Asia started adding ceviche to their menus. The next generation of Peruvian chefs did a fantastic job in leading the movement. Now out of the top ten world restaurants, two are Peruvian. And Lima has become a significant tourist destination. Ingredients that were unknown a couple of years ago, like quinoa or Peruano beans are now very successful in the world.
All of this happened, and I was an actor in this process. But this movement included thousands of chefs, farmers, fishers, who have worked so hard, so I receive it in the name of them.
I also receive this honour understanding that it’s a recognition of the new role of the chef in the world. We are seeing that cooking is something that unites everybody. Some people eat three times a day, and some don’t have enough to eat. But this means that food has a relationship with a lot of areas including the environment, culture, innovation, industry, health. If we can produce this popularity of cuisine that we see happening on TV, and in magazines, and on social media, of course, we have a responsibility and an opportunity to be a part of the challenges ahead. Peru has proved to the world that we can use our cuisine as a weapon for change.
"We were taught to hate our Inca heritage because if we wanted to succeed in life, we needed to become more European."
You’ve described restaurants as being a type of embassy. Would you describe yourself as being Peru’s greatest diplomat?
We all feel that we are ambassadors for our country. In a humble way of course. A restaurant is an opportunity for people to discover our nation through our ingredients and our recipes. Any restaurant could become an embassy of peace, an embassy of sharing, building bridges instead of walls.
It’s an embassy of how we can live together, celebrating our own cultures without having a fear of other people. Every time I put a restaurant in another country, it’s an opportunity of course for my state to promote everything it has, but also a chance to bring something beautiful to other people’s lives in the same way as in Lima.
Lima is one of the most multicultural cities in the world. We’ve been receiving immigrants for hundreds of years from China, Japan, Italy, Spain, the Arab world, and instead of building ghettos inside our city we are mixing.
Currently, we are receiving a massive community from Venezuela because of the political problems there, and we are already adding arepa, which is the national dish of Venezuela, to our menus. We are already putting Peruvian flavours to the recipe because that’s our nature, we believe that there’s nothing to be feared by mixing. Only good things can happen.
You’ve said that you would like to create chefs, not just for food but to make them intellectual beings. For them to have a humanistic approach, to include anthropology, anthology, sociology, biology, agriculture in their work.
Imagine a chef who is not only prepared to make food but is aware of the social problems around them. Imagine they are ready to capture the beauty in a way nobody can do it. Imagine they are familiar with literature, to tell stories in a better way, to touch the hearts of people. Imagine they are versed in chemistry to understand the properties of the food.
So in the end, every time the chef makes a dish they will use all of these ingredients and they are going to look at the world in a 360 degrees way. All of these things are going to be involved in his decisions, and all of these things are going to make a beautiful dish that has something to tell. It will always have a good impact not only on the people eating the meal but those around this embassy.
It feels like there is this obsession with localising the food culture. Every time you turn on a chef or food program, the chef is obsessing over their local product. That wasn’t the way ten years ago. There seems to be this same tension with a more globalised world. How do you clarify that?
Of course, there’s an explanation to that. You could find a fundamental contradiction in sourcing local ingredients and having to share them with the world, but the story of sharing food culture in the world started hundreds of years ago. For example, the majesty of French cuisine in the 17th century began using Italian food. Sushi originated in Korea instead of Japan. We’ve been connected all the time.
When you want to share your food culture with the world, you travel with just five ingredients that will give the original flavour of your culture.
For example, when you travel with Japanese food you don’t travel with Japanese fish or Japanese vegetables and fruit. You just travel with soy source or wasabi.
These are the key ingredients to keep the original flavours of Japanese cuisine.
When you travel with Italian cuisine, you travel with perhaps Parma ham, parmesan cheese, olive oil, maybe two or three other ingredients, to give the flavour of Italy.
But when you arrive in the other country, you come with the same mission you embraced in your own country, which is still strong relations with local fishers who can provide you with beautiful fish.
You try to build strong relations between local farmers to find the right vegetables to keep the original flavours. So you are local in your spirit, your soul, your heart, your memory, but you have become a global citizen at the same time.
There’s another thing that could be a problem, which is that because we are in a powerful collaborative movement where we are sharing knowledge, we’re starting to see for example quinoa being grown in other countries like Canada and France.
The first thing you could think is this is a problem because just four years ago it was something exclusive to Peru and Bolivia. But the truth is that happens all the time. Potatoes were initially from Peru, and now they are global. Beans and chilli were originally from Peru and Mexico, and now they’re global too.
Avocados, strawberries, a lot of ingredients that were originally from our country were gifts that were shared with other countries in the world. What happens now is that we are sharing with the world new ingredients that we were hiding for a long time.
Do you think that through Peru’s cuisine you can tell its history? Its suffering, its pain and its joy and happiness. Because Peru has been through dictatorships, poverty, high inflation, revolutionary movements, and so forth.
It’s a beautiful way to look at our history for sure. We became a colony, one empire replaced another empire, and the citizens of Peru became almost slaves for 300 years. In those 300 years, we were taught to deny our Inca heritage; we were taught to hate our Inca heritage because if we wanted to succeed in life, we needed to become more European. But at home, we tried to keep our memories in silence for a long time.
The African influence was no different, they arrived as slaves and they kept alive the history in the kitchen, because of their talent for cooking.
They used all the things that were rejected by the wealthy families. And some dishes that are very important for us were born there. And the Chinese were no different because although slavery was then abolished in Peru, they were paid to work in the fields almost in slavery conditions, and when their contracts were finished they were free to grow their own food and they started to cook with it but adding their own flavours. A lot of local dishes were born at that moment.
Then there was the dramatic history of Italians coming to Peru by boat. With hard work, succeeding in life, sharing their food with us, and now we have a dish called Green Spaghetti (a.k.a Tallarines Verde). They wanted to find the flavours of their grandmothers that they had left behind. And now we are finally trying to build this new Peru, a multicultural society, not only Inca, not only Spanish but also from all over the world but we’re still trapped in this fear of accepting ourselves as a multicultural society.
So when we started this movement 20 years ago, one of the amazing reasons why we wanted to do this is we wanted to liberate our people of this fear. We wanted to prove to them that it was not true that our culture is inferior to other cultures. That the heritage we have over the years of embracing other cultures is not something worse, or of less value, than the culture of Europe, or Japan, or the United States. We wanted to prove it by making people love our ceviche, that we were hiding in our homes.
You’ve had enormous success with your restaurants, particularly Astrid y Gastón. Do you enjoy being a famous chef? And what is the hardest thing about building this empire?
I was born to be a chef. I knew that from when I was 6 or 7 years old. When my friends wanted to play football in the streets, I wanted my father to take me to a restaurant because for me that was paradise. That was the most beautiful thing, whenever my father took me to a Chinese restaurant or any kind of restaurant. So I discovered very young that I was going to cook. So that was something that didn’t change at all. I still have the same feelings I did at that age. What changes are the responsibilities, the opportunities, the challenges and the compromises you have to make.
"Avocados, strawberries, a lot of ingredients that were originally from our country were gifts that were shared with other countries in the world."
Has money brought you complications?
No, I don’t think about money. When you’re a chef, you use the money as a way to keep doing things all the time. I don’t have houses at the beach or in the country, I don’t have properties. Sometimes I’m in restaurants, sometimes I’m writing books, sometimes I’m doing TV or anything you can do that is a part of being a chef.
I’ve always wanted to be a chef and I’ve discovered that I can also do things for other people too. So money is a weapon, not for becoming rich, but to create opportunities, for business, sometimes for family, sometimes for friends, sometimes for your country, sometimes for the cuisine in general.
I’m not an entrepreneur. I’m not a businessman, but I have to be, because that’s part of my mission to help the spreading of the Peruvian cuisine in the world.
Do you feel you have a responsibility of sorts to your people?
Well, of course, you have a huge responsibility because of the position you are in that you can inspire people.
You could disappoint people too, in most cases people that need hope could become disappointed. That is the hardest thing for me to live through, trying to not disappoint people.
Its 36 years since Peru were in the World Cup. Is this an important moment for the country?
Of course, I care, in a good sense and bad sense. We’ve been stealing the limelight and money from football players because we never have any famous football players in Peru. The big companies were using chefs in their advertisements to promote their products such as banks and in elections.
But this is amazing, I remember watching the Peruvian football team playing in Spain in the World Cup in 1992 and Argentina in 1978 with my family on television.
Some of my friends who are chefs were not even born when Peru was last in the World Cup, so they don’t even know what it feels like to have a team.
Listen to how crazy this is: I am going to receive an award in New York on Thursday the 14th June 2018, the Eckart Witzigmann Award for innovation. On Sunday I have to be in Bilbao for the lifetime achievement award. But on Saturday I head to Lima to watch the game with my family. Then Saturday night I go back to Bilbao to receive this award the next day.
I could go from New York to Bilbao, but I am so excited about the World Cup that I am coming home to see the match. Because after 36 years I am not going to miss the opportunity to see the game with my family and friends.
Gastón Acurio will receive the Lifetime achievement award for best chef on Sunday 19th of June
The World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2018 awards announcing the highly anticipated list of the world’s best restaurants will take place at Bilbao on the 19th June. All announcements and results, including the 2018 list, are published online atwww.theworlds50best.com.
Feature image: ROCÍO OTOYA