As a place that’s training thousands of culinary students every year and a place with some of the best restaurants in Latin America, Peru has become of one of the most exciting food destinations in the world.
Proud, strong and packing a real whack to the palate, the country’s cuisine has established itself on a wide international basis and much of that success, many of those training to be students and many of the chefs now working at the top of Peru’s culinary ladder owe some of their success, increased media exposure and in some cases even training to one man, Gaston Acurio.
Acurio has helped to propel the cuisine of Peru around the world and with new ventures opening all the time, his experience in the restaurant industry is second to none. Just a year ago he opened a wonderful new location for his Astrid y Gaston restaurant in Lima and is currently working on a culinary university to help train young chefs from across Peru.
It’s hard to imagine that Acurio was once a young chef, training in restaurants across Europe and, of course, making his own mistakes as he honed the craft. As hard as is it might be to think of Acurio in this light, that’s exactly what we did as we interviewed the chef ahead of his appearance as a judge at the Grand Final of the S.Pellegrino Young Chef 2015 event in Milan.
Here’s his lessons for young chefs, some stories about his own career and exactly what he’s working on right now.
What’s your best piece of advice for young chefs?
Chefs are not stars, we are instruments for happiness.
Tell us about a time when you remember making a mistake as a young chef? What happened, where were you working and what did you learn?
I was 25-years-old when I opened Astrid y Gaston. Astrid was 21, we were really young. The second day we opened, the service collapsed. The kitchen was a nightmare, we couldn’t handle 40 customers, people asked for a ceviche and we sent them a passion fruit soufflé. At the end of the service we thought it was the end. That nobody would come again. That everybody would tell each other that we were a mess. The day after customers arrived, we handled the situation, we learned from our mistakes, but the most important lesson we got was that we must keep going, learning, listening, with patience, perseverance and gratitude.
What’s the best advice anyone has ever given to you?
Relax, one day at a time, always, one day at a time.
What’s the worst mistake a young chef can make?
Believe that their food is perfect. It is not. We can do always better.
What do you think about the idea to pairing young chefs with young designers?
It’s a great idea. Young chefs must be trained in the way the world moves and now we need chefs prepared to work in multidisciplinary ways. Chefs telling stories, magical stories through their dishes.
Why in your opinion is S.Pellegrino Young Chef important?
It’s an opportunity to inspire young chefs in the principles and values that we believe now. An opportunity to take hope and dreams to this community of young connected chefs, that are local and global
You’re getting more and more involved with educating young chefs in Peru, tell us about your university project?
My university has a dream to prepare leaders from all over the world in the middle of a desert near Lima, we will train young kids that think that food can change peoples lives. Chefs, entrepreneurs, journalists, hotel managers, boulangers, charcutiers, what ever you want to be, we will give them the education to build light, magic and to tell stories through their job and dreams.
It will features two first years of humanistic education, then two years of field training and the last year research in whatever field they decide to follow.
You have watched Peru, its chefs and its cuisine develop over many years - what do you think the young chefs of Peru will do differently than your generation?
We put our heart to work for our dream that one day Peruvian food was going to be well known in the world. That day has arrived, so the challenges now for young Peruvian chefs are on one side easier and on the other side bigger.They have a better environment as Peruvian chefs of course, because Peruvian food is well known, but now, because of that, the expectations of the world in what they will do are much higher. They must tell much better stories than those we did in our time. Virgilio Martinez, Diego Muñoz, Micha Tsumura are already doing it, and now the next generation like Maria Jose are here representing the Latin America area and waiting for their moment.
If you could be a young chef again, what would you do differently?
A lot of things but the most important, I would spend for sure, much more time with my little daughters instead of the kitchen. Going to the park, picking them up from school, taking them to their sports activity. I lost all these moments because of my young obsession with cooking.
Tell us about some of the projects you’re working on for 2015?
Our book of 500 recipes of Peruvian food, we are opening an amazing and fun restaurant in Paris in September. We are still looking for a spot for a ceviche restaurant in London, opening a fast casual organic burger spot in Peru, opening a peruvian rotisserie chicken in Peru and we are developing a fast casual concept for the U.S. with Peruvian, organic and delicious cheap food.
Since my retirement from Astrid y Gaston I thought I was going to have a more relaxed life but as you can see I’m working double but it’s actually its what I love, I was born to be a chef.
Staff shortages are hitting the hospitality sector hard, prompting some restaurants to look outside the industry to train those without restaurant experience for life in the kitchen. Andrew Friedman finds out more.