“There’s no more fish in the ocean,” says Gaston Acurio as he places down one of his latest creations: a bowl of colourful ceviche made with the normal tangy sauce you’d expect from Peru’s national dish, except this one is somehow different, there’s something missing; there’s no fish.
Acurio has returned to the kitchen, out of retirement after two years, and for two months he’s been back at the helm of his Astrid y Gaston restaurant in Lima, Peru. With an empire of over 40 restaurants, he was never conventionally retired, but he’s now back in the kitchen and his first menu is already looking to ask questions of those eating it.
“We think ceviche has to contain seafood all the time. Our ambassador in the world is seafood ceviche, made in Peru with traditional dishes found in every village and beach of the Peruvian coast, but the truth is we tried to make the world fall in love with our ceviche. Now we start to see it on French menus, Italian menus and we need to understand what would happen if all of China and India fell in love with seafood ceviche. What would happen with the oceans?”
Food is becoming one of the most powerful weapons
The dish itself is packed with different vegetables: crispy salted corn, thin slices of crunchy cauliflower, radish, and lettuce. It’s the first time I’ve tasted ceviche without fish but it’s still recognisable, all thanks to the tang of Tiger’s Milk; Peru’s sour ID card for the tongue. “We need to be responsible and try to build the idea of ceviche as a door opened by seafood, by the ocean, but where you can get to this citrus and spicy world called ceviche,” says Acurio, “where you can use whatever you want… We do that here to talk about this, to start the conversation.”
The newest menu, not yet out, sits scribbled on a glass wall of Acurio’s test kitchen. It is itself a message: a mix of dishes from many countries to convey what Acurios calls the “fraternity” Peruvian chefs now have in the world. “I’m looking in Spain, in Japan, in China, in France, in Argentina and in Italy to try to find inspirations in each of these places.”
This converts to an interesting mix of dishes, a taste of “a Peruvian chef travelling all over the world.” He’s taking a family style dish from Spain, Patatas a la Importancia (potatoes in a batter, fried and then cooked in a stew), and mixing it with a Peruvian classic. “We’re working on a seafood Peruvian stew and we’re finding the right technique to put the fried potatoes inside.”
He has many ideas: “There’s an udon noodle soup in Japan with tempura: we have beautiful asparagus here so we’re trying to do asparagus tempura in an udon dashi… We have Peruvian flavours inside Shanghai dumplings and there’s a very famous dish in France called ‘Lièvre à la Royale,’ (wild rabbit stuffed and the blood used to make a sauce). I’m doing Cuy à la Royal.”
While most chefs in his position would be focusing solely on the creation of new dishes, Acurio, as he has always done, is keeping one eye firmly on the messages he can deliver with each plate he serves.
“I made a journey through Peru 14 years ago and I discovered everything: ingredients, traditions, ideas. Peruvian food is now known all around the world; quinoa farmers are not loosing their ingredients, now we don’t have enough to sell to the world; Lima is a food destination; street food vendors are recognised. I think it’s now the moment to start traveling locally again: the Andes, the Pacific Ocean, the Amazon. To understand how we can find stories and challenges in small areas with the aim of building a new agenda of challenges for the next 12 years.”
“In these 12 years, if we could arrive to do what we did, what’s the next battle? The next battle clearly is to use this amazing power of food, that we didn't have at the time, to go to the battle. To the battle of hunger, the battle of sustainability, to create opportunities through food. Of course if I come back to the kitchen after days in the Amazon I will have hundreds of ideas for dishes but I will also come back with an agenda.”
Acurio can’t help himself, “my father was a politician,” he says, “a leader of a party when he was 30-years-old… that was a responsibility for me too.” His dad always wanted him to follow in his footsteps, “at the beginning he didn't understand how chefs could do something important for the world, he wasn’t angry, he was afraid for my future.”
Being back gives me more arguments from the kitchen
Ironically, people now gossip about how Acurio ‘could, should and would’ successfully run for president of Peru – a constant rumour surrounding the chef. Acurio is now dreaming of what he might be able to do with this new line of communication between him and his guests and he says his dad is proud of his work. “Imagine you discover this tiny small town, one of the most amazing cocoa beans in the world that nobody knows, I use them in my restaurant and everyone loves them, but I discover also that the children in the town are having huge problems with hunger. You have an agenda with that.
“More and more people are finally getting the idea that you can do politics in the kitchen. Five years ago we did the Lima declaration and everybody laughed and now it’s happening all over the world, all these values are getting inside the kitchens. Food is becoming one of the most powerful weapons.
He says Cuy à la Royal - a fun dish created to celebrate the traditional use of Guinea Pig in Peru - will impress people, “oh wow, France, amazing”, yet those in the Andes are often embarrassed about eating cuy. “In every dish there is something, an idea behind the delicious thing that is front of you.”
“Being back gives me more arguments from the kitchen. I’m working on a dish inspired by Argentina and their use of every part of the cow. Why are we not doing this with seafood? Why are throwing away the blood of the fish? Imagine we make a blood sausage using seafood blood? We tell a message with our food.”