If food was a weapon, Peruvian chef Gaston Acurio would have an arsenal strong enough to destroy the world’s largest army. Grenades packed with Leche de Tigre - explosive zest and fiery chilli. A shotgun loaded with quinoa threaded bullets, launchers firing a variety of 200 potato rockets, chilli torpedoes of varying strength, colour and size. This is, of course, hyperbole, but it doesn’t mean Acurio hasn’t fought his very own war, albeit a social one.
He’s a chef in Peru, a country that for years was oppressed by outsiders. Colonised and made to live, walk, talk and speak a certain way. It’s only in recent years that Peruvians have started to regain their National identity and pride, something that’s been catalysed by food and, as one of the strongest ambassadors of the country, the work of Acurio.
He’s brought together a network of young Peruvian chefs, helped focus National attention on the art of cooking and actually helped turn the profession into a job to be proud of. As one young butcher told me, regaling in just how much he owed to Acurio: “there was a time that your parents wanted you to be a lawyer or a doctor, now, if a young Peruvian sits down with their dad and says ‘I want to be a chef’ the family will weep tears of joy.”
He’s formed associations of farmers, fishermen and local food producers. Employed academics from Universities all over the world to help research the history of Peruvian ingredients and presented his work to congresses at the United Nations. He's now working on a number of books, one of which he hopes will put Peruvian cuisine in homes around the world, he has two television shows and is the protagonist of a new documentary called Finding Gaston.
Anyone who thinks Acurio is just a chef needs to pay note to the fact that in a recent poll of the Peruvian population, 23% of those asked said they wanted him as the country’s next president, a significance not lost on Acurio but one that will not make him run. He knows his real chance of effective change lies with food and further developing the movement he helped to start.
On February 17th, a new step in the Acurio movement was put in place. The chef’s first ever restaurant in Lima, Astrid y Gaston, relocated to an all white, 300-year-old colonial building in the centre of one of the city’s trendiest districts. Called Casa Moreyra, it’s a journey that Acurio says has taken him 20 years but one that, in a very short amount of time, he hopes will have a lasting impact on the food landscape of his home country.
For the next part of the plan, Peru.2.0, Acurio will build a sprawling university in the South of Lima, a 30-hectre site that he says will be his most important project yet, a chef who is always looking ahead. “It’s a huge space in the middle of the dessert…a space where people from all over the world will come to study or to teach in this very modern vision of being trained in creativity. Creativity relating to the world of hospitality. So, if you want to do a boutique hotel, restaurant, you want to be a journalist, photographer or a farmer - whatever - we will build the weapons inside of you to become a lion, bringing some light wherever you decide to put your work.”
Acurio hopes that Casa Moreyra is just a seed, one small part in the next stages of the country’s development. Peru’s future is one of hope, excitement and energy. He says this is being driven by a group of young, highly creativity chefs and, as he looks ahead to the future, he knows this, alongside gastronomic democracy, is what the country needs: “Chefs that don’t feel more important than the other one, where street food chefs are equally respected as chefs in a modern high end restaurants. Customers that respect producers, and all this is because food can really help us understand that the greatest thing about this world is that we are all different.”
“The young generation are much more radical than we are, in a good sense. We’ve been building inside of us these principles about how food can be a great opportunity for great things, but the young chefs, the young generation, we may have been building our freedom but they are free. They are connected with nature, the environment, farmers - they were connected from the beginning, so, for them it’s something normal, they don’t have to fight. I fight with me because the fear that was injected is sleeping - it’s not killed. Everyday I have to fight with the voice that tells me “no, you must embrace other cultures because you’re a colony” - I have to build inside myself every day the idea to embrace my own culture but this young generation, in all of Latin America, is growing with these messages and principles already inside them. I keep telling everybody the same, this is just the beginning. The most amazing stories of creativity, of sharing, of farmers connecting with the world finally after 500 years, of people from all over the world coming to Latin America to see what we’re doing, all of these will be written by the next generation.”
Over the coming months Fine Dining Lovers will meet some of the next generation that Acurio refers to. From trips with Inca tribes in the lush green hills of Cusco, to artisan butchers holding secret dinners outside Lima and Japanese Peruvians working to perfect the art of Nikkei cuisine - join us as we take a bite of Peru 2.0.