“I keep hearing people ask, 'who is going to win'?”, says Virgilio Martinez just hours before Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants ceremony. “Everyone keeps answering ‘Peru’. Not a chef, not a restaurant, they all just say ‘Peru will win’!”
Those who guessed were right, though it wasn’t a difficult task. Peru once again took the spotlight on the world famous restaurant list, in fact, they took positions one and two. Maido, the Nikkei restaurant in Lima, run by chef Mitsuharu Tsumura, retained its title as The Best Restaurant in Latin America for a second year in a row, followed by Virgilio Martinez’s Central restaurant, which held the number one spot on the list three times consecutively, also situated in Lima. Chef Pia Leon, also in Lima, was picked as the Best Female Chef in Latin America.
Out of 50 restaurants, covering a geographic area that spans well over 17,000 km, representing over 30 countries and hundreds of different cuisines, Lima - a relatively small city in Peru - has topped the list every year since its inception in 2013.
Why? Why has a one place stood so strong against the likes of Mexico City, Buenos Aires and Río de Janeiro?
“There’s more than just one reason,” thinks the Peruvian journalist Diego Salazar. “You have had several stories going on in Peru over the last 30 years. Everyone is feeling proud about our culture and our heritage, for a long time we knew it but we couldn't embrace it. We were always looking abroad either to the States or Europe.”
Salazar thinks the work of chef Gaston Acurio, whose Astrid Y Gaston restaurant in Lima was number one on the first ever list in 2013, was the major catalyst for Peru’s continued rise and prominence on the list.
Mitsuharu Tsumura, Gaston Acurio, Pia Leon and Virgilio Martinez.
As he explains, “Gaston studied in Madrid and France and when he came back with Astrid in 1992 they opened a French restaurant together. It took them a few years to realize this wasn’t right, but at the time, the luxury in Peru was French cooking. When I grew up we didn't even eat quinoa and this was the case for many Peruvians right up to the early 2000s.”
Virgilio Martinez remembers working in Acurio’s first French facing kitchen. “I was just 20 years old and the whole kitchen was so French, Gaston was coming from France but I could see that he wasn’t happy. Why, in such a rich country, are we cooking French?”
It’s around this time that, inspired by the local chefs before him, Acurio took a now famous trip across Peru, discovering its biodiversity, its producers and the wonderful history of cuisine in the country. “After that he started to speak about Peru and Peruvian ingredients,” says Martinez, “the food we were eating at home but hiding in our restaurants.”
There is no understating what this approach did for Peruvians and the pride they now have in their food. Martinez thinks Acurio’s work was invaluable for where Peru currently stands. “In order for us to start developing our system of believing in our food you really needed somebody to give us the confidence. Before Gaston, there’s another generation that nobody talks about, Bernardo Roca Rey, Cucho La Rosa, Toshiro Konishi - they were there, they were not legends but they influenced Gaston, he was listening to them. Gaston had a great influence from all these Peruvian legends and he had the vision to see the future of Lima. This really started Peruvian food!”
As an ambassador for the country’s cuisine, Acurio brought the chefs of Lima together, he teamed them up with producers but more importantly, he taught them that the ceviche they grew up with was just as valuable, if not more valuable than the French and American styles they wanted to emulate in their kitchens.
In his own words, “In the last 25 years a lot of things have changed. When we founded Astrid y Gaston the fine dining food scene was all about Europe. We had amazing local Peruvian food developed for 350 years, the only difference was that we didn't believe our food culture was as nice, as beautiful or as important as other cultures.”
“Nobody believed that Ceviche could become one of the most popular dishes in the world - now you can find ceviche in French restaurants in Paris. We have a beautiful biodiversity, something that other countries have too, but what we really have is a union. That is what we have fought to create for a long time in our restaurant. Trying to join together, training the younger generation and dreaming that one day they would become better than us, go further and find new scenes for Peruvian cuisine. Virgilio Martinez was our head chef, Mitsuharu was coming. We knew that if we worked hard to put Peruvian cuisine on the map, our younger chefs would do what they're now doing on the list: wonderful, unique cuisine in a world that loves Peruvian food.”
This mission manifested in many ways for Acurio. Getting chefs to agree to work with artisanal fishermen, having them push certain ingredients at the same time, telling the story of Peruvian food at international congresses and helping launch the Mistura festival - something Martinez thinks is a very important part of Peru’s rise. “Mistura was the first Latin American food festival - nearly 200,000 people, it was huge. I remember Michel Bras coming and he was so shocked, he thought it was crazy to see so many people waiting for food, he said ‘this is a concert’. We started to feel proud, food was giving us confidence, we had a community.”
And it’s this community of chefs, this pride, this confidence and connectedness that has pushed the success of Peruvian gastronomy. From Acurio and his fine dining Peruvian approach, to Martinez and his voyage of innovation and discovery, right up to the man of the moment, Tsumura, and his unique brand of Japanese / Peruvian food. Even the future work of Pia Leon at her exciting new restaurant, Kjolle. The chefs in Lima work together, they eat together and you better believe they meet and discuss the best next steps for the food of their country.
“I think it’s a matter of time,” says Tsumura when trying to explain why Peru has performed so strongly on the list. “You have to understand that Peru in a way started this revolution of South American cuisine. I think everyone agrees with that, Gaston was the pioneer who showed the world Peru. For a long time I was doing Japanese food and a Nikkei menu, now I just do Nikkei. Every year I become more and more Peruvian.”
The six consecutive number one positions on the list are a culmination of 30 years hard work. Of Gaston driving Peruvian food forward from the likes of La Rosa, Wong and Roca Rey and understanding that community is key to success.
“We really became friends,” says Tsumura, “we have such a good time together. We have BBQs, we go for drinks, we have breakfast. We get together at least once a week and actually, for me, I look forward to that day. If it’s going to be a Wednesday or Friday or Saturday, I get excited. We are going to have a nice long lunch, share some ideas and all of a sudden from those moments we are enjoying ourselves and the best ideas come to our minds. That’s where we create events, festivals and plan our next steps.”
The plans right now all point towards a less centralized focus on food. Lima is great, it must be maintained as one of the world’s best dining destinations, but Peru is more than one city. Salazar wants to see “Peru as a whole” and like with all ideas in Peru, the chefs are on the same page.
“We want to step away from Lima a little bit,” explains Tsumura, using the Royal ‘we’ as he speaks for the community. “Japan is not just Tokyo and Peru is not just Lima. I think right now we are very centralized but we are changing this. We have Virgilio now exploring the Andes and the Amazon, I am working more with the cuisine of Arequipa and at the same time Gaston is opening new concepts around the country.”
“We only showed about five percent of what we have,” says Acurio, “we still have regional cuisines to share, thousands of ingredients to share, thousands of stories to tell to the world and thousands more young chefs to inspire.”
On top of this focus on regional cuisine, Acurio is also working on the next international steps for Peruvian gastronomy, creating a strategy to try and popularize Peruvian cuisine in the United States. “Not just in Miami or San Francisco”, he says, “we need to get Peruvian into the hearts of North American consumers, from fine to fast casual. When this happens we will find a whole new world where we can push our farmers, our producers, our young chefs. That’s how we find the next Virgilios and Mitsuharus.
Perhaps the biggest example of the community spirit that has propelled Peru to the top of the list is that many chefs in the country are now using their stage to promote and encourage other countries from Latin America. Martinez is currently writing a book of recipes from across the region, Gaston speaks whenever he gets a chance about Latin American cuisine and culture and Tsumura has opened a restaurant in Chile.
As the winning chef says, “I really believe that it’s important for Latin American cuisine to become powerful, not just Peru. The key factor in order to make this happen is working together, which sounds so easy but is so difficult sometimes. This is not about you, it’s not about me, it’s about us.”