A day in Machu Picchu exploring the miraculous city of the Incas was tiring but exhilarating. We were there representing the press of the UK, Brazil, Spain and Peru on a magical journey, and met Gastón Acurio, Ferran Adrià and later Michael Bras, sharing tropical rain and many laughs. We were a group of friends, journalists and chefs having a good time, overwhelmed by the landscape and adventures, learning about Peruvian culture and enjoying every minute.
It’s impossible to visit Peru and not to fall in love with the country and the people. Gastón is the chef who is revolutionizing Peruvian cuisine. I met him as he was accompanying the chef of elBulli, Ferran Adrià, and his wife, Isabel, to Machu Picchu, along with a camera crew on hand to film a special documentary. On our way back to Cuzco, on the Hiram Bingham, I sat with Gastón in a glamorous dining car, all set up for the special dinner prepared by the chef of the Orient Express group, Federico Ziegler. A few coaches next to ours, was Michel Bras and his wife, and at the bar, a group of local musicians had organised a ‘fiesta’ including pisco sours, dancing and enthusiastic singers. With that very relaxed and unusual background, Gaston gave an exclusive interview to FDL.
When did you realise you had an interest in cooking?
When I was 10 years old. At the time, restaurants were more important than chefs, and this was the reason why it was so easy for my father to convince me that cooking professionally wasn’t a career option for my future. When I grew up, I decided to become a lawyer and left for Madrid to study law.
What gave you the courage to change your mind?
The Basque movement was becoming very powerful with Arzak as one of the leading figures. I decided to have dinner at his restaurant, and on that very day I quit law school. A few days later I enrolled in the Hotel & Catering School in Madrid. I told my dad the news only after finishing the course - 3 years later. I thought he was going to die when I told him!
Did he accept it afterwards?
Eventually…he helped me to go to France to the Cordon Bleu School, but with one condition: that I should return to my country afterwards to give back to Peruvian society what I had learned. I met my wife, Astrid, at the School –we were classmates – and convinced her to go back to Peru with me!
Did you open Astrid & Gastón immediately?
No. We worked very hard for one year and tried to get money together to open the restaurant. Family and friends helped us to fulfill our dream, and we opened a very small place in 1994 with a capital of just 45,000 dollars!
Was it in the same location as now?
Yes, but very small. We acquired the neighbouring properties later, expanding until what you see now. It’s been a long journey!
What was the culinary landscape in Peru like at the time?
In gastronomic terms, there were only 4 restaurants doing European cuisine. Even the menus were in French! At the beginning, I did the same thing.
When did you realise that it was necessary to find your own culinary identity?
Around 2000, we began to exchange ideas with other chefs, but it wasn’t a real movement at the time - only a few ideas. In 2006, I gave a speech at Universidad del Pacifico, although many intellectuals were against inviting ‘a cook’ to talk at the most prestigious academic institution in Peru. After that speech, however, everything changed! It had a great impact at a national level. People began to work together. We were on the way to creating a revolution, uniting farmers, chefs, and other sectors in the country too – we had finally decided to find our culinary identity and a cultural-social movement began in the whole country.
Was the first Mistura Festival in 2007 the beginning of everything?
It was the first celebration of our union, when we realized that there was no going back and that this movement was a social movement too. We wanted to include all social classes, farmers, chefs and wealthy people, for the benefit of the whole of Peruvian Society. Our greatest achievement was to change Peruvian differences into a positive diversity!
Peruvian cuisine is very eclectic. How would you define it?
It is a cuisine based in diversity, but united by common elements. ‘Aji’, for example, is present from north to south. Ceviche too. The abundance of colours is our aesthetic trademark, generosity and happiness can be found in our dishes full of flavours. But above all it is a cuisine united by one principle – social equality! Once you eat the food, you understand!
You are branding Ceviche around the work in your ‘Cevicherias’; are you opening a door to Peruvian cuisine in this way?
The Cevicherias have a similar concept as a Tapas bar, and are our Peruvian answer to sushi! It is popular, recognisable, and it is a way for us to show our beautiful produce, and our history with simplicity and originality. They really show what Peruvian cuisine is about.
How about the relationship between chefs and farmers in Peru?
We are together in this journey. They help us to have the products we need, and we help them get recognition and to improve their produce through suggestions and constant dialogue. It’s an informal partnership!
How about the urban chefs?
It is more difficult in the cities…but we are getting there. There are 30,000 restaurants in Lima. If you manage to connect only 5,000 chefs with 5,000 farmers, you can make a huge difference. We are not only talking about the social importance of this, but about the quality of the produce. Our farmers are a vital part of our landscape. With a good relationship with farmers, we can have the best sustainable produce with social fairness. Everyone wins – the chef, the guests, the farmers and the country!
Do you have a guiding message for young chefs?
First, if you are Peruvians, please don’t try to be Gastón. If you’re European, do not try to be Ferran! You have to find your own way of doing things. Second, you have to know that the new aesthetic in the restaurant business is not only flavour and presentation. Emotion, health, environment and ethical aspects are also an important part of this new aesthetic.
I hear many people in Peru say that they wish you would run for president. Would you consider the possibility?
(laughs) That will never happen! I can do much more for my country as 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.