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When chef Gaston Acurio announced he would be retiring from his position at his Astrid Y Gaston restaurant in Peru many people questioned what the chef would do next. Would he start a new restaurant? Would he focus his efforts on an entirely new avenue? And, as usually asked when Acurio is in town, would he finally leave food and step into Peru’s political arena? The first chef running for office.
It was actually all of the above, minus the politics, that led Acurio to officially retire. A token gesture when you consider that Diego Muñoz, head chef at Astrid Y Gaston, had already been fronting the kitchen for at least two years. As Acurio explained in an emotional letter to fans, “It's a necessary retirement that will give way to a new generation that can dedicate their body and soul to steering [the restaurant]. On a personal level, this will allow me to dedicate myself to the challenges and responsibilities my future commitments will require.”
It’s a move that makes sense when you look at Acurio’s position as ambassador for Peruvian cuisine and one, as the chef said, will make space for his ‘future commitments’ - of which, of course, there are many - almost too many to mention. I caught up with chef Acurio in Peru just days after the announcement to find out how it feels to officially retire, his exciting Peru Expedition planned for 2015 and just what he means by ‘future commitments’.
Why have you officially stepped down from Astrid y Gaston?
"Three years ago I started talking with Diego about the idea of him starting this new challenge of Astrid y Gaston for the next period. A lot of the dreams we had 14 year ago for Peruvian food have already happened and I was part of it - now we have these proud committed, curious and open minded customers which was not the characteristics of the Peruvian customer before. It’s not successful yet, it’s just the beginning, our dream is still that if children in Peru put ketchup on their sandwiches then the kids in Europe should be putting huancaina sauce in their sandwiches too".
What will happen at the restaurant?
"I need to run 44 restaurants now and I knew that one day it would all overwhelm me and new battles were going to come and it was the time to find a young, talented, committed chef with the same passion that I had 20 years ago, Diego was the guy. For the last two years he’s been doing the creativity in the restaurant, that happens of course in other restaurants - the creativity is done by other chefs and the leader is another guy but I didn’t want that, I wanted Diego to lead everything.
"So now I make an official resignation and never talk again about tasting menus again (he laughs) because it’s going to be Diego - I’m not the leader now".
Tell us about the University you’re building.
"I’ve got this University that we will start building very soon to open the second semester of 2015. We want to bring people from all over the world to have training in hospitality. We will find talent here in Peru and South America who can come for free and train also. I will teach, spend a lot of time there, I want to lead this project because it's very important for the future. To give the opportunity to young chefs to be connected with the food industry for the future - it’s very important".
Any projects coming in Europe?
"We’re looking at expansion for La Mar in London, Dubai and Washington DC but I think it’s almost sure that we’re doing something like La Mar in London - same atmosphere, same style, sharing plates".
What’s the Peru expedition you’re planning in 2015?
14 years ago I went on an expedition through Peru in a car, I was driving with a friend of mine and we started looking round Peru and we found lots of things. Quinoa fields with farmers and no one buying quinoa and we came across lots of ingredients like this. When we came back and lots of things happened…my whole journey was inspired by this - the decision to unite this community of farmers and chefs.
So now I think it’s a moment to make another tour again to every corner of Peru with the difference that now we have a lot of budget. We can go with a botanist, an engineer, a fisherman, young chefs, old chefs, a photographer, a caravan - all the chefs that want to come can come, the difference being that now we’re all connected, we can tell stories everyday, connect things with the environment, industry, fisheries, sustainability, nutrition. Get into Ecuador, Colombia, Argentina, Chile and try to find what is going on all over and I’m sure that a lot of things will happen after that journey".
When will the expedition begin?
"In 2015, for 15 days in every month, for the whole year - can you imagine the products, rescued recipes, people, sharing of information, the environmental issues, policies".
Tell us about your new concept for 2015.
"We’re working on things that we’ve been asked to do for a long time by a lot of Peruvians - cheap concepts. So, great food, in a fast but not too fast way, very cheap but not as cheap as fast food chains. Great food cooked everyday with ingredients that are bought everyday from local farmers in territories that are used to being condemned to having junk food. We want to prove that we can do Peruvian foods for a lot of people that are really amazing but well priced".
With Daniel Patterson and Roy Choi also opening a fast food concept - why are chefs suddenly focusing on this part of the industry?
"Chefs didn’t have the chance to do this stuff before because the principles of fast food were completely opposite to the principles of what we were doing but they're not anymore - everybody wants to eat great food - the customer has changed, they’re asking for great food at a great price and they don’t mind if they have to spend 30 minutes or one hour waiting. If there's a deal for two burgers for $2.99 they prefer one great burger for $5 because they want to incorporate great food into their life.
"Chefs don’t have any excuse as chefs to not produce experiences that are affordable for a lot of people. We can put all this knowledge that we have been developing on the table, it’s a democratisation of our job which is great".
What are you plans for fast casual concepts?
"Next year we will produce this fast casual Chinese Peruvian. People will get in, see the menu, ask for their dishes, they will then be seated and people will cook the food at the right moment - not this counter with sauces already done - there will be people moulding fresh dumplings - a $6-7 experience.
"We will look to do a cheap casual burger joint, the best burger we can create but with a little bit of creativity. Maybe we do some sort of global world burger. We also want to do a roasted chicken, Peruvian style place with lots of sauces - but how can we get a roasted chicken joint better than the others? That’s where some of our experience comes in, the atmosphere, the way you serve, roasting everyday".
What’s this I hear about you cooking again?
"My dream is to do a small restaurant where I cook for four or five tables just three or four perfect dishes every day, humble dishes - just open for lunch. We are born to be chefs and we have that inside - my dream is to have people coming to my restaurant me saying, “ok, I received this fish today and I’m going to cook it this way for you” - that’s the dream, it never disappears. The idea of baking empanadas and smelling them in the kitchen - everyday celebrating life, the world is going on and you’re just there doing your thing".