I recently had the chance to interview famed Chef Gaston Acurio. He is the man responsible for the Astrid y Gaston Empire, numerous cookbooks, and putting Peruvian Cuisine on the map. We met at his New York restaurant, La Mar Cebicheria which recently took over the space of Danny Meyer’s Tabla. We spoke about Peruvian cuisine, his career,
Blanca Valbuena: Why don’t you give our readers some information on you and how you got started cooking in Peru?
Gaston Acurio: I am Peruvian and I was born to be a chef. Since I was 7, 8 years old I was already buying my ingredients and cooking my own food in my house. My dad and mother looked at me as a weird kid. Instead of playing football in the streets I was in the kitchen reading my grandmother’s cooking books. Then, I had the fortune to study in Paris, to be trained to be a chef in moments where the world was very French in terms of fine dining. It wasn’t easy for them to train me to be a French style chef. Being Peruvian and opening a restaurant in Peru. That happened in London, that happened all over the world. We had the fortune to be part of a generation of cooks, chefs that had the opportunity to evolve inside ourselves inside our cultures, trying to find a new language in our ingredients, our old recipes, and start putting them in these fine dining restaurants. That happened in Denmark, Peru, Mexico, Brazil, the United States. Now I am part of a world movement of chefs who are very proud to be local, not only buying local producers, but we are very proud to find the beauty in our local traditions and heritage, but being universal at the same time. Not losing this open window of sharing between different cultures, I will give you this, you will give me that… Because that is the way we can build new flavors, new horizons, new relations between countries and cultures. It’s an amazing time to be a part of this food world which is a world of freedom, respect, and compromise, but not resigning the beauty, quality and excellence. The food is more fun, more beautiful, more magical, more free, more emotional, It’s great.
BV: You bring up an interesting point, in Peru there are a lot of influences; there is Japanese, native Peruvian. Can you tell us about the development of Peruvian cuisine?
GA: The story of Peruvian food started actually millions of years ago. In one country, Peru for millions of years were developed 85 different climates. In the world there are 110, and in Peru we have 85. That happened millions of years ago. Because of those weathers a lot of biodiversity arrived. Wild biodiversity. So 7,000 years ago, most old cultures in Peru started. They were different cultures because they were different weathers. So they started with agriculture. This biotechnology of these old days developed at the table, it was wild and poisonous. We developed corn, and tomatoes with Mexico too, and chiles, and peppers, and strawberries, and beans. All that happened in Latin America. Also, of course, in Peru there’s a big. These ingredients are almost 80% of what the world eats right now were developed at that time. in 1532, there was a terrible war in Peru. The last Inca, went to war with Francisco Pissaro who came from Spain, the Spanish Empire. The Incans were beaten. The Incas lost the battle and and Spanish culture started. There was a lot of blood, but ingredients were respecting each other. For example they (the Spanish) brought lime and found chile and the cebiche was born. They brought garlic and found tomatoes and Mediterranean flavors, and Italian food was born. After that, a 500 year period started, of all cultures of the world arriving to Peru. From Africa, in a very dramatic way, it is very important to remember that. From Canton, China, no less dramatic. From Genova, Italy 30,000 people from Genova arrived in Peru in the early 19th Century. From Okinawa, Japan, thousands of Japanese arrived and from the Arab world and from all over the world people bringing their memories, their ingredients, their cultures and mixed them with what they found in Peru. The result of that story that started millions of years ago until now, which is Peruvian food, is a world very connected with nature because of its history, very multicultural, but at the same time very connected with the time that we live in, which is a country solving the problem of wars, malnutrition, of poverty, and everyone working together to be part of that process. Peru is a world of unique flavors, not better or worse than any other; unique, different ingredients that we keep discovering and re-discovering (as in quinoa). Our words: cebiche, tiradito, causa, anticucho are not better words than French words, they are unique words, they are Peruvian words. So there is a universe of a food culture that we have been developing for a long time. What we are trying to do now is put them into a package. A restaurant is kind of a package.
BV: I’ve been waiting for you to open up in New York for a long time. What was the final push to get you to open up in New York?
GA: I think New York City is a one of the most important places if you are trying to share something with the world. All the eyes are looking at New York City’s development. Because it is a very multicultural city, you have to understand restaurants as embassies of cultures. Very peaceful spaces of sharing cultures. It is not a business…it is, of course because it has to be…but that it is not the reason that moves chefs. Restaurants are instruments for pleasure, happiness, sharing, for revealing something that was undiscovered for now. It is a place for Peruvians who are out of their country for a long time to share with friends a piece of their culture. A restaurant in a foreign country is very important. It is the most pacific, nice way to get inside another culture. The history a lot of countries took spaces with wars and treasures, but I think this is a great way to share what you have. The result is that you are going to give the community new flavors, new recipes, and that leads to happiness.
BV: For those who are not familiar with Peruvian cuisine, what are three ingredients that are key to Peruvian food?
GA: As with Japanese food, for example, you take out soy sauce, wasabi and seaweed for sushi, you don’t know what you are eating. It is the same. In Peruvian food, it’s chiles, different types of chiles. We call them aji. Aji Amarillo is the first one, which is a yellow chile. With that ingredient you can almost do a Peruvian restaurant. If you have mashed potatoes, you can add aji amarillo and it becomes a causa, which is a very traditional dish, a yellow cold dish of mashed potatoes with stuffing. If you put Peruvian red chiles, we call them Aji Limo, for cebiche it becomes Peruvian, because it gives the flavor to it. After that there is an herb, which is guacatai, which a local herb from the Andes. You don’t know what it is, but it is there. It gives soups an original Peruvian flavor. With these three ingredients we can reproduce the original, traditional Peruvian flavors everywhere. If you buy locally, fresh fish and ingredients, you get a balance of fresh homemade and original Peruvian cooking.
BV: I know that in Peru and Latin America you are very focused on local and ethical sourcing, so how are you going about bringing those local ingredients to the US?
GA: One of the major key roles that we have in our speech as chefs is that we have to support our local producers, so it is very important to be cautious in what you do and what you say. The magic thing is that you can be very local and universal at the same time. If I am in Peru, of course I will buy locally from my farmers, my fishermen, I will build my Peruvian flavors there. If only need to take 5 or 6 ingredients from my country to reproduce the original flavors of Peru in another country, I have to continue the philosophy of buying local too; buy from fishermen, from local producers tomatoes, onions, garlic, fresh herbs, anches. With these local producers and with the five and six ingredients you can build great Peruvian food anywhere you go. Because the other way, if I am going to be local in my country, but not in another, that would be a contradiction. The second thing is you are not local outside of your country, if for example you bring frozen fish from Peru, and that is not good. It is very good for food to be local and universal at the same time.
BV: I see Peruvian cuisine as up-and-coming in New York. People are becoming acquainted with Ceviche, Tiradito; what other cuisines do you see world wide that has the same opportunity of growth as Peruvian cuisine.
GA: The Singaporean government is doing an amazing job in putting Singaporean food on the map. It is is a mix of old Asian, they are developing more and more new dishes. The street food is amazing there, and they are developing all the street food which is the basis of future of the culture. I think the great regional Mexican food is undiscovered until now in the world, so it has a great opportunity. Brazil is finally, with this legion of great Brazilian chefs of my generation, rediscovering and putting value on their ingredients and their culture, they are doing amazing things too. I think that the future of food for consumers is going to be better than ever, they will profit from the community of chefs throughout the world that are not competing, but sharing. We’re traveling, the other day I went to Torino just for 3 hours, just to be there and support local farmers because I know that they will go to Peru for the same reason. From Italy Chef Massimo Bottura or my other friends from there. Only good stories could be born from that attitude. You can feel it. More and more you go to small restaurants and they are doing almost fine dining for $20, $30. Young chefs with complete liberty, doing great things, with a small budget, doing a small restaurant, but with amazing food. Even ramen soups, they are doing the noodles inside the restaurant, and you are paying almost the same rpice you would pay in a fast food chain. I think the future of food is going to be amazing.
BV: Because of the Food Network and all this food entertainment, people have a skewed view of what it is like to be a chef. I want to ask you particularly because you have 20 restaurants, you develop menus, restaurant concepts. What do you think is the biggest misconception people have of the word chef, when used in the concept of someone more famous, someone who has a better reputation?
GA: Being a chef is not being a person with an ego and vanity, who is expecting you to acclaim him because he considers himself an artist and a unique person that can create amazing dishes and that is it. That is not being a chef. Being a chef is a person who has the honor, the responsibility, the luck to be a chef giving happiness to other people. Not only the customers at the restaurant. Sharing this knowledge with his dishes, the opportunity for farmers to be a part of his story. To be recognized from the city, to farms, to the oceans. A chef must make a compromise with the environment, using ingredients that are not farmed by the labor of small children. Not use ingredients that are in danger of expiration, but also trying to invoke the community, the customers, the consumers to that purpose too, in what they say and do. Try to build a fair relation of trade between farmers and restaurants, restaurants and consumers, trying to be a part of a perfect point where excellence, beauty, tastiness, and nutrition come together into something new, better for everyone. The magic thing is that we can do all that without refuting your culture, your feelings, to what you want. It is just choosing what you have in the power that food has to change lives, worlds, but building magical experiences at the same time. You can go to a restaurant and discover the most amazing ingredients. The other day I was just in a restaurant and the main course was just radishes and tomatoes with an amazing sauce. Just a few years ago, people would ask where’s the shrimp, where’s the pigeon, where’s the foie gras? That’s over. You can have pleasure without any reason of adding luxury ingredients because the luxury things right now are sometimes the simplest things, sometimes not, but in the authenticity. Being a chef is also very hard work. you have to run, you have to have great administration, you have to deal with almost a kind of an every day battle. You see every day people to try to make them happy. Everybody eats, everybody has their own world inside about eating, how can you make everyone happy. It is a very difficult job. But at the end of the day, I can assure you, all the chefs in the world from now, from my generation, sharing their recipes instead of keeping them secret, traveling to support causes instead of just their rich clients, at the end of the day if you take a picture of them they are very tired, but very happy and proud because they are recognized, respected and doing what they love.
BV: What do you think the experience for someone who is not familiar with Peruvian food would be at La Mar? What do you recommend they start with?
GA: I can tell you the Japanese helped us a lot in the past 20 years. They had the huge, problematic responsibility to convince the world to eat raw fish and seaweed. If you told me 30 years ago that one day children in every city in the world would eat Wasabi, raw fish and seaweed, I would have told you “you’re crazy”, but that happened. Right now Peruvians, we arrive with our cebiche which is our amazing Peruvian expression of that raw fish. I think this is the best way to start discovering our culture, because all the different types of cebiche represent a good opportunity to start discovering and loving the culture and bring it to your life. I think that is the best way to start. Then tiradito, anticuchos or causas, but not everybody has the spirit and personality to say “I want to taste everything”. Some people will go faster, others not so fast. But I think everyone can love cebiche.
La Mar Cebicheria is located at 11 Madison Avenue in the Flatiron District of New York. (212) 612-3388