The Peruvian chef on the first meal he remembers, the last meal he hopes to have, and what food says about the country he loves.
Squid, only moments from the ocean, was where it all started for Chef Gastòn Acurio. He mostly remembers the “squid’s sweetness,” he told me in a recent phone interview. How the squid — dusted lightly in flour and pan-fried quickly in a good, golden olive oil — tasted nothing like the rice and chicken he’d grown to know at home; how it tasted, he said, “of nature.”
He was eight years old and on vacation with his family at Playa El Silencio, a popular beach situated just south of Lima with rustic seafood restaurants perched over the sand, dotting the beach like shiny seashells forged of tin and wood. And it was over a bite of fresh squid in one of these restaurants, where fishermen haul in their daily catches to wives waiting in the kitchen, where everything changed for Gastòn.
Today, it’s nearly impossible to visit Peru without hearing about Gastòn Acurio, which is why I couldn’t think of a better person to profile for my first Firsts + Lasts column. Whether you’re visiting Peru for the vistas of Machu Picchu or you’re like me – hell bent on consuming your body weight in cebiche – every traveler’s belly will rumble with hunger eventually and every traveler will have to put down the guidebooks and the maps to pause and eat.
In Peru, eating out is synonymous with Gastòn. He’s Peru’s most famous chef, an award-winning restaurateur (Restaurants magazine just named Astrid y Gastòn, his first and most well-known restaurant, one of the 50 best restaurants in the world), a cookbook author, a television personality, a cultural cheerleader, and from what I can tell, a beloved member of every Peruvian family.
My first (of many) Gastòn name-drops happened only minutes after my arrival in Lima in March. In the taxi from the airport to my hotel, I exchanged pleasantries with the driver in my pathetically limited high school Spanish, which means I know how to say, “Me llamo Marta” and about 48 filthy words and insults. After telling him where I was from (Virginia) and what I did for a living (writing), I mentioned that I was looking most forward to eating my way around Lima for a week.
I asked the driver to share his favorite spots. His face lit up in the rearview mirror. “You must try one of Gastòn’s restaurants! ” he said. “You know Chef Gastòn Acurio? He is the best chef in Peru, maybe even the world. You see, he was supposed to be a lawyer…”
Gastòn, the son of a prominent Peruvian politician, grew up in Lima’s San Isidro district, a comfortable and well-off enclave of fashionable residences and financial offices, in the 1970s. At 18 years old, his parents sent him to Spain to attend law school with the hopes that he would return to Peru for a promising career in politics. “My father wanted for me to be the president of Peru,” he told me over the phone.
But what his father couldn’t predict is that his son, the same little boy who saw life take on new meaning over a bite of squid, would land in Spain not long after Ferran Adrià took over the reins at el Bulli, the famed and recently closed Michelin 3-star restaurant in Catalonia. The boundary-busting new Basque cooking movement of the late 1970s, followed by Adrià’s leadership at el Bulli, brought “molecular gastronomy” onto the global plate seemingly overnight.
The movement saw Spain emerge as a culinary powerhouse to rival even the French. Spanish chefs began to shrug off the confines of tradition and push creativity and innovation beyond imagination.
In law school, but with both eyes trained firmly on the plate, Gastòn became enamored with the movement, especially the cooking of Juan Mari Azark, considered by many to be the godfather of new Basque cooking. Gastòn calls Arzak “my inspiration” and though he never had the opportunity to cook for his mentor, he says the two are now “best friends.”
Before long Gastòn had quit law school and was cooking in restaurants in Spain full-time. He worked as a cook in secret for three years before telling his father. When the time came to return to Peru and become a lawyer, Gastòn was forced to come clean about his dreams of being a chef and of attending culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. “I think they had some idea I was a chef, but didn’t want to believe it was true,” he said. “So the day I told them was pretty catastrophic, as you can imagine.”
But eventually his parents accepted the idea and agreed to send him to cooking school in Paris on the condition that he come home afterwards. Gaston can still recite his father’s words from that day. “Okay,” he told him, “you are a lucky man from a country with a lot of riches, but also with a lot of lost opportunities for young people. So with all the opportunity you have had, [after cooking school] you have to come back and do the best you can at what you do, in your country.”
Return to Lima he did. The year was 1994. Gastòn had recently married Astrid, a pastry chef from Germany he met at Le Cordon Bleu. Together the couple set about the business of opening a restaurant in a country where food as cultural identity came with a tricky past that most Peruvians weren’t proud of. A past with a legacy of Spanish colonization, war, economic hardship, and terrorism courtesy of The Shining Path, a past to forget.
Gastòn envisioned opening a restaurant focused on French cuisine, the gold standard for cooking at the time and the tradition under which he had trained at Le Cordon Bleu. But once back home, he noticed a shift in Lima toward honoring Peruvian traditions and a growing pride in what belonged uniquely to the country before others attempted to take it away.
This shift nudged him to think more about using traditional Peruvian ingredients such as chiles and potatoes. “Our food was maybe our first modern scream of freedom in that sense,” he said. “We have this huge biodiversity and 85 different types of weather, which means you can have thousands of varieties of potatoes, and chiles, and corns, and grains, and herbs from the Amazon to the Andes to the deserts. So, suddenly this paradise opened my eyes.”
Gastòn also points to the diversity of cultures in Peru as a hallmark of the cuisine and as a source of inspiration for him. “We have huge communities of Japanese, Chinese, Africans, Arabs, Italians [in Peru] and they brought their own ingredients, their own recipes and dishes, and they found our ingredients and traditions and started to build something new,” he explains. “And that is Peruvian food, something new, original, indigenous ingredients, cultural foods mixed with Japanese and other concepts. All of that is the universe of Peruvian food.”
Soon one restaurant concept turned into two, two into three, and three into restaurants beyond Peru’s borders in South America, Mexico, and the United States. Rather than embracing the avant-garde he fell so in love with in Spain, he chose to spotlight the basics of Peruvian cuisine first – cebiche (raw seafood marinated briefly in acid and chiles), sanguches (Peruvian sandwiches), chifa (Chinese-Peruvian fusion), and anticuchos (skewered grilled meats). “It’s a matter of respect,” he said of the decision. “We try to respect the thousands and thousands of years of traditions. In the moment we are focused on telling the world: here we are.”
Soon Gastòn will relocate his original concept, Astrid y Gastòn, from Miraflores to a 400 year old home near the San Isidro district where he grew up. The new location will include a garden and (with a nod to his mentors in Spain) a space devoted solely to innovation and creativity in preparation for a time when Peruvian cuisine is so well-known around the world, that, like the Spanish, he will be able push beyond the basics and into a new era of cooking.
Looking ahead, Gastòn sees a bright future for Peruvian cuisine, but one not without challenges. “We need to solve the contradictions, that is the first thing,” he says. “We have a lot of lovely food and cooking, but we have, for example in Lima, 200,000 kids with bad nutrition and that’s unacceptable. We are the kings of biodiversity, but our Rimac River is dead. Things like that.”
Gastòn hopes his cooking school, which offers free culinary education to kids who can’t afford the steep tuition of traditional culinary schools abroad, might help others in his country succeed on the path he’s chosen. “Restaurants are one of the most exciting and beautiful and exposed spaces where food talks, but it’s not the only one,” he says about his community involvement. “You can do things on farms and in the ocean. You can do things in the schools and in the markets, give speeches in universities. I’m trying to build nice relationships between everything that food touches.”
For his last meal, Gastòn said he would ask for a simple bowl of white rice and garlic topped with fried eggs. It seems that after all of his travels and world-class training, Gastòn, like so many of us, would reach for the comfort of the familiar, for what he calls “home food.”
“Maybe this is going to be funny for you, but for me when I eat alone or with the people I care about I want to think about memories,” he said. “Farm eggs over rice, for me, it’s like a kiss. Like a voice of my grandmother and my mother; of true love.”
A fitting final bite for a man who has built a life around love. Love of food, of family, and Peru.
Martha Miller is the food columnist for EthnoTraveler.