Chef Profile: Gaston Acurio

Last year, the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival seemed to have a strong focus on North American chefs, restaurateurs and outlets. This year, in conjunction with the Worlds 50 Best Restaurants being hosted in Melbourne, they shifted slightly to Latin America, with a cuisine rarely featured among the Australian culinary landscape: Peruvian food.

It has long been said that Gaston Acurio is responsible for the world taking notice of Peru’s cuisine. Owner of 45 restaurants around the world, nine different brands, host and main player on various TV shows, and with several books to his name, he certainly deserves the title “The Face of Peruvian Food”.

Acurio has been an inspiration and mentor to many. In 2007 he founded the first school for cooks and servers for low-income youths in the Ventanilla district of Peru. He is the former boss and mentor of culinary genius Virgilio Martinez, a big player on the international stage and winner of the Chef’s Choice Award at The World’s 50 Best Restaurants with his Lima-based restaurant, Central.

Watching Acurio speak to Le Cordon Bleu culinary students following his collaborative masterclass with the international school (of which he is alumni), his passion to educate is obvious–as is his passion to assist young aspiring chefs discover what’s possible with their own career paths.

Attending the Gaston Acurio x Le Cordon Bleu masterclass at the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, it’s easy to understand his appeal to aspiring culinarians. While his stories of Peruvian food and culture were related with warmth, the food was also delicious without being intimidating.

The scallop bachiche with tigers milk and basil oil was a heavenly, sophisticated balance of fresh flavours presented in quite a casual way and the duck with rice with plaintain, and avocado; a warming comfort food. His food isn’t overbearing; it’s accessible and damn tasty, and it tells a vibrant story about the exciting flavours available in Peru.

We had a chat to Acurio about what makes Peruvian food so special, and why we should sit up and take notice of this country beyond the Inca Trail.

What characteristics most define Peruvian cuisine for you?

It is multicultural. We are a melting pot of all the cultures of the world… almost all of them. [It is] the result of immigration, and these families founded in a kind of forbidden love between Chinese, Japanese, Arabic and Italians, Incas and Spanish… the result of that is our food. And that’s what we are… those are the flavours.

It is interesting because what we eat now dates back [hundreds of years]. When the Spanish empire won the war against the Inca Empire, the Spanish brought chillies to Peru. Then the Africans arrived as slaves and the African women, they were in charge of the kitchen… they put spices in their recipes. Then the Chinese arrived to work on the fields and stayed in Peru, and they mixed with the local families.

 What an amazing mix of cuisines. So why don’t we know much about it here in Australia?

Why now after 300 years, suddenly, is Peruvian food [being] ‘discovered’? [Because] we were trained in our minds to be a colony; to deny our culture. Because we needed to be safe; look European, or to look later North American, because we were trained to be a colony emotionally, and we lost our sense of nation.

So what happened? [Around] 30 years ago, we started to finally rebuild our nation. Our culture. Recovering our memory of our heritage, accepting ourselves as a multicultural society, celebrating that we are different than any other country in the world because of this mix. And the [leaders] of this movement was the food community. Chefs [are now] saying that, it’s not true that we are a colony. We’re gonna show you, everybody, that we love the food we have in our homes.

And what drives your personal passion for Peruvian food?

Because I had a restaurant outside of Peru and I was very successful, and I had a television show, I was in the position to tell [the Peruvian food community] to go further. You need to use your TV shows not just for you but for the other chefs, so they can have the opportunity to build the sense of community, not of rivalry.

So Peruvian chefs, you were initially in competition with each other?

Yes. We didn’t talk to each other. Happens all over, no? Two or three years ago, [people would ask us]: “Are you guys working together for the [shared] purpose?” It was like, no, this chef doesn’t talk to the other chef, the other guy doesn’t talk to the other guy.

So what was the turning point? What changed this?

In our case, at the beginning, we came together and said, “Okay. If we continue in this way of thinking; that your world starts and ends in your restaurant, we’re not going to build anything. We are not going to convince anybody. We need to convince our own people that our treasure is our food.

“But if I’m going to tell these things to an audience and then you say, ‘No, that’s not true’, then we are done. So we need to work together.” So that’s what we did; the more successful chefs helped the [less successful Peruvian chefs] so that everybody could share failures and successes all the time.

Obviously you think about the impact that you have on your country’s culture, in terms of bringing Peruvian food to the rest of the world. Was that always the plan? Or did you realise along the way that that was an opportunity?

It’s an everyday learning [experience]. At the beginning, it was a matter of, “We need to prove to our people that Peruvian food is something beautiful and that everybody will love it.” And then it was the discovery that when you do this, you are helping with tourism in your country.

And at the same time, you see [Peruvian] ingredients that nobody was using [appearing] in supermarkets, and people are buying them. We are opening markets with these ingredients. And finally, you understand that your food culture could become global, and how important that is for your country.

Why is your country so important to you?

Because I’m Peruvian. Because I was born into a privileged family, and I know there are a lot of young kids without the opportunities I had to succeed in life. Because we are a country [still being] developed; we are still building a country with opportunity for everybody. So [with all my] resources, it is important to take Peruvian food to the world.

So you’ve taken Peruvian food to the world, but you’ve recently started looking back into Peru to improve the quality of food education there, and the nutrition of Peruvian people across the board. What made you change course?

Firstly, because there is another generation ready to do this job internationally; because they need to and they want to. And it’s my responsibility to step aside, to give them the chance to succeed, to be recognised, to represent their own country in the world.

I made a loooong journey, and then I came back, and realised there’s a lot of jobs to do inside [my own] country. You realise that there are huge monopolies in the industry of dairy, the lack of quality, pushing all the farmers to sell their milk to big companies, so we need to break all these [cycles]. To recover economy for the producers, and recover equality for the families.

Do you think that’s possible?

Of course it’s possible. Never is it more possible than today. Because people are connected, people are informed, people are looking for quality more and more.

So you can do it, because our chefs are the ones living one of the most important moments in the lives of chefs. Because they have followers, so you can have a very important, good influence in recovering the quality that we had for hundreds of years in family cooking.

There’s a movement now in Peru where we’re telling everybody that they should cook at home more and more. People say, “But you are telling them not to come to your restaurant”. Yes, you should cook at home. You should celebrate maybe at my restaurant but you should cook at home because it’s beautiful for you, it’s good for you. It’s good for everything; its good for memories, it’s going to [get the] best out of you. It’s going to connect you with your culture, a lot of things. So if you do that, you will be more concerned with the quality of ingredients, who is producing something, how it is produced. So that’s the challenge now; the responsibility.

What do you love about Peruvian cuisine?

You know, when you see the Peruvian culture, it’s a matter of colours. It’s a matter of generosity. It’s expression. It’s accelerating life and nature. And when you taste a Peruvian dish, you taste the acidity and sometimes the spiciness, the fragrance, it has a lot of character you know? A lot of love. It’s very deep; It’s a very deep food, but at the same time, it’s humble.

Check out Gaston Acurio’s recipe for delicious Scallop Bachiche here.

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