Peru, the land that gave us the tomato and the potato, has another gastronomic gift for the world: a chef named Gaston Acurio.
He aims for nothing less than 50,000 Peruvian restaurants around the world where food lovers could savour the hot peppers, lime, onions and fish of a ceviche, creamy yellow Andean potatoes or maybe even the Peruvian delicacy of guinea pig.
Acurio can’t possibly do it alone and he prefers to stay at home in Lima creating recipes. But he is so convinced of the power of Peruvian cuisine that he is inspiring financiers and fellow chefs to go out and conquer the world.
“Our dream is that in 10 years there will be 50,000 to 100,000 Peruvian restaurants out there,” Acurio said at his headquarters in a Lima mansion. “There are something like 200,000 Mexican restaurants in the world, so why shouldn’t we aspire to something similar?”
The 38-year-old chef is an icon in food crazy Lima, where he owns – with wife Astrid, a German pastry chef – a handful of top restaurants, stars in a popular cable TV cooking show and publishes bestselling cookbooks. His rise has coincided with what he calls “a total revolution in gastronomy in Peru in the last 10 years.”
He does not only wins accolades for his food.
Peruvians are puffed up with pride because he is promoting one of their most beloved cultural treasures.
“Gaston is taking our cuisine around the world,” said Rosi Zusman as she ate lunch at Tanta, his hip food emporium where counters are piled high with a Peruvian version of tapas.
Acurio has opened award-winning restaurants in four other South American cities and recently cooked at the international chefs’ summit Madrid-Fusion alongside greats like Chicago chef Charlie Trotter or Ferran Adria of El Bulli in Catalonia.
One visit to his La Mar “cevicheria” near Lima’s oceanfront is enough to see that Acurio has the Midas touch. People of all ages line up every day to eat at the breezy, reasonably priced, lunch-only restaurant.
Among 110 dishes on the menu are a tuna ceviche with Japanese spices and a grilled octopus brochette over a yellow potato mash.
“We have created a cevicheria that you could envision in New York, Thailand or Shanghai, and that is an example for others to imitate as they go and conquer the world,” said Acurio.
La Mar franchises will open this year in Mexico and Panama, while California and London could be on the agenda for 2007. Acurio’s friend, Japanese chef Nobu Matsuhisa of the famed Nobu restaurants, says Londoners will love his ceviche.
While Acurio stays home, many among his young, 500-strong staff are ready to travel and spread his vision.
“When the time comes and they ask me to go abroad, I will go happily,” said chef Silvia Fernandez, 21, working behind the La Mar ceviche bar. “Who wouldn’t want to go?”
But even with Peruvian chefs, demanding Limenos, as the locals are known, have doubts their ceviche can be emulated elsewhere.
Acurio says he has the know-how and technology to create flavour bases that can be copied all over the world to turn out a ceviche just like at La Mar.
“Peppers are the umbilical cord to Peruvian cuisine and we have worked very hard so that this flavour is always present,” said Acurio.
In his office next to his test kitchen, he uses white boards with lists of hundreds of ingredients and preparations to cook up his next creations. He is submerged now in “chifa” – the Chinese-Peruvian fusion that he feels doesn’t have enough Peruvian in it. He is thinking of all the Peruvian ingredients he can throw in or on a wonton.
“When I need ideas, I just go out here,” said Acurio as he walked out onto the mansion’s balcony on a quaint colonial square and gestured toward the ocean.
But it is hard to imagine Acurio needing more ideas.
He is close to opening in Lima his first sandwich joints, where the stars will be pork and ham sandwiches, the recipes culled from Acurio’s favourite dives.
Instead of French fries, he will serve fried yucca sticks and he hopes he can pull Peruvians of all classes away from the ubiquitous American-style fast food.
“We are trying to create the sandwich place of our dreams with the artisanal character of our cuisine, which is something people today value much more,” Acurio said.
He also plans to open “anticucho” or brochette joints in his quest to restore Peru’s street food tradition.
And the sandwich and anticucho restaurants could go abroad in franchises, just like the cevicheria.
But does he see foreign diners digging into the guinea pig, usually served whole and splayed, that he insists beats rabbit any day?
“If you take the head and feet off, yes, perhaps,” he said. “But all countries have their non-exportable food.” – Reuters