The Peruvian Chef Daring to Serve Recycled Food — and End Hunger Nationwide
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because this is about more than saving your potato peels.
I arrive at 1087 Restaurante at 8 p.m., ravenous after a week of hiking in the Andes. Palmiro Ocampo’s bistro in the swanky part of Lima is everything I expected of the tattooed young chef — hip, sophisticated, modern — but it’s also completely empty. If he can’t fill his restaurant on a Friday night, I wonder, how is he going to solve Peru’s hunger problem? But by the time I’m tucking into my broccoli pachikay (the third of nine courses on the tasting menu), there’s a heady buzz in the room. And when Ocampo finally arrives and I’m sizing up the Rescued Lemon (more on that later), there’s not a free table to be had.
Ocampo’s goals are ambitious but straightforward: Besides having “always a line outside” the year-old restaurant, he wants to achieve zero percent waste in his kitchen (he’s now at 25 percent; the global fine-dining norm is 65 percent) and plans to use his “culinary recycling” philosophy to eliminate extreme hunger in Peru by 2030. World Food Programme figures show 46 percent of Peruvian children under age 3 suffer from anemia due to malnourishment and 23 percent of the country’s population lives in poverty.
Malena Martinez — who heads Mater Iniciativa, the nonprofit foundation associated with Central, the Lima restaurant that holds the No. 1 spot on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list for Latin America (compiled by 1,000 experts) — says Ocampo has set himself a very tall order, but she admires his drive. “Palmiro and his generation are the result of a newfound Peruvian pride that my peers didn’t have.”
Lima has three restaurants on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, placing it on par with New York and London. Peru’s culinary revolution, started in 1994 by restaurateur Gastón Acurio, finally gave Peruvians — long divided by language, culture and extreme topography — something to unite around, and it has gathered momentum faster than an Amazonian cloudburst.
Ocampo, now 34, was a student then, studying at the same prestigious but draconian military boarding school that Nobel Prize-winning author Mario Vargas Llosa parodied in The Time of the Hero. The canteen food hadn’t changed much since Vargas Llosa’s time, and young Ocampo saved his pocket money to dine at fancy restaurants — including Acurio’s Astrid y Gastón.
While his Cordon Bleu classmates obsessed over their precision cuts, Ocampo fixated on the astonishing waste.
Later, having followed in his physician father’s footsteps, he decided to abandon medical school to enroll at Le Cordon Bleu in Lima. His culinary training continued at Hofmann in Barcelona before further on-the-job learning in the kitchens of Noma and El Celler de Can Roca. His résumé is impressive (Anthony Castro, the sous chef at 1087, says Ocampo runs his kitchen like a military operation), but it’s not the finely honed techniques that distinguish him from his peers. Rather, while his Cordon Bleu classmates obsessed over their precision cuts, Ocampo fixated on the astonishing waste they produced. Ten years later, when he returned to the same institution as an instructor, he showed the students how to turn leftovers into restaurant-worthy dishes — and his life’s purpose took shape.
“This guy over here,” he says, pointing to my eighth course, “is Rescued Lemon,” a composition of confited lemon skins filled with yucca ice cream, made from the leftovers of Peru’s most popular culinary exports: ceviche and pisco sours. As I take a bite, Ocampo preempts my next question about his mission: “My work is to make a bridge between this fancyfood” — collapsing the two words into one — “and what I do at CCori,” the social research and development organization he runs with his wife. He promotes his anti-waste project to anyone who will listen — media, restaurant guests, fellow chefs — and by plowing the profits from the 10 recycled dishes on his menu back into CCori. So far he has teamed up with chefs at five homeless shelters in Peru to transform how they prepare food, helping one shelter to reduce its monthly food costs by 67 percent. With funding pledged by Peru’s government, local businesses and organizations like the World Wildlife Fund, CCori is thriving.
Samantha Lewis, owner of the Lima Gourmet Company, which offers local food tours and classes, says the “fancyfood” part of Ocampo’s equation is in fine health. She describes his menu for 1087 as “playful, innovative and daring” and commends Ocampo for taking risks, even if they result “in hits as well as some misses.” She’s betting on Ocampo winning plaudits and awards — not just in Lima, but on a global scale.
But what about his other goal? Can the visionary chef eliminate hunger in Peru by 2030? Martinez is more keenly aware of the hurdles than most. “Feeding 240,000 malnourished kids will require more than the work of one cook,” she says. It demands government engagement on national, regional and local levels and across several agencies. Not to mention the challenge of persuading communities rooted in tradition to modify their diets and cooking habits.
Ocampo acknowledges that “eliminating hunger will be very, very difficult,” but he has an ace up his sleeve. Later this year, the first episode of Cocina con Causa (Cooking With a Cause) will air nationally in Peru. By teaching viewers how to use food scraps and leftovers so nothing goes to waste, Ocampo sees the series as his biggest opportunity yet to put nutritious, delicious and affordable meals within reach of all Peruvians. Martinez is surprised when I mention the prime-time TV program. “What a brilliant idea! That’s the kind of drive I’m talking about,” she says.
Another brilliant idea: Ocampo tells me the greatest obstacle to achieving zero percent waste at 1087 is the food left uneaten by diners that he can’t recycle. So, together with his friends at waste management initiative Sinba (short for sin basura or ‘without waste’), he’s planning to feed these scraps to pigs, which will in turn be slaughtered and served in his restaurant. Let’s call it a fork to farm movement …
* Correction: Mention of the Sinba initiative has been added to this feature.