Why you should care
Because some of the best cuisine in the world, bar none, is coming from one of the oldest civilizations in the world.
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When the French, notoriously sniffy about all cuisines that are not their own, salute the fare of another country, you know it’s more than a passing fad. Especially when that praise comes from its most celebrated and garlanded chef. But when multi-Michelin-starred Alain Ducasse declared “Peru will become one of the leading actors on the global culinary scene” last year (the even more famous Ferran Adrià made a similar prediction in 2011), he was actually articulating a trend that has been simmering for 20 years and is now boiling over.
Peru? It’s the country’s Inca temples that have commanded the world’s attention, not its yellow chiles, purple potatoes or addictive pisco sour cocktails. Until now. Not only did Peru’s two greatest chefs take the number one and number two spots in the 50 Best Latin American Restaurants awards this year, but they also made it into the top 20 of the World’s 50 Best. That’s no mean achievement, given the stiff competition from Europe and the United States. And those two chefs have already, between them, conquered Europe and the Americas, with Dubai about to jump on the bandwagon. Meanwhile, Ducasse is making his own ceviche — the heady mix of raw fish, chiles and intense lime juice that most defines Peruvian cuisine — at Pinch, in New York. The U.K. has already given into the trend wholesale, as the Guardian food section reported this year.
A young graduate of Le Cordon Bleu in Paris began to wonder what the hell he was doing serving French food back in Peru.
The knock-on effect of all this activity has been tremendous for the Peruvian economy, says Minister of Foreign Trade and Tourism Magali Silva. “One of the mainstays of promoting Peru is the gastronomy,” she says. “Ten years ago we decided to make our chefs more visible, financing their trips abroad and opening export markets for our produce.” Peru is, indeed, now the world’s largest exporter of asparagus and quinoa, with food exports worth some $7.5 billion, 50 times their value a decade ago. And the number of visitors to Lima has also increased exponentially, with half a million attending the annual food festival, Mistura, which was launched seven years ago by the country’s forward-looking, award-winning chefs.
But the story actually began 20 years ago, when diners at the fancy-pants Nobu in New York were getting their taste buds tickled with tiraditos — the Peruvian take on sashimi — and a young graduate of Le Cordon Bleu in Paris began to wonder what the hell he was doing serving French food back in Peru. “The idea was to bring classic French cuisine home — that’s what we thought gastronomy was about back in 1994,” says Gastón Acurio, the greatest evangelist for his native cuisine, with 45 restaurants across the world, nearly half of them outside Peru.
Ceviche, Lima’s “working men’s” fare, was not what Gastón and his German wife, Astrid (also a student at the world-famous culinary school), thought they would be serving when they opened Astrid y Gastón in Lima. “We thought our mission lay in classic French dishes like boeuf bourguignon and coq au vin, and we were successful. But we started wondering what we were doing. We weren’t French, and we weren’t in France. We and like-minded chefs started rediscovering our native foods and fighting to prove that our local ingredients were not just the stuff of home cooking.”
This Eureka moment recalls the thinking of Indian chefs, who have won Michelin stars for their London restaurants, and Chinese ones, who showed the world there was more to their cuisine than chow mein and chop suey.
Acurio, who worked at Tour d’Argent in Paris after graduating, was not the only chef in Lima with a legendary foreign restaurant on his CV. His protégé, Virgilio Martínez, had worked at Lutèce in New York and the Ritz London hotel, where, he says, he searched in vain for a decent Peruvian restaurant: “With no community in London, the new Peruvian cuisine coming up in Lima was unknown.”
Martínez changed all that in 2012, when he returned to open a deceptively casual restaurant in London’s Fitzrovia. Within months it had won a Michelin star, and this year was joined by Lima Floral down the road. Peruvian cuisine has become the city’s most fashionable, with no fewer than 10 restaurants in prime, hip locations serving once-unknown dishes like aji de gallina — chicken in a yellow chile sauce — and tiger’s milk, the pungent marinade for ceviche that Limeños down in shot glasses for breakfast.
Pedro-Miguel Schiaffino, who, like Acurio and Martínez, is a veteran of the World’s 50 Best list, trained in New York and the Italian Culinary Institute, and is concentrating on bringing the strange foods of the Amazon, like giant river snails, algae and fermented palm fruit, to urbane Lima rather than seeking to make his mark on the countries where he studied.
They were being treated as third-class citizens, and we fought to get them recognition for their produce.
In 2007, Acurio, Schiaffino and others co-founded Apega, the Association for Peruvian Gastronomy, and started Mistura in order to showcase the best cuisine Peru has to offer. Today the size of a small city, this 10-day extravaganza offers Andean and Amazonian food, Nikkei (Japanese-Peruvian fusion), Chifa (Cantonese with a Peruvian twist), mountain barbecue, ceviches of every kind and the gutsy street food of the capital. The Asian fusion effect is thoroughly authentic, brought about by a 19th-century influx of Chinese and Japanese immigrants who retained their culinary traditions while adding native ingredients to the mix.
Then Apega brought in the country’s 1 million farmers. “They were being treated as third-class citizens, and we fought to get them recognition for their produce,” says Acurio, who also finances his own cooking school for disadvantaged youngsters.
What nobody could predict, even the Culinary Institute of America, citing 2014 as the year of Peruvian cuisine, is that the trend would permeate even the most fashionable tables of sniffy France. Ducasse may be advertising ceviche only at his New York restaurant, but Acurio whispers, at the end of our interview: “He also serves it now at Rech in Paris.”