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The Age of Acurio

I grew up in a country at war. I still remember clearly a month in 1990 in which twelve bombs exploded near my house in Lima, one every two or three days. Peru was living through its worst years of violence, and the Shining Path—the dangerous terrorist group that controlled a large part of the Andean region—had succeeded in descending from the mountains to the coast, and was very close to dealing the final blow. Lima, at the edge of the sea, was preparing for a siege by the terrorists who by this point controlled a large part of the country. Once a month in school we practiced rushing from the classroom to the patio and throwing ourselves to the ground, facedown and with mouths open. When the teachers instructed us in the drill, which began with the peal of a bell, they explained that if we kept our mouths open the shock wave of a possible bomb would pass more easily through our bodies and leave our eardrums undamaged. These were the lessons of war.

I got used to talking to my friends about the amount of dynamite carried by car bombs. The TV news quickly taught me that eleven hundred pounds of dynamite would leave a hole more than a meter deep in asphalt, and that if the bomb carried a chemical called ANFO, its destructive power was multiplied. The threat of terrorist attacks had become common, and as a result no one knew where or when the next car bomb could explode in the city. The Shining Path attacked police stations, government offices—but also banks, embassies, private businesses. And if your school or your house was close to a possible target, it was likely that at least your windows would shatter in the middle of the night.

The day this happened in my house, my mother was alone, and luckily she instinctively got away from the windows. When she heard the explosion that sent one of the second-floor windows flying as she ran toward the street, she thought what we all did: we had learned from the sound of the explosion to orient our mental search for the source. I remember that hours later, when were able to embrace one another and assure ourselves that everyone in the family was safe, she said, “I thought the bomb was around the corner from the house, it sounded so loud.” That night the Shining Path attacked and destroyed the third national TV station, located a mile from our house. The next day the entire nation awoke horrified. The terrorists were taking the violence to an impossible extreme. They had been waging war for a decade, but the adults said that it was one thing to have them in the Andes and a very different thing to have them in the city, in the nation’s capital. So stark was the divide between the impoverished Andes and the slightly more developed capital that even after years of massacres in the mountains, the war had only recently begun to be taken seriously when it reached us. During those years in which the Shining Path kept the violence at a maximum, a curfew was imposed, because we already lived in darkness.

They blew up the energy towers constantly, and so the neighborhoods of Lima took turns living without electricity. It was normal to call up friends or family to ask if they had power and so to draw conclusions about which areas had been affected. My generation did its high school homework by candlelight, and as the economic crisis too had worsened, water was also rationed. At that time Peru had been broken by years of a closed economy, under a socialist model imposed by the young president, Alan García, who had taken power at thirty-five years of age as the leader of the historic APRA party. At the end of his term in the 1990s, the country was without reserves and suffered a cumulative hyperinflation of seven thousand percent in five years, so it was normal for me to go with my parents to the supermarket and wait in long lines when we learned that they had milk, rice, or sugar. They took me along because it was one kilo per person, it didn’t matter if one of them was a child—or that children in wartime are something other than children.

Looking back now, I understand why everything that happened afterward did so. And why it surprises us so much to seem now like a different country. But in those years, during which we didn’t leave Peru, during which we couldn’t leave, we grew up believing that normal life just was this way. We learned to study in the dark. To hand long strips of masking tape to Mother to protect the windows, because popular wisdom said that this would somehow help to contain the possible shards of a shattered windowpane. We learned to keep water in buckets so we could bathe when nothing came out of the taps. In such an environment even a child quickly understands that any idea of the future simply doesn’t exist. Maybe that’s why there wasn’t much to worry about, because there wasn’t much of anything at all. I saw my cousins leave for the US, my aunts and uncles leave for Canada, my high school friends for Spain, my teachers for Italy, and I saw those who couldn’t pay for air travel also leave, by bus, for Argentina, for Chile. The important thing was to find some other country—any other country. We pitied those who stayed. We who stayed.

In 1992 Abimael Guzman, leader of the Shining Path, was captured. Fujimori was president then. That same year he shut down Congress and kicked off a decade of excesses of power—with the backing of half the country, which supported his bloody fight against terrorism and his decision to open the economy and to sell almost all the state’s industries in order to escape bankruptcy. Within a few years Peru began to grow, and to climb with great effort out of the abyss into which it had fallen. At that time, many young people of the generation before mine—the ones who should have been running the country in a few years—had left to study abroad, to live abroad, to get as far away as possible from Peru. And they didn’t ever plan on coming back. Although by the end of the 1990s the country was peaceful and the war was beginning to fade into the past, and despite the fact that people were beginning to call Peru an economic miracle, those of my generation continued to grow up feeling we’d been assigned to a lost decade. We didn’t believe in anything, we didn’t admire anyone and we couldn’t believe that anything relevant to the world could ever come out of Peru. If Mario Vargas Llosa had returned from Europe in 1990, throwing himself into the unthinkable adventure of a presidential campaign only to lose to an unknown Fujimori—if the country had turned its back on him when he’d attempted to help at the worst moment of the crisis—nothing sensible could happen later.

Gastón Acurio was one of those young people who had emigrated to study, probably without any clear idea of ever returning. Even when he came back it was as if he’d stayed in Paris. His father had sent him to Spain to study law, and within months he’d moved to France and begun to use the money set aside for law school to defray the costs of his new course of study at a cooking school. He became a chef (against the wishes of his father), he fell in love with Astrid Gustche, a German classmate, he returned with her to Lima with the dream of opening his own French restaurant. With $25,000 borrowed from his father and some money he got from friends, the young Peruvian chef rented a house on a narrow street in the Miraflores neighborhood, and with his wife founded Astrid & Gaston. That’s how this story begins. It’s also the beginning of another story, the story of a Peru that was unthinkable in the war years in which I grew up.

 

I met Gastón Acurio when he hadn’t yet become Gastón Acurio. When he was still just a chef with good ideas, one whose biggest achievement had been to export his restaurant to Santiago de Chile. That an haute cuisine restaurant run by a Peruvian would end up with a branch in another country was news, and a reason for pride, in those years in which almost nothing was exported. From that moment, Gastón was spoken of in Peru as a stupendous chef, as a man who saw beyond his pots and pans, a man who’d taken French dishes off his menu to undertake the peculiar project of updating traditional Peruvian recipes. People started to refer to him as a pioneer, someone who had dared to use techniques learned abroad to give ceviche and lomo saltado the status of serious cuisine. This was a time at which European culinary traditions alone were valued in Lima’s elegant restaurants, and Acurio wanted to create the conditions for Peruvian flavors and ingredients to take on leading roles. Before he became a sort of living legend, he received me in the small office in the rear of his first restaurant. Within those four walls (crowded with chalkboards covered with infinite lists of the ingredients he would later combine mentally in making his menus), Acurio was imagining a future that seemed impossible to believe in then. In the years to come, his vision and his vehemence would prove so unusual that he attracted the attention of the media, which began to regard him with interest as a rare and exemplary specimen of postwar Peru.

Acurio spoke about the power of Peruvian cuisine as a possibility when there still seemed to be no possibility of anything. He spoke with contagious enthusiasm of the gigantic pantry of the Andes, of the variety of the cold Peruvian sea, as something unique that the world had yet to discover. He preached about the multiple gastronomic influences Peru had absorbed from immigrants from the whole world and from its own ancestral indigenous roots. The Chinese who arrived at the port of Callao had bequeathed to us, he said, the wielding of fire and the wok. The Japanese brought their knowledge of how to prepare fish and their use of knives. The Italians came with their entire traditions of baking and cake-making. The Arab influence, which arrived with the Spanish in the colonial period, brought stews and fine pastries. And from African slaves we had the technique of making use of entrails, at that time still not taken full advantage of. Acurio was already imagining a boom in Peruvian cuisine, if the country could manage to make a name for itself as a source of culinary exportation. If the world could be convinced that these flavors were unique, that a single dish could contain four of the five continents, the conquest would be definitive.

In the interviews he gave to the papers, Acurio already seemed like something more than a run-of-the-mill chef. He’d begin by talking about a recipe and end by saying that we had to believe that the Peruvian culinary brand could be successful and exportable. There was no one else like him in the country, not in the world of cuisine or in any of the other creative fields, not in the arts, politics, or business. Only pre-Nobel Mario Vargas Llosa had several decades on him as someone able to unite people around an idea. Acurio’s eloquence and optimism could seem like those of an unhinged enthusiast, but in his case, a personal credo in the making was combined with a startling capacity to get things done. And he was no longer alone. He had partners, he had a growing army of cooks, investors, advisors, other chefs at his professional level who began to see him as their leader, journalists who took him as an object of study, culinary students who wanted to work as he did, anthropologists who saw him as the subject of a possible thesis, TV producers who wanted him on their screens, editors who pursued him to produce a cookbook, assistants handling a growing number of requests of all types, people who stopped him in the street to congratulate him.

The country of the lost decade began to awaken slowly, and Acurio emerged as a sign of the new. Soon he appeared on TV, on a program on which he traversed the city seeking out cooks in modest and unknown restaurants who had recipes worthy of being celebrated. His fame grew. Seemingly overnight, he went from being a chef in an elite restaurant to appearing in cookbooks published by the country’s highest-circulation newspaper. Meanwhile, the two Astrid & Gaston restaurants had become a business—developing new brands featuring new culinary concepts—with which he began to take over Lima and later to expand throughout Latin America.

In a few short years he had gone from being the family man I’d accompanied one afternoon to a country club along with his friends, his daughters, and his wife, and who’d stationed himself at the grill to cook for all of them, to the chef-entrepreneur the whole world seemed more interested in talking to about business than recipes. Gradually, he left his kitchen behind to become the leader of a movement that he himself had created in people’s minds. A movement that in later years would become an association uniting the country’s most respected chefs, with whom he founded Mistura, Peru’s largest gastronomic fair, which brought together chefs from all over the world—along with restaurants, producers, growers, culinary students and diners—for two weeks in which all of Lima was transfixed around a table. And he has achieved all of this because his charisma has always been his banner—his way of speaking and of convincing akin to that of a politician campaigning to put an end to hunger. By the middle of the year 2000, Acurio’s idea of making Peruvian cuisine into an export brand had become a reality. He had restaurants in five countries, and he anticipated opening a total of forty embassies of Peruvian cuisine, as he decided to call them, in five more. His ability to sell his creations has always been boundless.

 

A decade has passed since I met him, and this morning Gastón Acurio seems to have time for everything. He appears in the hallway of his workshop—as he calls the house in Lima containing his laboratory and office—with his customary smile of an experienced diplomat. He walks to an adjacent room and makes himself comfortable on a sofa from which he commands the space. From the walls hang pans, pots, and serving spoons that seem to float in the air. If some chefs are famous for the singularity of their cooking, others are beloved for a rare ingredient that goes beyond the mechanics of the kitchen: in twenty years, Gastón Acurio has made his name into a trademark. Despite being the son of a former government minister and having studied at the Cordon Bleu in Paris, despite having a chauffeur who drives him around in a 4x4 pickup, despite the fact that his restaurants make more than $100 million annually, Gastón Acurio preserves that friendliness that has made him a leader of a culinary revolution. This is why the press in Peru, Colombia, Mexico, the US, Spain, and France continues to devote dozens of pages to his cooking and to the force with which Peruvian gastronomy landed in the world’s most cosmopolitan cities. And why this chef, aside from seeing his flagship restaurant, Lima’s Astrid & Gastón, listed as the fourteenth best restaurant in the world by the World’s Best 50 Restaurants awards, was also lauded by the pan-Latin American magazine América Economía as one of twelve men who have revolutionized business on the continent. 

But Gastón Acurio is not a genius or a vanguardist or a great maestro of world cuisine. Nor can he be summed up as a simple and charismatic man with a great sense for popular taste. Although he’s famous in several countries, he refrains from both the mannered sophistication of many fashionable chefs and the affected simplicity of those who make a show of eating with their hands. Acurio doesn’t wear a watch, he tends to keep his hands in his pockets, and he favors jeans and untucked T-shirts. He stands out mostly for his unruly mane of black hair and his belly, which suggests an expert gourmand who abstains from excess. If one were to make an inventory of the commonplaces one hears about him, one might start with the notion that he is so charismatic that he doesn’t have any enemies. So charismatic that in December 2013, he obtained a 47% approval rating in a poll conducted to determine voters’ intentions—the only nonpolitician to appear on the list. Perhaps we can take it as a measure of how crazy everyone in Peru is, or how desperate for heroes, that the nation could imagine its premier chef as a viable presidential candidate.

What strange power has led to Gastón Acurio being considered as a new national dignitary in Peru? From his seat on the sofa, he explains how one day the young Acurio, who had spent four years enclosed in Astrid & Gastón reproducing to the letter the techniques and recipes of French cuisine, took a trip through Peru that changed his life. He traveled along the coast, went into the Andes, and sailed on the rivers of the Amazon basin. He met peasants, farmers, fishermen. One of these encounters brought him to some cultivated farmland in Arequipa, in the Southern Andes. To this day, Acurio recalls that after their conversation the farmer showed him his lands and explained that the fruits were still hanging from the branches and were at the point of rotting there. A lack of resources was going to prevent him from selling his harvest at the local markets.

Acurio says now that the trip opened his eyes; it was a jolt of reality. He understood the absurdity of the fact that while he indulged his obsession with France, he knew little about the possibilities offered by the goods and culinary traditions of his own country. After this trip, he returned to his kitchen and began again. He started to investigate native ingredients, to rescue and modernize traditional Peruvian recipes. He devoted several years to working in silence, and he kept traveling, exploring markets in search of secrets from traditional cooks, Acurio had an idea: if the Italians had colonized every corner of the globe with pizza, why couldn’t ceviche become a global phenomenon? But this was more than just a question of national identity; it was also a powerful vision of how to develop a country’s economy. “In the 1980s,” Acurio says, gesturing with the confidence of a preacher, “Mexican cooking began to take off globally. At that time there were probably about five hundred Mexican restaurants: now there must be more than 200,000. As a result we’ve seen fashions in tequila, Corona, the specialty salsas you can find in any supermarket, and of course the chile, to the point where today Peru’s Virú Valley (on the northern coast) has to produce jalapeños because Mexican agriculture is no longer capable of meeting the global demand. At the beginning of the ’80s there weren’t sushi bars all over the world. Today there are more than 500,000 and thanks to them the world not only has new products but new concepts like teppanyakki, benihana, or the noodle bars that are so fashionable in Europe.” If a nation’s cuisine can conquer the world, might there not follow direct and indirect benefits sufficient to help the nation itself take off economically?

In 2006, Acurio gave a speech at a Lima university—a speech that went viral on social media because it gave the rationale behind his revolution. By then, the Peruvian capital had become the city with the most cooking schools in the world, with 80,000 students seeking to become the new Acurio. Nobody had yet overdosed on his image, and the criticisms that his detractors would levy in later years were still far off: “A country where a chef-entrepreneur is constantly consulted on politics, economics, production, nutrition, education, and the arts, a country where he is suggested as a presidential candidate and mentioned as the official voice of common sense, as if separating the fried potatoes from the meat in lomo saltado makes you into a new Leonardo—a country where this happens, I say, is a country that has lost all perspective,” declared the writer Gustavo Faverón.

But in 2006, his speech was applauded as the vision of a chef who had a plan—clearly presented and ambitious to boot—to permanently change the country. That night, before an auditorium filled with economics and business students, he said, “If we can imagine a scenario twenty years from now in which there are 200,000 Peruvian restaurants of all types all over the world, then we should imagine all the benefits this scenario entails. The demand for such common products as yellow potatoes, ají, red onions, rocoto peppers or limes will multiply infinitely, and with it we could—for example—eliminate poverty among rural farmers in the Andes.” Acurio said that cooking wasn’t just cooking; he spoke of gastronomy as a way of forging supply chains, of creating a network linking the countryside not just to the city but to the restaurant table, so that instead of turning its back on the peasantry, haute cuisine would instead join with it in a common project.

The chef continued: “If we succeed in making our cuisine fashionable, we will also see a growth in the production of spices, salsas, pisco, books, magazines devoted to gastro-tourism and culinary advice, snacks—everything that follows from the gastronomic concepts we already have.” If it’s true that Italy exports ingredients worth $5 billion simply because the concept known as pizza exists all over the world, “it’s easy to see,” Acurio added, “everything we can generate from the range of Peruvian culinary concepts. This would give the Peruvian brand a seductive power that wouldn’t just direct international attention toward other Peruvian ventures like fashion, design, jewelry, music, industry, and more, but would also incentivize and activate the creativity and confidence of our young people to create their own concepts and to have the bravery to take them out into the world.” That night Acurio received a standing ovation, and it was difficult to imagine that one of his allies, the Spanish restaurant critic Ignacio Medina, would publish a book entitled Mom, I Don’t Want to Grow Up to Be Gastón. It was Medina’s light-hearted way of telling his good friend that some of us were fed up with the gastonización of Peru.

 

I spent a few years as a professor in a department of journalism. By the end of the first decade of the new millennium, it was common in the hallways to overhear students from various disciplines discussing their future prospects by saying “I want to be the Gastón of fashion, the Gastón of architecture, the Gastón of software, of tourism, of sports.” But even as his model of entrepreneurial energy and leadership proved more contagious, you also started to hear ironic culinary remarks—“Gastón’s been supersized”—that registered a protest against his brand’s dominance. One detractor defined it this way: “He’s somehow been endowed with a strange aura that combines the artist with the practical man, the patriot with the businessman, the regular guy with the hero and the visionary with the executive. A chimerical being perfect for these times in which the most popular literature is the bankbook of an artist who makes money.” What’s certain is that in a country destroyed in the 1980s—a country with no future and no heroes—the fact that a chef has become a potential presidential candidate says perhaps more about the scarcity caused by wars than it does about popular sentiment and the patriotic fanaticism he’s sparked.

Peru today is a different place. And the Acurios, who unintentionally woke up a country that had been dead for two decades, are responsible for an explosion that is now also cultural. The film industry has been reborn, for example. A country that recently had no movies or theaters saw the Peruvian film ¡Asu Mare! reach a historic 3.5 million viewers, a figure matched this year by the film’s sequel. It was a film with a local sense of humor, a comedy marshaling all the stereotypes of the crisis years to follow a protagonist from youth into adulthood. A simple, commercial, and effective film, with no greater artistic ambition than that represented by a heartwarming script—but one that even so revived a whole industry. Since then, more than ten Peruvian films—some more artistic, some more commercial, but all with the ambition to sustain an interest in local cinema that had disappeared —have attracted hordes of movie-goers . Theater, music, the fine arts, fashion, literature: all of them have gained something from that expansive wave of optimism caused by the boom in Peruvian cuisine, an optimism characterized by a sudden interest in looking again at ourselves. An interest in reading again—reading the new writers who want to tell stories that go beyond the war, that overcome the past by telling us about this new country that has taken us by surprise. A country that seemed impossible. A country that is now more than a bowl of ceviche.

"La Era de Acurio" © Sergio Vilela. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2015 by David Kurnick. All rights reserved.