Gastón Acurio: The Story Behind Peru’s Most Famous Chef
Gastón Acurio wanted a simple life: To open a single restaurant where he could share his passion for cooking with his family and friends. He never imagined that he would become an ambassador of Peruvian gastronomy. Today, more than 25 years later, Gastón has shown that cooking is a creative industry that not only feeds the body, but also the soul and culture of Latin America and the Caribbean.
As a graduate from Le Cordon Bleu in France, Gastón Acurio returned to Peru with his wife, Astrid Gutsche, to open a French restaurant in Lima. It was a time when Peruvian cuisine was still considered one of the best kept secrets in the country. A tradition that was passed silently, without appreciating the value it could add to the economy or development.
However, after some years down the road, Gastón Acurio realized that the recipe for success was not to emulate European traditions, but to rescue and promote Peru’s own traditions. “Peruvian cuisine is the result of a wonderful miscegenation, and we realized that it would allow us to demonstrate that we are capable of opening the way to a new country image, to lose the fear of rediscovering our identity and to create value from it,” he explains.
Gastón began to study traditional Peruvian flavors, which reflected the cultural diversity of his country, from the Andes to the Amazon. Thus, he created a menu 100% based on the country’s traditional cuisine to transform his restaurant Astrid y Gastón.
THE INGREDIENT FOR DEVELOPMENT
It was not an easy challenge. Not many people believed in the project, since locally no one was clear about what a Peruvian restaurant was or what dishes it would offer. That is why the chefs who bet on this movement with Gastón faced multiple barriers. “Nobody wanted to rent us a place to open Peruvian restaurants because they were afraid that we were going to go bankrupt,” he says.
However, it was the Peruvians themselves who believed in and supported the project. “The feeling of celebrating the love for our cuisine, for our culture, for our identity, gave us the necessary strength and drive to overcome that first hostile stage and be able to find the scenario we know today,” says Gastón.
This is what would be later known as Novo-Andean cuisine. At a local level, it allowed reactivating the agricultural industry and its relevance in the construction of a country identity. “We needed people to understand that behind all those wonderful dishes there are people producing the ingredients, who need fair conditions to stay in the market,” he explains.
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Gastón, along with other chefs, decided to go out into the world to talk about the advantages of creating dishes with seasonal ingredients, and the value of knowing the origin of each product. “We had to promote the importance of having the right information to decide what to eat based on the impact this will have on our lives, our health, our future and even our local economy,” he says.
PERU’S WORLDWIDE-KNOWN RECIPE
This is how a productive ecosystem was developing around Peruvian cuisine. Today, food tourism alone is estimated to move more than US$5 billion a year, based on data provided by the Peruvian Ministry of Foreign Trade and Tourism (Mincetur, in Spanish).
A decade ago, there were around 200 Peruvian restaurants around the world, today in the United States alone there are over 400, according to the Peruvian Association of Gastronomy (Apega, in Spanish). Although for Gastón, this is just the beginning: “There are over 300,000 Italian restaurants around the world, and nearly 4,000 Peruvian restaurants. This show us that we have an amazing opportunity to grow,” he says.
Also, gastronomy has become a key driver of employment in the country. Only in Lima about 5% of the economically active population works for the restaurant and hotel industry, with almost 135,000 jobs in restaurants only, which even surpasses the number of jobs in extractive activities in Peru.
THE VALUE OF UNFORGETTABLE EXPERIENCES
One of the most important aspects of Gastón’s career has been the impact of Novo-Andean cuisine on the identity of the country. In fact, a survey by the University of Lima revealed that already in 2008, 95% of Peruvians felt proud of their country because of the level of its gastronomy and the recognition it has globally.
“We worked together to create a movement that made us feel proud of our cuisine to promote it outside, convinced that if the world fell in love with Peruvian gastronomy, new opportunities will come in our way,” he says“.
In each of his recipes, Gastón leaves traces of identity that help strengthen the development of Peru. For him, this is because gastronomy changes current consumption paradigm. “We offer memorable experiences, instead of forgettable products,“ he says. For this reason, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) chose him to lecture the 2019 Enrique V. Iglesias Lecture of Culture and Development this May 21, at its headquarters in Washington, D.C.
“This is a recognition to Gastón for his work promoting the progress of Latin America and the Caribbean through gastronomy. And we want it to also be an inspiration for the thousands of entrepreneurs and innovators in the region, who are committed to untap the potential of the Orange Economy to increase economic and social development in their countries,” says Trinidad Zaldívar, Chief at the IDB’s Creativity and Culture Unit.
For Gastón, the task in Peru is already done, but he looks forward to the rest of the region following the same path. “Latin America and the Caribbean has a tremendous seduction power now, which is why it has to value its culture, with the hope of having the same results we obtained in Peru,” he says.