monday, october 30, 2006

An Interview with Gaston Acurio, Part I

Gaston Acurio is the leading light of Peruvian cuisine. And, as this distinctive style of cooking grows in popularity beyond the country’s borders, he is more and more, the face of the culinary revolution.

The 38-year-old is a bona fide celebrity in Peru where his cooking show is a hit and his cookbooks are in high demand. But his reputation is cemented by the continuing popularity of his ever-expanding number of restaurants in Lima – particularly his flagship Astrid y Gaston in Miraflores.

His reputation beyond Perus border’s is growing as well. He was named Latin American Entrepreneur of 2005 by American Economia magazine was a guest speaker at Gastronomia Madrid Fusion conference in Spain this year.

And he was introduced to US audiences earlier this year via Anthony Bourdain's show on the Travel Channel, No Reservations.

For Acurio, the real proof of his work is in his food and in the past several years, Acurio has been exporting his success. To date, there are Astrid y Gaston restaurants in Quito, Ecuador; Santiago, Chile; Caracas,Venezuela; Bogota, Colombia. By the end of they year, branches in Panama City, Panama and Mexico City, Mexico will open their doors.

He is also introducing new concepts in Lima that include T’anta, a market-style deli; Pasquale Brothers, a sandwich shop and Panchita, a Peruvian-style grill.

It is his Peruvian seafood concept, La Mar, that is already making strides. The flagship store was opened in Miraflores in late 2005 and, by the end of December there will be versions in Mexico City, Mexico; Panama City, Panama and Sao Paulo, Brazil. Currently there are La Mar stores under development every country in South America.

Earlier this year, I visited Acurio in his headquarters located in a picturesque two-story building in Lima's Barranco district. It is from his office and test kitchen here that he directs his growing culinary empire.

In this part of the interview, Acurio discusses his view of the growing popularity of Peruvian food, his experience opening Astrid y Gaston and his view of what it will take to bring NovoAndino cooking to the world.

What is the state of Peruvian cuisine?

Right now, in Peru, we are living in the middle of a gastronomic revolution. There is a boom in cookbooks, restaurants and cooking schools. We are the reference for the rest of South America. When people from other countries look at Peru they say, "The thing they do well is cook." Our approach to food is a model for the rest.

Is that happening in the United States as well?

Yes. We have seen a lot of attention in the last year to Peruvian food. A lot of journalists, food journalists, have come to write about it because it is the up and coming cuisine in the world. We are where Mexican food was a quarter-century ago.

In the last three years we have seen Peruvian restaurants emerge as some of the best restaurants in the United States. That has never happened before. We are seeing high-end fine-dining Peruvian restaurants opening in Seattle, San Francisco and Washington D.C.

How has that affected Peru’s culinary situation?

More people are starting to realize cooking, and cooking Peruvian food, is a good way to make a living. When I started cooking I had to go to Paris to study because there wasn’t even one school in Lima. Now it is a bit fashionable.

Today there are 22 cooking schools in Lima. We are producing more than 1,000 cooks annually trained in schools here in Lima. And they all have work. Not all here in Peru but all over the world. Right now it is selling point to be a chef from Peru.

What is the downside?

One of the problems is that most of the cooking schools here teach other ways of cooking, not Peruvian food. That’s one of the reasons I have sponsored a school, a public school through the government, specifically to teach Peruvian cuisine.

I tell people, "What are you doing? If you want study French cooking go to Paris don’t come here. Do you want to go to China to learn how to cook Boeuf Bourguignon or to learn how to cook Peking Duck?"

People should come here to study how to make ceviche, causa, anticucho and Peruvian dishes like that. They don’t come here to learn how to cook spaghetti bolognaise.

How has the popularity of Peruvian and NovoAndino food affected the restaurant industry?

Right now there are about 500 Peruvian restaurants in the world. What we would like to see is that expand to 200,000 in the next 20 years. Which is not impossible when you look at other cuisines that have taken off in the past. There are much more than 200,000 Mexican restaurants in the world today and those restaurants increase the exports of products from Mexico.

It is not just what these restaurants are buying. These restaurants led to an acceptance of Mexican cooking and now you find fajitas and tacos and the ingredients to make them in supermarkets everywhere. People are cooking these dishes in their homes. Not all of this comes from Mexico but there is a greater demand for Mexican products as a result.

What is the key for your approach to the business?

There is a main philosophy for our entire organization – use the best products possible, buy product daily, keep the best people, all the chefs all the managers, keep them in the organization – and that is the core of what we do. But if it is possible to use technology or techniques to achieve those things, we use them.

Success is not in the plate, it is in the experience. Because success is not in what you sell but rather in if the customer comes back. Our philosophy across all of our brands is to build a relationship with the customer - a long term relationship.

We are not interested in being the fashionable restaurant for one or two years. We don’t want to be the type of restaurant that people go to because everyone else is going. A key part of that is the people that live there, year round.

What was your intent when you originally opened Astrid y Gaston in Lima?

I was 23 years old when I had the idea to open Astrid y Gaston and it took a year to open. When I was a young cook my dream was to have one restaurant but not in Lima - in the country with a small farm and everything.

When I opened Astrid y Gaston my food was French. I had been trained by French chefs so that was what I offered in my restaurant. My idea of fine dining at that time was only French cuisine. We did very well from the very first day.

Why did you choose to start integrating Peruvian food into the menu?

After the restaurant opened I started seeing different styles of cooking in Peru and I started remembering the dishes I ate as a child. I started thinking about the types of food we had in my parent’s house in Lima when I grew up. I started talking with people who produced these types of food. I started talking to fishermen, with growers, with farmers. I started eating in the streets.

Slowly my philosophy toward cooking started to change and I started to change what I was offering in my restaurant. The process took several years. The first year, I added a ceviche, the second year I added tacu tacu, the third year I added anticuchos, the fourth year I put a causa. And, eventually, the whole menu was Peruvian influenced.

What was the reaction to that?

Nobody knew. The people followed me. The customers followed me.

How did this change your approach to cooking?

I was able to find myself as a cook. All the ideas are here. My cooking must be Peruvian because I am Peruvian because it is what I love to eat and it is what I love to prepare.

I also started to see what it meant to be a successful Peruvian in a country where so many are not able to succeed. I realized I had an obligation to make a contribution, to change the problems we find here and I realized I could do that through cooking.

Would you have had the same success if you had started with a fine-dining restaurant offering a Peruvian-style menu?

At that time, no. Now it is possible but then it was not. When I opened the restaurant for every one Pisco Sour I sold I would sell ten whiskeys. Right now, for every one whisky I sell ten Pisco Sours.

Why did you decide to open the restaurant in other countries?

A lot of people came to me and proposed opening the restaurant in other places but I always said "no" because I didn’t even know what I was in terms of my cooking. We didn’t have a philosophy, we didn’t have a clear idea that we could tell people "This is what we are."

So after five years we had a better idea of what we wanted to be. We wanted to be a Peruvian restaurant. We wanted to offer modern Peruvian cuisine in a refined setting to compete with French-style fine-dining restaurants. It was not just from a cooking standpoint, it was knowing what we wanted to be from a business standpoint.

After five years we were ready. We knew what we wanted with the menu, we knew what we wanted with the atmosphere, we were ready with our financing and we went to Chile.

Next week: Acurio discusses his La Mar concept, his plans to bring his restaurants to the United States and the secret to his business success. (That portion of the intervew can now be found here)

more:  Food | Interviews | Peru 

posted by kleph @ 3:00 am |

comment posted by: Alejandro on october 31, 2006 @ 11:22 pm
Thank you for posting this interview Kleph!
comment posted by: Elena on november 4, 2006 @ 10:58 am
Great interview. Gracias!
comment posted by: Dario teodori on june 7, 2007 @ 11:11 am
This man makes me feel really proud about being a Peruvian, thank you Gaston and thank you kleph, for posting this interview
comment posted by: Virginia Espinosa on september 22, 2008 @ 4:18 am
What a great interview, Gaston has achieved what a lot of Peruvians dream someone with his talent would do...and more, I wish him all the very best and, he deserves nothing but, brgds
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