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GASTN ACURIO, SOUTH AMERICAS SUPER CHEF

BY Nick Miroff

In the kitchens and cafes of the food-crazed Peruvian capital, history is divided into two epochs:
Before Gastn and After Gastn.

The BG era was a time of darkness, confusion and ketchup.

Then Gastn Acurio opened his first restaurant in 1994, and began remaking gritty Lima into the
culinary capital of South America.

Calling Acurio a celebrity chef today is like saying Oprah is a talk-show host. He is more of a modern
food shaman: artist, interpreter, healer, impresario and national pitchman.

A series of unpopular presidents has even left some Peruvians urging him to run for president. He
shudders at the thought.

But it tells you something, said Acurio, relaxing in jeans at his studio-office near the ocean in
Limas historic Barranco neighborhood, where his cooking show is recorded in the kitchen. Today
a chef here is someone more trusted than a politician.

And why not? Acurio, 46, has made Peruvian cuisine into the countrys proudest export. He runs a
swelling global operation of 44 restaurants, including three in the United States, with plans to open
a new place next year in Washington, D.C., location still undetermined.
The Acurio franchise includes food festivals, cookbooks and restaurants spanning a range of themes
and price points, making them accessible to a wider clientele. Panchita, specializing in Peruvian
anticuchos like grilled cow hearts but also serving burgers and fries, draws a big lunch crowd.
Madam Tusan is Acurios take on the Chinese-Peruvian cuisine known as chifa. Acurios original,
high-end bistro, Astrid y Gastn, cant boast of a Michelin star the prestigious guide doesnt yet
review South American restaurants but it was recently rated one of the worlds top 50 dining
establishments by Restaurant magazine.
Its fixed-price menu, Vir, is a 29-course flavor odyssey through oceans, mountains, deserts and
jungles, offering a journey through modern Peru. Price: $240 with wine.

This is what Peru is all about today: a land of dreams, challenges and battles, the introduction
reads. The home of young minds that reap their wounds, sheath their swords and embrace
themselves to celebrate together and in peace.

If that sounds like a bit much to swallow, patrons quickly move on to bite-size plates whose contents
are listed in terse nibbles Crab, stinging nettle, Quinoa sprouts and Toasted pig jowl.

Like any abstract artist, Acurio wants the plates to add up to more than a good-looking meal. He
subscribes to the culinary school of thought that views ingredients as a series of political and moral
decisions shaped by environmental principles, cultural statements and ethical choices.

Cooking allows you to promote a series of values, he said. The chef is someone who acts as a bridge
between consumers and farmers, fisherman, industry and nutrition and health.

In 2011, Acurio clashed publicly with then-President Alan Garca over the use of genetically modified
crops, and later succeeded in getting them banned from Peru for 10 years.

For his seafood restaurants, like the popular cebicheria La Mar, Acurio has developed a customized
supply chain of smaller-scale artisanal fishermen, sending his trucks up and down the Pacific coast
several times a week to retrieve their catch.

He instructs his chefs to plan menus around the seasonal availability of ingredients by talking
directly to the guys in the boats. When the chef knows what hell be getting next week, then he, the
fisherman and ultimately the consumer all benefit, Acurio said.

The son of a former Peruvian senator, Acurio played in a heavy-metal band and dropped out of law
school to study cooking at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, where he met his German-born wife Astrid
Gutsche. They returned to open Astrid y Gastn in Lima in 1994 as a traditional French restaurant,
but Acurio grew bored, and he began replacing the imported items with local ingredients and
experimental plates.

The overwhelming variety of Peru became an asset and a creative challenge. The country is a stew of
Japanese, Italian, Chinese, Spanish and Jewish immigrants, heaped onto Perus pre-Columbian
indigenous cultures. Then there is the phenomenal biodiversity of a country with dozens of sub-
regions and microclimates stretching from the Pacific to snowy 21,000-foot peaks to Amazon
jungles.

We have more than 2,000 varieties of potatoes and 200 kinds of aji chilies, Acurio said. New
ingredients arrive for me to sample every week.

What has made Acurio especially beloved in Peru are his long coattails. By globalizing Peruvian
cuisine and Peruvian products, he has created countless jobs for other chefs and suppliers.

Gastn made Peruvian food fashionable, said Indira Vildosola, a restaurateur who worked as a
chef in the United States, Chile and the Caribbean before coming home to open her own place in
Lima.

When she started out abroad, Vildosola said, she had to explain to others what Peruvian food was.
But as Acurios fame spread, foreign restaurant owners began to seek her out, asking her to prepare
Peruvian ceviche, chicken and other dishes. Its been a giant boost for the countrys self-image, she
said.

We used to take pride in Machu Picchu, she said, and now were proud of our food.

Acurio is training a new generation of Peruvian food evangelists at a small culinary school in the
slums on the northern outskirts of Lima. The neighborhood, Pachacutec, was settled by squatters
who build shacks and tiny houses onto the sandy hillsides beyond a massive oil refinery.

Today the school gets about 500 applications a year for 25 slots. Tuition is one-fifth the cost of
culinary schools elsewhere, and many of the students are from hard-luck, humble backgrounds.

Delia Puma, 21, said she travels four hours each way to reach the school, setting her alarm for 3:45
a.m. She grew up helping her parents sell sodas and snacks on the beach. She speaks confidently of
opening her own seafood restaurant serving the Peruvian-Japanese fusion cuisine known as Nikkei.
But I want to see the world first, she said.
WHEN I TRAVEL TO LIMA AT THE END OF THE SCHOOL, I HAD TO
GO TO THE ACADEMY EVERY DAY FROM 6: 00 AM TO 7:00 PM, ONE
DAY WHEN I WAS RETURNED TO MY TIA'S HOUSE, I HAD BEEN
SLEEPING IN THE BUS , I WAS SOON WAKE UP, I HAD ARRIVED AT
A BUS PARK I DID NOT KNOW, THEN I ASKED THE COBRADOR
WHERE HE WAS AND TOLD ME 5 STOPS FROM WHERE TO GO
DOWN, I DESPERATE WHY I DID NOT KNOW VERY WELL LIMA PLUS
I HAD NO EXTRA MONEY TO RETURN. I ONLY HAD SOME PENCILS
AND PAID MY BACK PASSAGE WITH THEM