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Peru's Gaston Acurio: from master chef to world food ambassador

14 march 2014, 09:51
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Renowned Peruvian chef and local food network star Gaston Acurio. ©Reuters/Mariana Bazo
Renowned Peruvian chef and local food network star Gaston Acurio. ©Reuters/Mariana Bazo
He's not even 50, but he's already transformed Peruvian cuisine and his restaurants are ranked among the best in the world, AFP reports.

Now, Gaston Acurio says he's abandoning the kitchen to become a self-styled food ambassador, promoting a cuisine without borders.

"Twenty years ago, I was a chef. Today I am an ambassador. I'm living sort of an early retirement," a smiling Acurio told AFP in an interview.

In a quaint workspace in Lima's bohemian Barranco neighborhood, surrounded by stacks of books, pottery, diplomas and awards, the 46-year-old Acurio is getting ready for his next big project.

"The challenges have changed," said Acurio, glancing at the large slates with the names of dishes and ingredients that line the room's walls.

"People know us -- we have to conceptualize our next steps, inspired by ideas with the same energy as at the beginning, but aiming to become universal."

His signature restaurant Astrid and Gaston, repeatedly ranked the best in all of Latin America, is moving from its humble beginnings in a small street to a giant 18th century colonial building.

That building, classified as a piece of national heritage, has been fully renovated to serve as a veritable palace of food and laboratory for ideas.

Astrid y Gaston Casa Moreyra, as the space is called, will have multiple dining areas and gardens, including the new incarnation of the storied restaurant, which will only offer an ultra-sophisticated tasting menu.

"We've linked history and tradition with modernity by using cutting-edge kitchen equipment imported from Europe, minimalist decor and open spaces," Acurio said.

Last month, top chefs Ferran Adria, the creator of the now-closed El Bulli, and Joan Roca attended the formal inauguration of the space. The restaurant reopened to the public this month.

Casa Moreyra features a garden for spices and rare plants, which will be open to visits by schoolchildren. A patio is meant as a "place for chatting, conferences and space for integration and fellowship."


Beef bourguignon to 'tacu'


Acurio's $6-million project in Lima is the linchpin of his empire of more than 40 restaurants in 14 countries across three continents.

He and his wife Astrid, the namesakes of the original restaurant, hope to put Peruvian cuisine on the global foodie map.

"Peruvian cuisine has undergone vast change over the past 20 years," said Acurio, who originally studied at a culinary institute in Paris.

Among his early specialties were beef bourguignon and foie gras. Over the years, those French dishes were replaced by ceviche and traditional Peruvian fare: the rice and bean dish tacu-tacu or lomo saltado, consisting of stir-fried marinated beef and vegetables.

"Our story has only barely begun and it's up to us to grow and become the epicenter of world cuisine," said Acurio, who is also the founder of Mistura, the continent's largest food festival.

"We are part of a culinary movement to establish a community -- to create a link between restaurateurs, small farmers, fishermen, growers -- to share our cuisine with the world," he said.

"Our duty is to create businesses, from the richness of Peru, and move forward," said Acurio, who opened the Pachacutec Culinary Institute in 2007 for young, disadvantaged Peruvians.

"After 500 years of colonialism, we have rediscovered our national pride in the multicultural, multiracial society that comprises Peru," he said.

"There is a mix in Peruvian cuisine and we can celebrate this reality today without shame and without fear."

Acurio, the author of some 20 books and the former host of a television cooking show, is also the son of a senator.

Some have suggested he should run for Peru's presidency, but the chef says he is not interested.

"No, no politics for me. I know the beast all too well, from the inside," he said.

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