How to envision that the Peruvian Cuisine’s Gandhi, the stove activist Gastón Acurio, studied cooking behind his parents back. They sent him to Spain to study Law, respectable degree with a future. Gastón tolerated three years and he gave up. His vocation was stronger than his sense and he enrolled in Madrid’s Hospitality School in Tirso de Molina, where he did his last years of the assumed Law School, but instead of laws he learned plates. His father’s face when he realized that his son, instead of a lawyer had returned as a cook, surely could have frozen the pole. However, he did what many hopeless parents do when they feel they’ve lost their children reins: he gave him money and turned around. In this case, the money went to Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, Gastón’s dream, where he also met his wife, partner and friend, Astrid. She helped him with everything, and Gastón himself settles that he could have never become what he is now if it wasn’t for her. Something like the President’s wife.
They returned to Lima only when Le Cordon Bleu gave Gastón the powers to open a school’s branch in the Peruvian capital. Astrid y Gastón settled down in Lima, and for two years Gastón dedicated himself to the school, until they finally decided to take the step and open their own restaurant. They started from the bottom, as they even had to buy the lighting and install it, all the cables... The first Astrid & Gastón looked nothing like the current one. The menu was practically French because the class and elegance was directly associated with the European, and the clientele matched the status. “I remember a day, just after the opening, in which Astrid came crying into the kitchen because a regular customer had suggested her not to let some people in because their dark colour skin would ruin the environment”, tells Gastón about those days in his book Edén.pe (Ignacio Medina, Latino Publicaciones 2012). The change happened when they started to include some Peruvian produce in the menu, but treated with the same technique and excellence standards. Little by little, Astrid & Gastón got their guests to look towards their own Country, restoring what is national and giving it more value. “The cook slowly turns into an activist, the guest into a follower and the restaurant is the place where they meet”, says the chef. This vision of translatable and useful Cuisine is what defines today Acurio’s brand, known for their support to the farmers, fishermen and artisan’s rights, the encouragement for a sustainable production and the fight against social differences. All this just by cooking? Yes, all this just cooking. “Our responsibility as chefs is to get involved in all this troubles and use our restaurants as an instrument, as a weapon, as a tool to convince others”.
Gastón’s work, besides of satisfying hungry customers, has been creating a sense of pride among the Peruvian society towards his own Country, so much that they even want him for president (title that he does not want at all). His empire of restaurants, expanded around the world, (Santiago de Chile, Mexico, Caracas, Bogotá, Buenos Aires, San Francisco, NYC and Madrid), has helped to spread the Peruvian Cuisine’s concept, so successfully that even Forbes magazine considered it like one of the 10 culinary trends of 2012, and World Travel Awards chose Peru as the best culinary destination in the World. Besides, he has opened a cooking school in one of the least favored neighborhoods in Lima, around Pachacútec area, to teach the poorest how to cook. In conclusion, Gastón Acurio is only lacking the ability to resurrect to become a saint.
WE EAT AT... Astrid & Gastón
When I was in Lima I was lucky enough to eat at his restaurant. Having expanded his empire so much, one doubts if the quality of the food would still be the same. What kind of juggling does the King practice to maintain the standards in the kingdom?
- Bread: also customized: chicha morada or andine cereal loafs. Crunchy and warm.
- Amuse bouche: a rice cracker covered with nori seaweed dust and served with a fish and lemon mayonnaise. Promising start.
- Fiery scallops with passion fruit honey, sweet potato crisp and rocoto foam. In this case the name goes beyond the actual plate, considering that I didn’t really tasted the passion fruit or the rocoto in the foam. Nice in general, but a little bit too sweet and disappointing.
- Guinea Pig with sun dried potatoes. This dish was with no doubt compensatory after the scallops. The cuy or guinea pig is an edible rodent cooked by the Peruvian, Bolivian, Colombian and Ecuadorian. As they usually leave his head on, people is not too keen on eating them. However, its meat is very tasty. Astrid & Gastón’s was quite exquisite: crunchy skin, tender meat, combines perfectly with the simple salad next to it and the carapulcra or potato stew, which were cut in such small cubes that it resembled rice. Not such a complicated dish but elaborated with extreme precision.
- Dessert: purple chicha pudding with Carlota cow’s milk ice-cream, macambo biscuit (Amazonian fruit) and purple chicha rice leaf . I found the pudding a bit dense, although the ice-cream distracts you from it, which really, really tastes like milk. The biscuit is more an excuse, a promise that stays like a promise. What does the purple chicha actually taste like?