OK, I admit I'm a Gastón Acurio fan. And the more I learn about him, the more I like him. Unfortunately, there isn't much written about him in English (yet!) so as I find interviews and articles about this one-man Peruvian food empire, I'll translate them for your reading pleasure. As I mentioned to a friend recently, I find translating curiously relaxing.
Our favorite Panamanian chef Elena Hernández hinted that she was going to post her interview with Gastón Acurio on her blog, El Amor Por La Cocina.
From a previous post, we know she met Gastón at the recent Madrid Fusion international gastronomic festival.
What she didn't tell us is that her interview was going to be the cover story of the Sunday Mosaico magazine from the Panama City daily, Diario La Prensa. Kudos to her for a great interview that permit us learn more about this man who is bringing Peruvian cuisine to the world's attention.
Below is my translation of Elena's interview. I hope you come to admire Gastón as do so many others.
By Elena Hernández
Since first hearing about Gastón Acurio, I really wanted to meet this young chef who in the past few years has become the leading proponent of Peruvian cuisine. At last, I had my opportunity in Madrid, during the fourth annual gathering of Gastronomía Madrid Fusión, held in mid-January of this year.
If it wasn't for the television camera crew that follows him everywhere he goes, Gastón Acurio would go unnoticed in Madrid.
The simply-dressed 37-year old chef married Astrid, a German classmate from the Cordon Bleu, who is now not only his business partner but also the head pastry chef in the Acurio empire.
Gaston, who is at Madrid Fusión for the first time, has been invited as a guest speaker. He was the only Latin American presenter this year, and became a source of pride for the Latinos who were participating at the gathering.
I waited for the right moment to approach him, introduce myself, tell him we studied at the same school, and that I have all his books.
When he hears I am from Panama, he tells me that next July he plans on opening a branch of his acclaimed Astrid & Gaston Restaurant in Panama City. There are already branches in Santiago, Quito, and Bogota, and by the time the one in Panama City opens, there will be branches in Caracas and Mexico City as well. He has plans to expand to Canada and London.
He asks me about products available locally in Panama like sushi-grade yellow fin tuna, and other fish and shellfish.
He is also the owner of La Mar, a cebichería [in Miraflores, Lima] where they serve tiraditos, causa, chicharrones, and anticuchos, in addition to serving pisco, cocktails, and Peruvian beer.
Gastón the businessman serves three-thousand meals a day between his restaurants and catering services. His enterprises earn 12 million dollars a year. He also has a TV program, two cookbooks, and a new culinary encyclopedia he brought with him to Madrid. Most recently, Gastón has opened up a gastronomic research laboratory south of Lima, where he conducts experiments and consults with his experts.
All of us who live to cook or cook to live already know this much about Gastón Acurio. But my curiosity goes further. And Gastón, like any good chef, is willing to satisfy it.
He takes a few moments out of his hectic schedule to answer some questions:
EH: Tell me, what happened after the Cordon Bleu?
GA: I wanted to experience the world of the Parisian bistros, so I began to work in them. I wanted to see what life was like working in that type of a restaurant, and how that would affect my family. I knew this was the life I was going to be living later on, and I wanted to be ready for it.
EH: If you could do it over, would you still go study in France?
GA: At the time, it was my best option.
EH: Did you experience the same thing that most of us who were trained in a French kitchen did?
GA: If you mean the shouting and discipline, I ended up having to see a psychologist because of how badly I felt each time I had to discipline one of the people who worked for me. Now, the philosophy is completely different.
EH: How do you describe your cuisine?
GA: My cuisine is Peruvian, personal, modern, and free.
EH: Is the term 'fusion' out of style?
GA: Peruvian cuisine is in fact a fusion cuisine that begins with the encounter in the Americas, when the Spanish take our potatoes to Europe and they bring us their cows and pigs. Later, when African slaves are brought to Peru, the women end up doing the cooking. The Chinese also arrive in Peru to work in the sugar cane fields, and that's the origin of chifa cooking. In fact, Peru has the highest per capita number of Chinese restaurants in the world. And finally, the Japanese arrive to work in Peru, and from them we get the Nikkei kitchen.
EH: And ceviche, is it from Peru?
GA: There are many theories.
EH: A few months ago while I was preparing a conference on the gastronomy of Panama, I found a number of advertisements in American cooking magazines that promoted Peru as a gastronomic destination in Latin America. Does the restaurant industry in Peru receive government support?
GA: The Peruvian government is aware that our cuisine represents a powerful and highly valued element of seduction for visitors. Peru is a country rich in art and history, but many tourists now come not only to visit Cuzco and Machu Picchu but also to eat well.
Nowadays, our cuisine is a key export product of our nation's brand. If you noticed, the only country that has an information stand here at Madrid Fusión is Peru, and that's thanks to our government.
EH: You travel with a crew of four people. Are they paid by the government?
GA: Not at all. The television crew is paid for by the station, and I am a guest of the congress. I don't usually accept help from the Peruvian government so that we don't have any misunderstandings. I have restaurants in many countries and have to travel constantly. I only ask for government support when I have to bring ingredients to an event like this one. (He says this with a big smile.)
EH: In Chile, a law was modified to allow the use of kid goats with a weight less than three kilograms in your signature dish at Astrid & Gaston Restaurant in Santiago. How did you accomplish that?
GA: In Chile, there was a very old law on the books with regards to the age at which a kid goat or a suckling pig could be slaughtered. When I arrived to open up the restaurant, I had to go to the goat and pig breeders so that as a group we came together to state that in order to attain our culinary goal we needed to work with animals no older than three weeks. And we were able to accomplish it. This is an example of how chefs can collaborate with government in order to raise the quality of the gastronomic offer, which in the long run benefits a wide sector of a country's economy.
EH: Astrid & Gaston is a Peruvian restaurant, how do you obtain the ingredients in each country?
GA: I adapt the menu to work with the products in each country. We do have to bring some ingredients from other places. For example, for the Astrid & Gaston in Bogota, we fly in tuna and swordfish from Panama.
EH: From Panama?
GA: Yes. (He smiles.)
EH: Panama has excellent fish and shellfish...
GA: Is there something called conchas negras there?
EH: Of course. We also have lobster, prawns, corvina, grouper, razor clams, mussels, octopus, spider crabs, any seafood you desire.
One final question Gastón. What is the secret to being a great chef and attaining success?
GA: There are certain elements I consider important: being ethical and loyal, having integrity, being honest, demonstrating leadership and dedication, showing respect for the product, for our employees, and ultimately for the customer.
You also have to know how to delegate. I have my right-hand man, his name is Victoriano and he's here with me in Madrid. He started off as a dishwasher for a year and a half. He only recently learned to speak Spanish, before he only spoke Quechua, an indigenous language in Peru. Now he's learning to use the computer and studying Windows. He's great. I'm certain he's a much better cook than I am, the only difference is that I had the opportunity to be trained formally in Europe and he didn't.
Money is not something that should worry us nor should it be our motivating factor. It's simply the result of following the elements I mentioned earlier. Success is something that smiles on you, or doesn't, as long as we bear in mind that before being good chefs, we have to be good people.
The day before I leave Madrid, I run into Gastón Acurio very early in the morning sitting in the hotel lobby reading the papers. He is getting ready to leave in a few hours for Barcelona to film a series of television programs. He gets up to greet me and asks me when I'm planning on going to Lima. I tell him soon. I mention that the previous night I had been looking at some blogs that talked about his presentation at Madrid Fusión. There are many people who said he was their hero. He blushes, looks at me, and says: you're kidding, right? I give him the blog addresses so he can see for himself.
As the renowned American chef, Thomas Keller, stated during his presentation at Madrid Fusión, modesty is an ingredient that every celebrity-chef must include in his recipe book.
Gastón Acurio has more than enough.
For three days, Madrid was the destination for the most important chefs in the world. This gastronomic event included conferences, practical demonstrations, contests, and tastings.
Gastón Acurio was trained in Europe but returned to Peru to modernize its culinary culture. And he's accomplishing that quite well. His television program, The Culinary Adventure, is seen by a high number of viewers in Latin America, giving him an opportunity beyond Astrid & Gaston to share with others his knowledge and his cuisine.
Click here to read the interview via Elena's blog El Amor Por La Cocina.
Click here to read the original article in La Prensa
Read more about Gastón Acurio here at Peru Food by clicking on any of the links below:
Gastón Acurio: Inexhaustible Creativity
Another Interview with Gastón Acurio
Gastón Acurio Interviewed by Elena Hernández in Panama's Diario La Prensa
Video: Anthony Bourdain in Peru
At Madrid Fusion Elena Hernández Chats with Gastón Acurio
Astrid & Gaston Restaurant
Click here for the Peru Food main page.
TAGS: Peru, Peruvian, food, cooking, cuisine, cocina, comida, gastronomía, peruana
TAGS: Peru, Peruvian, food, cooking, cuisine, cocina, comida, gastronomía, peruana