Friday, March 24, 2006

Another Interview with Gaston Acurio

Original: Milagros Leiva Gálvez, El Comercio, 9/11/05.
Click here to go to original Spanish article

This is an in-depth interview by Milagros Leiva Gálvez, writing in El Comercio, which I have unofficially translated for Gaston Acurio's English-speaking fans. We learn more about this great Peruvian chef, his background, his life, even his politics, and of course, his passion, Peruvian food. I hope you enjoy reading this interview as much as I did. There's a link to his Astrid & Gaston website, and to other posts about Gastón Acurio on this blog, at the end of the interview.

Our Hodgepodge Cuisine Makes Us Different

By Milagros Leiva Gálvez, El Comercio
To read the original Spanish article, click here.

Gastón Acurio, recently named Latin American Entrepreneur of 2005, has a goal: to introduce Peruvian
cebiche and Peruvian cuisine to the rest of the world.

He walks through the Surquillo market in Lima as if he were walking through his own home. Police officers overseeing traffic at the market ask him for recipes. Parking lot attendants don't charge him. Everyone he passes wants to know the secret to a good
tacu tacu. And all the while, Gastón simply smiles. That's just his way. He is genuinely a humble man.

When he approaches one of the market stands searching to buy
huacatay or cilantro, the vendor ladies all know that first he tastes whatever he's buying.

Before cutting any deals, Gastón Acurio always samples his fruits and vegetables

Two years ago, when I first interviewed Gastón Acurio, his restaurant, Astrid & Gaston, had been open for nine years and still headed the list of the top ten restaurants in Lima. At the time, Gastón had a cable TV program, a published cookbook, and a branch of his restaurant in Santiago, the capital of Chile.

Two years ago, Gastón Acurio was a successful chef and businessman.

Now things are even better.

His story is that of any chef who ever dreamed, and later triumphed, with his recipes.

Currently, Gastón Acurio has opened two additional restaurants in Lima, one in Colombia, one almost ready to open in Caracas, and another in Quito. In the near future, he plans on opening a Peruvian-style sandwich shop in Lima.

And as if that wasn't enough, he has just published a ten-volume encyclopedia on Peruvian cuisine.

What else can Gastón Acurio desire?

América Economí­a magazine has just named him the 2005 Latin American Entrepreneur of the Year.

The chef is having a hard time adjusting to this new sauce in which he finds himself. He claims the prize isn't just for him, but for Peruvian cuisine in general. This is true.

His is the story of a man who is much more valuable than solely his worth on paper.

Gastón Acurio loves Peru, and Peruvians love him for that.

MLG: What's the secret of your success?

GA: I'm afraid of failure. I don't have any intention of becoming an old man and being part of yet another generation of failures that did nothing to change this country. That's why I leave my blood on the sand, and work 15 or 18 hours a day.

If you have to take risks, that's just the way it is.

MLG: Is Gastón Acurio a brand?

GA: I don't know. One of my objectives had been to turn Astrid & Gaston into a brand and to be able to do that, it was important to transmit a philosophy, refine the tools, and create the staff so that we could expand this vision to Chile, Colombia, and Ecuador.

The idea was to make Peruvians feel proud about our cuisine. And we have accomplished that.

MLG: When you just arrived back to Peru from Europe [Note: where Gastón Acurio trained at the Cordon Bleu], you were a young chef with French affectations. At what point did you look deep into your own navel and realize you had to cook for Peru?

GA: I was a stupid kid who had been trained in France and thought that French cuisine was the only and best cuisine in the world. My first menu was completely French; by the second one, tacu tacu had made an appearance followed by lomo saltado. And by the third year, I was only cooking Peruvian food with my own touches.

I tried to cultivate one of the great virtues that we Peruvians have with regards to cooking: the total absence of any kind of nationalist chauvanism.

In Peru, we don't close our culinary borders to anything that is good and delicious. We are Chinese, Arab, Spanish, and Japanese, all at the same time. That's our key virtue, what distinguishes us, and makes us powerful: our willingness to accept the hodgepodge nature of our cuisine.

MLG: What happened to that eight-year old boy who used to make his own calamari chicharrón?

GA: I'm an eternal child because the kitchen is a place of enjoyment, of happiness.

A bitter chef can never make anything good, and neither can a chef who only thinks about money.

The only concern of a true chef is the client's happiness.

You can't skimp on anything; you have to try to attain perfection and reach even the must unsuspecting limits of your creativity. At first, you have to completely devote yourself so that later you can figure out how it can become something profitable.

MLG: Well, it appears you have reached your goals. Today, investors pay you to cook for them.

GA: I've managed to convince them that is the best way to guarantee their investment. I'd be lost if I had to sit at a desk all day. I have to be in my kitchen, doing what I know best. That's the trick.

MLG: How did you manage to attain that dream: that a Peruvian cebicherí­a would have as many branches in the world as an Italian trattoria?

GA: I'm cooking so that in the next 20 years there will be 5,000 cebicherí­as in the world. That would mean an increase in Peru's exports of ají­ amarillo, our sweet potato, our chefs.

MLG: Do you dream about that day?

GA: Daily. And, I believe it can come true. The face of sheer pleasure I see on tourists' faces when they savor a Peruvian ceviche for the first time is something unique. I want our cebiche to become popular and I always tell [Peruvian] Minister [of Tourism] Ferrero that he has to promote causa and tiradito because that's the only way we can increase the demand for ají­ amarillo.

MLG: I've met people like you, who had a dream, who began from nothing, and then triumphed. There's always a common factor: passion. And the patience to work hard to attain each goal.

GA: As far as I'm concerned, things only have one path but different processes. Desperation is not a good counselor for perfection.

Currently, I am getting ready to expand my La Mar
cebicherí­a worldwide and I need to simplify to the maximum the processes so that here in Peru, or in China, the person who is preparing the tacu tacu has no room for error.

To attain my dream, I have to attain the flavor base that is the most pure essence of
tacu tacu. That's what the Chinese have been doing for years, working hard at it, and why they now export so many sauces.

For the past six months, I have been experimenting, tasting, and rejecting; full of patience, because I know where I want to go.

I want to be able to travel to Singapore and find a
cebicherí­a and a sangucherí­a [Peruvian sandwich shop] where I can get a sandwich of chicharrón.

MLG: Who taught you to love Peru?

GA: My father. At home, we always talked about politics, and about Peru above all else.

MLG: What do politicians taste like?

GA: Like grapefruit. You can't always swallow them. Lack of leadership is one of our country's greatest problems.

MLG: Who's your candidate [in the upcoming Peruvian presidential elections]?

GA: I would hope someone who can attain a consensus. We need that for at least another ten years to lead us to a new stage of social peace.

MLG: Are you drawn more towards [Alan] Garcí­a or [Lourdes] Flores Nano? [Note: at the time of the original interview, the two leading presidential candidates; García won the election.]

GA: The first thing I consider are ethics, and I don't see how Garcí­a fits into that mold.

MLG: So, it's Lourdes...

GA: No. I prefer Yehude Simon. I think he has been able to reconcile the position of workers with that of businesspeople thanks to a modern vision that doesn't betray his leftist ideals. Why couldn't he join forces with [former President and current candidate] Valentí­n Paniagua?

MLG: Is Gastón a man of consensus or is he a radical?

GA: I am a man of consensus except with regards to two things. I can't stand it when the powerful overrun the powerless. And I can't stand someone who grew up with all the benefits, and despite that background, ends up looting the country. I have nothing to say to those kinds of people. We are on opposing teams.

MLG: You have a particular closeness towards people of humble backgrounds. On your television program, you take us to small hole-in-the-walls where the cooks are simple people, who create delicious flavors.

GA: I learn a lot from humble people. They are the ones who with very little create something beautiful. Their lack of material posessions make them creative, sophisticated. Every week, I learn from them and I become more convinced of how insignificant I am, that I know nothing at all.

MLG: If you were mayor of Lima, would you allow the vendors of street food to come back?

GA: Of course. I would turn them into a well-founded institution so they form part of the urban landscape. Tourists love that sort of thing --eating picarones, anticuchos, papa rellena-- on a street corner. But you know what our history is like, we're the first to boycott ourselves.

MLG: Are fried eggs on white rice still one of your favorite dishes?

GA: Of course, and now it's among my daughters' favorite dishes.

MLG: You once told me you had a very prickly personality. That people either loved or hated you.

GA: These days I am more prickly than ever. I have become a loner which goes against what people may imagine about me. The sensitivity I demonstrate in the kitchen takes time away from the people I love. There are many people who depend on me now. The public is always wondering about future projects, and I feel such a strong pressure that I seek refuge like a prickly sea urchin. I keep my charms safe within an armor full of spines.

MLG: And who takes care of that prickly sea urchin?

GA: My family is my refuge. But I am also at a stage in which I wonder how much I'll be judged by my wife and daughters for all the time I don't spend with them. I'm in a period of questioning. I have my doubts and the only thing that convinces me to carry on is what I told you at the beginning of this interview: I am not willing to be judged as part of a generation of failures.

MLG: Do you feel guilty because you aren't able to spend that much time with your daughters?

GA: A lot. And, I don't consider myself a good father. At this moment, they wish I could be with them at their gymnastics practice and I'm not. I'm here.

MLG: Are they little chefs?

GA: Not at all. The kitchen is the enemy that stole Daddy.

MLG: Have you reconciled with your wife?

GA: Yes, and I'm very happy.

MLG: Not too long ago, you said that without your wife your life would be lost. I found it to be a beautiful statement.

GA: It's absolutely true. Astrid is a chef, like I am, and at the onset we didn't know how to handle that.

MLG: Did you compete?

GA: Yes. We didn't know how to deal with that. I suspect it's not a good idea to get married to someone with whom you share the same profession, and who works in the same place as you do, because then it becomes monotonous, with the possibility of arguments, and then you lose it all.

But above everything else, Astrid is the person who most inspires me. She is the only person whose on-the-mark criticisms I fear, and the only one I trust wholly, besides my parents. It's good to know that you have a person beside you who is unable to hurt you. I trust her. That is invaluable.

MLG: What was it like getting back together? I imagine, somewhat explosive...

GA: No. The first year was the worst. Our separation meant we each accumulated a series of resentments. There was a lot of ají­ and peppers between us until all of sudden, peace appeared, complicity, the inability to judge, and that deep love that is above and beyond anything else.

MLG: Forgiveness appeared?

GA: That's it! Forgiveness appeared. And once you forgive, love and peace arrive. Afterwards, the only way to be is to enjoy the simplest things.

MLG: What has money given you?

GA: I don't know because I don't know what that means. I don't have bank accounts.

MLG: Don't kid us!

GA: No. The money is where it has to be. Right now, I am laying the groundwork to make La Mar an international chain. And you spend money doing that. Attaining the base of Peruvian flavor is very expensive.

MLG: Why haven't you opened any restaurants in the [Peruvian] provinces?

GA: Because of fear, anger, frustration. I'm afraid of opening a restaurant, then discovering that unfortunately, people can't afford it. I become fearful remembering that one of our country's failures is that our economy is centralized in Lima.

MLG: How about that project to open a free cooking school in the Virú Valley [in northern Peru]?

GA: It's progressing, and part of my money goes there. We want to establish an independent foundation, with support of the World Bank. Since our national government acclaims our country's cuisine yet doesn't construct any public culinary academies, we'll have to do it ourselves. I want it to be the best cooking school in the world.

MLG: The sky's the limit for you, isn't it?

GA: We should all think that way.

MLG: I'm curious about something. If tomorrow, you had the opportunity to eat your last Peruvian dish, what would it be?

GA: I would eat a ceviche. You can never get tired of it. A good eviche brings happiness to the soul.

MLG: What dessert would you choose?

GA: There is nothing like a good, well-made, piping-hot picarón. It's indescribable: crunchy outside, soft inside.

MLG: And if you had to pay tribute to your daughters for their patience, for all the time you don't spend with them, what would you cook for them?

GA: We would have an orgy of corn flakes. I would cook them a fantasy world with their favorite cereal. As a chef, and in my life in general, I try to make people happy and provide them what they already enjoy. Thinking about other people's pleasure pleases me.

Website for Astrid & Gaston Restaurant

Read more about Gastón Acurio here at Peru Food by clicking on any of the links below:

Gaston Acurio: Inexhaustible Creativity

Video: Anthony Bourdain in Peru

Another Interview with Gaston Acurio

Gaston Acurio Interviewed by Elena Hernández in Panama's Diario La Prensa

At Madrid Fusion Elena Hernández Chats with Gaston Acurio

Gaston Acurio

Astrid & Gaston Restaurant

Click here for the Peru Food main page.

TAGS: Peru, Peruvian, food, cooking, cuisine, cocina, comida, gastronomía, peruana


Ricardo said...

Que tal gatovolador, muy buena traduccion sobre el articulo y muy bueno tu blog, la verdad que me sirve de mucho al mirar sitios para degustar de la buena mesa, excelentes datos, que los hare saber a toda la gente que tambien se interesa por la buena comida, sigue con los buenos consejos y toda la informacion que das, un abrazo desde Lima.


::Alejandro:: said...

Gracias Richard por tu visita y gentileza. Siempre me alegro sabiendo que la gente encuentre útil o entretenido este humilde blog.