Peruvian Power: Chef Gaston Acurio's Roots
The Peruvian chef Gaston Acurio is a bundle of seeming contradictions. As a young man his family sent him to Spain to get a law degree – but after a couple years he decided he wanted to be a chef, and switched to cooking school instead. After training in some of Europe's top classical restaurants, he returned home. Instead of sticking with the Continental style, however, he ultimately reconnected with Peru's local ingredients and recipes. His flagship restaurant in Lima, Astrid y Gaston, is a high-concept place where the tasting menu, dubbed "El Viaje," is structured like a five-act play to tell the story of Ligurian-Peruvian migration. But many of his other restaurants, like La Mar (with locations in Bogota, Sao Paulo, Santiago, Panama City and San Francisco) are in the more rustic spirit of a traditional Peruvian cebicheria.
ACURIO IS CLEARLY A SAVVY BUSINESSMAN, with dozens of restaurants in Peru and around the world – but he is also a dreamer who sees cooking as an avenue to do great things. He is so popular in his home country that rumors floated of a possible run for the presidency. Instead, he uses his stature to create opportunities for others, by opening cooking schools in poor regions of Peru and vocally promoting the work of the farmers and fishermen who supply his restaurants.
These contradictions are perhaps fitting, because there may be no country's cuisine that is more diverse, and that successfully unites so many disparate elements, as that of Peru. It draws from an astonishing variety of indigenous ingredients – chilies, potatoes, fruits and herbs unlike anywhere else in the world, plus an abundance of fresh fish and seafood. It also incorporates a United Nations of influences – Japanese, Chinese, Spanish, Italian and African – into a kaleidoscopic culinary repertoire.
Peruvian cuisine offers something to please just about anyone. Raw foodists will relish ceviche, cubes of raw fish "cooked" with nothing more than citrus juice and chilies. Pescatarians will love the plethora of seafood options, from pescado a la macho (fish in a spicy seafood sauce) to jalea mixta (a mix of fried seafood, like a Peruvian spin on the Italian fritto misto). Meat and potatoes types will like lomo saltado, sliced steak sauteed with peppers, onions and french fries. Offal fans can start a meal with anticuchos – chicken or beef hearts sauced and grilled – and finish with cau cau, a hearty tripe stew. In the mood for Chinese-style fried rice? Ask for arroz chaufa. Pasta? Tallarines verdes, spaghetti in a green pesto sauce, can be found on many Peruvian restaurant menus, as well as more exotic cross-cultural spins like pasta with a spicy, cheesy huancaina sauce.
Peru's food is justifiably known as the original fusion cuisine. (Indeed, Acurio has a cookbook entitled 500 Years of Fusion.) And Acurio – one of the most recognized and celebrated Peruvian chefs around the world – is its de facto ambassador. Soon, the diplomatic mission will come to Miami, when his restaurant La Mar opens in the Mandarin Oriental, Miami on Brickell Key. We had a chance to sit down with Acurio about the new restaurant, and some bigger thoughts on the role and responsibility of a chef.
"I'M HONORED TO DO A SMALL 'PERUVIAN EMBASSY' – farmers, fishermen, street food chefs – to be a part of the cultural movement of using the power of food to do great things. Our responsibility is to share our culture." he says of the upcoming La Mar. "This is an amazing space. We will be the first Peruvian restaurant in the Mandarin Oriental chain."
The Miami restaurant will be run by chef de cuisine Diego Oka, who previously did the same at La Mar in San Francisco. Oka's initial meeting with Acurio was fortuitous. "I was in the supermarket one Sunday. I saw someone looking at me, then hiding. It was Diego, then 16 years old, working at the market with Japanese ingredients. He said to me: 'I see you on TV, I dream of being a chef one day.' I told him to come tomorrow to the restaurant to see if you want to be a chef. He stayed. He was born to be a chef. He comes from a family of artists. Diego leads the spirit and soul of the restaurant."
ACURIO SEES THE RESTAURANT as an opportunity not only to connect South Floridians to Peru, but also to make his own connections with the local food chain: "Everyone loves to discover new ingredients, new stories. We're trying to put in people's hearts the flavors of Peru. We arrive with our flavors, but we work with the best local farmers and fisherman." These connections between chefs, farmers and fishermen are a recurring theme for Acurio: "In Peru there are 2 million small farmers. One third of the population works on small farms. Most of the recognition goes to the chef. The last person shown is the farmer or fishermen. The truth is, the heritage of our farmers is an advantage. Behind all ingredients are great stories of the farmers and fishermen – great stories inside the dish." This is not merely the typical culinary name-dropping (though Acurio does like to put the names of his fishermen and their boats on the menu) – he has spent years working with local suppliers in Peru to increase what they can earn for their work while still focusing on environmental sustainability, at the same time improving the quality of the ingredients he can deliver to his customers.
It is all part of what Acurio sees as both greater responsibilities, and opportunities, for chefs: "Chefs were trained to be inside kitchens: don't think, don't talk. Now that's over. Chefs are now thinkers. Now their jobs can go outside the kitchen and do great things. A chef must do more: be connected with the soil, the ocean – they will feed you with ingredients and inspiration. You are trained to understand that every ingredient has a chance to do something new every day."
GASTON ACURIO'S LA MAR in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel is scheduled to open in February 2014. But if you're craving Peruvian food now, you do not lack for options. These are boom times for Peruvian restaurants in South Florida. A growing Peruvian population (Miami-Dade and Broward counties' Peruvian-American population numbers rank one and three in the nation, and collectively dwarf any other county) has brought a corresponding growth in Peruvian restaurants: where there were only a handful 10 years ago, there are roughly 200 now, by some counts. Here is a small sample:
For one of South Florida's originals, open more than a decade, pay a visit to FRANCESCO in Coral Gables, a sister restaurant to the original in Lima, Peru. Their ceviche with three sauces – dressed traditionally with citrus juices, and with bright yellow aji amarillo and red rocoto chili pepper sauces (at home they call this "B.A.R." for blanca, amarillo and rocoto) – is a classic. And the Italian influence comes through in one of my favorite dishes, a dramatic jet-black squid ink risotto topped with shrimp and drizzled with aji amarillo sauce for a hint of spice.
Along Biscayne Boulevard, LIMON Y SABOR is another solid option. Their Vuelve a la Vida, a ceviche variation with chopped bits of seafood swimming in a bright, citrusy dressing, is exactly as advertised, especially if you request it spicy (the name translates as "return to life," and it is a reputed hangover cure). Follow it with the Chupe de Camarones, a deep bowl of a bisque-like soup studded with a fairly ridiculous number of shrimp (I lost count after a dozen), potatoes, choclo, fava beans, rice and egg, the shrimp-shell broth stained bright orange with aji panca (a Peruvian chili pepper) and enriched with evaporated milk.
AROMAS DEL PERU, with locations in Coral Gables, Kendall, West Miami and The Hammocks, has one of the more expansive menus of any of the places I've visited. In addition to the usual suspects, you can also find delicious grilled octopus, served with a chimichurri-like herb and garlic paste; Cau Cau, a traditional tripe stew; and Arroz con Pato, duck braised in a beer and cilantro sauce, served with green-hued cilantro rice.
At MIXTURA on Collins Avenue, the brightly lit, slick dining room with black-and-white pictures of Peru is much more polished than the touristy North Beach surroundings would lead you to expect. So is the food, with a menu that mixes traditional and contemporary. I like their Causa de Pulpo al Olivo – rounds of creamy cold mashed potato mixed with aji amarillo sauce, topped with chunks of octopus in a purple-hued botija olive sauce – and their Chaufa de Quinoa con Mariscos, a stir-fry of fluffy quinoa studded with shrimp, squid and clams.
In Pembroke Pines, the recently opened SR. CEVICHE offers many of the customary dishes in the Peruvian repertoire, but some surprises too, including a Ceviche Verde brightened up with aji limo chili peppers and huacatay, an Andean herb also known as black mint.
At JEAN PAUL'S HOUSE in Edgewater, chef Jean Paul Desmaison offers an even more varied menu, though still with a Peruvian undercurrent. Piquillo peppers are stuffed with ground lamb studded with raisins and peanuts, and blanketed with a reggiano cream sauce. Crisp pork belly is paired with grapes braised in pisco. Paiche, a huge, prehistoric-looking Amazonian river fish, is served with anticucho sauce and a lima bean puree.
A PERUVIAN FOOD GLOSSARY
AGUADITO - a hearty cilantro-infused soup stocked with rice and made with chicken but also with fish or seafood.
AJI AMARILLO - a yellow-orange chili pepper with medium heat and a bright, fruity flavor.
AJI DEGALLINA- a classic dish of shredded chicken in a thick creamy sauce flavored with aji amarillo chilies and ground walnuts.
ANTICUCHOS - appetizers of skewered grilled meats, usually beef or chicken hearts, typically marinated in vinegar, garlic and chilies.
ARROZ CHAUFA-Chinese-Peruvian style fried rice.
CAMOTE - sweet potato, often served cold in thick slices as an accompaniment to ceviche.
CANCHA - crunchy toasted corn kernels (like corn nuts), often served as a snack before a meal or as a ceviche accompaniment.
CAU CAU - a tripe stew typically flavored with chilies, cumin and huacatay. Cau Cau de Mariscos is a seafood stew. vegetables, often
CAUSA - an appetizer of cold mashed potatoes (traditionally, the Peruvian papa amarilla) mixed with lemonjuice and chili paste, with a variety of different toppings or fillings - chicken or tuna salad, shrimp, crabmeat, octopus.
CEVICHE (OR CEBICHE) - pieces of raw fish and/or seafood marinated in citrusjuices (typically lemon and lime) and spiced with chili peppers, often mixed with sliced red onion and cilantro. Camote (sweet potato) and choclo (corn kernels) are typical accompaniments.
CHICHA MORADA - a sweet drink made from purple corn, often flavored with pineapple, cinnamon and clove.
CHOCLO - a variety of corn from the Andes with large, starchy kernels, often served as a ceviche accompaniment.
CHUPE DE CAMARONES - a bisque-like shrimp soup with a shrimp-shell stock flavored with aji panca chilies and thickened with evaporated milk.
HUACATAY - an herb in the marigold family, also called "black mint."
HUANCAINA - a thick, spicy, cheesy sauce made with queso fresco, aji amarillo and evaporated milk, typically served over cold sliced potatoes (papas a la huancaina) but which finds its way into any number of other dishes.
LECHE DETIGRE - the citrus and chili marinade used for ceviche, served separately in a glass.
LOMO SALTADO - slices of steak sauteed with onions, peppers and french fries, typically served over white rice.
LUCUMA-a fruit native to Peru, somewhat similar to canistel, with a delicate sweet flavor reminiscent of caramel, maple or pumpkin, used in ice cream and other desserts.
OCAPA - a thick sauce of peanuts, chilies, herbs, queso fresco and evaporated milk, typically served over potatoes.
PARIHUELA - a stew of various seafoods similar to a bouillabaisse.
PISCO - a distilled, lightly aged grape brandy, famously featured in the Pisco Sour cocktail.
ROCOTO - a bright red, pear-shaped chili pepper with a more intense heat than the aji amarillo.
SUSPIRO LIMEÑO - a Peruvian dessert featuring dulce de leche custard topped with a port-infused meringue.
TACUTACU-a mix of white beans and rice, often formed like an omelet into a football or torpedo shape, usually serving as a hearty accompaniment to steak or other meat.
TIRADITO - fish prepared in a style similar to ceviche, but cut into thin slices similar to Japanese sashimi, rather than the chunks typically used for ceviche.
VUELVE A LA VIDA - a sort of ceviche cocktail prepared with finely chopped seafood in an abundance of citrus and chili marinade.
WHERE TO FIND THEM
325 Alcazar Ave., Coral Gables
3045 Biscayne Blvd., Miami
AROMAS DEL PERU
1930 Ponce de Leon Blvd., Coral Gables
(also 13823 SW 88 St., Miami; 5915 SW 8 St., Miami; and 10201 Hammocks Blvd., Ste. 140, Miami)
7118 Collins Ave., Miami Beach
2086 N. University Dr., Pembroke Pines
JEAN PAUL'S HOUSE
2426NE2 Ave., Miami