Anyone who has been paying close attention to the culinary trends of right now is very much aware that the next “it” cuisine is that of Peru, a cuisine that has been slowly and quietly trying to break into the American palate for at least a decade. A handful of chefs and food writers had heralded the advent of Peruvian cuisine in this country years ago, but it had been premature, and many food enthusiasts were left waiting for a wave of Peruvian restaurants - both haute and humble - that never seemed to arrive. This country wasn’t ready yet. Not only did we lack the food culture that we have today with all its foodie bloggers and gourmet food trucks, it was almost as if gringos had yet to resolve their issues with Latin American cuisine. Although many Latin Americans were already fans of the varied and sophisticated cuisine of Peru, the general American population still thought that Latino cuisines were either confined inside a tortilla or served with a heap of rice, beans, and plantains. Peruvian cuisine did not fit neatly into any of those compartments. With the rise in Latino chefs and the spread of Nuevo Latino cuisine, Americans began to understand that Latin American cuisines could be elegant and sophisticated and complex. We began enjoying spicier, bolder flavors. We started to become huge fans of ceviche to the point that almost every menu now features it. We were also about to be introduced to a chef who was steadily building momentum in Peru and who would introduce the rest of the world to Peruvian cuisine.
Chef Gaston Acurio is perhaps the most well-known culinary personality in Peru and plays the role of gourmet chef, culinary anthropologist, food activist, cultural marketer, and innovator. His signature restaurant in Lima, Astrid y Gaston, has been included for the past 2 years in San Pellegrino’s “The World’s 50 Best Restaurants”, and he has opened several other locations in Europe and Latin America. T’anta, his chain of chic but informal eateries spread throughout Lima, offer fun twists on Peruvian classics like a lomo saltado sandwich or a tamal-stuffed empanada. He has also opened Panchita, a restaurant that pays homage to Afro-Peruvian street food, as well as Madam Tusan, which honors the Chinese-Peruvian culinary tradition.
Peruvian cuisine, especially the cuisine of Lima, is considered to be one of the original fusion cuisines of the Americas. Take the typical trinity of Spanish, Amerindian, and African cultures that comprise criollo cuisine in most of Latin America and add to it culinary traditions from the Arab world, France, Italy, Southern China, and Japan and you have something incredibly unique! This mixture of cuisines gave rise to a homegrown, deep-seeded food culture that is second to none in the hemisphere. Limeños are inherent gourmands, and a stay in Lima without eating at several good restaurants is like a trip to Egypt without visiting the Pyramids.
Like many Limeños, it was within this culture that Chef Acurio was raised. Good food runs through his veins like it does with most of his countrymen. Nevertheless, the culture was stuck in tradition until he and several other young chefs started to look at the dishes they grew up eating with innovative eyes. Soon, creative interpretations of classic dishes were captivating the country’s imagination and palate. For these chefs, the exploration of Peruvian cuisine began to spread from Lima to the rest of the country, and focus was brought to dishes and ingredients from parts of the country from which Lima maintained a sort of cultural isolation. These chefs were discovering ancient grains like quinoa and kiwicha, heirloom varieties of potatoes, animal proteins like cuy and alpaca, and the fish and tropical fruit of the Amazon region.
Among this new breed of chefs was a holistic view of Peruvian cuisine and culture that included the whole country - a departure from the elitist Lima-centric views of the past. There was a new zeal and urgency to promote food products from all corners of Peru as national treasures that were under threat from monocultures and imports. Promoting Peruvian ingredients then blossomed into promoting Peruvian cuisine as a major pillar of the country’s identity, a source of pride, a point of distinction, and a major draw for tourists.
Lima, which was previously seen as a mere stepping stone to Cuzco and Machu Picchu, has now become a tourist destination, and the main attraction is the food. Because of Chef Gaston Acurio and others like him, Peru now has one of the highest concentrations of culinary arts schools, and an overwhelming amount of young people from all socioeconomic levels are aspiring to become chefs. Throughout all of this, Chef Acurio had become the face of the Peruvian culinary revolution, and the revolution was ready to come stateside.
There has been good and even great Peruvian cuisine in the United States for quite some time, but few places offered the type of elegance seen in a Gaston Acurio restaurant. The heights to which Peruvian cuisine had reached in Peru had yet to be seen in this country until Chef Acurio introduced two of the biggest food cities - San Francisco and New York City - to his beloved Lima cebichería, La Mar. People have started to take notice of not only him, but of Peruvian cuisine in general, and judging from the variety of people attending Chef Acurio’s ceviche and pisco sour soirée during this year’s South Beach Wine & Food Festival, it appears as if Peruvian cuisine has been making converts out America’s savviest foodies.
Taking place on The Betsy hotel’s scenic rooftop overlooking Miami Beach’s Ocean Drive and the Atlantic Ocean, the Pescado & Pisco event showcased the beauty of Peru’s national dish with preparations that included both classic and innovative interpretations, as well an homage to Peru’s Japanese culinary heritage that aided in its unique appreciation of seafood. Chef Acurio was present along with Chef Laurent Tourondel of BLT Steak and a handpicked team that included Victorino Lopez from La Mar’s New York City location and Diego Oka from the San Francisco location.
Spoonfuls of traditional ceviche made with yellow tail had all the typical elements: onions, heat from limo chiles, and the freshest fish just barely cured from a quick toss in lime juice. A Nikkei (Japanese-Peruvian) ceviche, prepared by Chef Oka, was made with tuna and included ginger, sesame, and a dash of soy sauce. Another innovative ceviche offered sweet, tender pieces of raw scallop tossed with a marinade assertively spiced with an emulsion of ají amarillo and topped with “tongues” of sweet, melting sea urchin.
Few things go better with ceviche than a traditional pisco sour, the national cocktail of Peru made with clear brandy distilled from Quebranta grapes. Ocucaje, one of Peru’s leading makers of pisco, was present with traditional preparations of the foamy, tart cocktail topped with a few dashes of bitters, as well as an addictive passion fruit variety enhanced with a measure of triple sec.
Chef Acurio gave a brief explanation of ceviche and highlighted its role as a social food and how it brings people together, just as the dish has brought several culinary traditions together. In line with his passion for promoting local Peruvian products, he mentioned how he works with small farmers throughout Peru to provide his restaurants with the best quality products while supporting local communities and traditions. The talk gave one the sense of tasting a great cross section of Peru in each bite of ceviche.
Upon talking to Chef Acurio, almost everyone asked about plans to open a restaurant in Miami, a city with a large Peruvian population. Although he gave very few details, he did say that plans were being finalized, and a great location has already been selected. While most of Miami already knows great Peruvian food, the thought of having Gaston Acurio’s La Mar come to the Magic City is something that every local foodie should get excited about, and definitely one more great restaurant to add to Miami’s growing culinary scene.