Gastón Acurio: “We are learning through a trial and error experience”

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Gastón Acurio seems to have known since he was a kid he would become a chef one day. His father confessed years ago that he used to post ads around his San Isidro house to sell chicha morada, Peru’s most emblematic refreshment made with purple corn. Acurio himself wrote once: “I was a little fat shrimp, aged 8 or 9, that could have won any contest as the biggest eater in the city. When I turned 11, I was probably the only kid in the whole country that used my allowance to buy squid, clean them, soak them in milk and then flour them before frying them in hot oil, while Juana, the cook at our house, who has that raucous laugh, would hide whenever I appeared in the kitchen.”

Nowadays, Acurio is highly aware of his success but also of the challenges he and his ever-growing team face in Peru and abroad. It had to happen at some point that things were going to be difficult. But of course criticism and failures have not stopped him from working ceaselessly to open this new path in the culinary world around the globe. His next projects include opening a T’anta restaurant in Chicago and a new concept restaurant in London with award-winning Virgilio Martinez from Central.

*How does T’anta work?*

T’anta is like Peru’s gastronomic embassy. This is the place that totes Peru’s authentic flavors, which include sandwiches, “chifa” or Peruvian-Chinese cuisine, Nikkei cuisine, regional gastronomy, pollo a la brasa and others. T’anta is where you go to celebrate the culinary diversity of Peru. You know you’re getting the most current look at Peruvian culinary tradition. So where do these restaurants work well? There are cities that are much more connected with the times we live in today, where people crave everything that is different because that is precisely what attracts them most. There are plenty of cities in the world that are ready to welcome a restaurant like this. What we need to find out is where are these cities that connect to the rest of the world, that no longer cling exclusively to their own local traditions, and that are willing to try new things.

Under this premise, you recently announced you and Virgilio Martinez, from Central, are opening a restaurant jointly in London. Can you explain what this project is about?

London is a city that values tradition but also creativity. And Londoners value it with more freedom than any other city in the world.

*More than in New York?*

Much more. The Londoner values what is fairly good with perspective. It doesn’t have to be “Frenchified” as is expected in New York; it just has to be good. That is why Nobu succeeded in London and not in Paris, where the French have this notion that their cuisine is good and other food can be good to, but they’re valued differently.

*Let’s go back to London.*

So, that being the case, we have two opportunities in London. The first: to open a place like T’anta, offering Peru’s most authentic and current culinary trends, with a recreational touch, a celebratory attitude, where you can find and enjoy all cuisines from around the country. The second: on the side, and simultaneously, to open another restaurant that becomes an embassy of Peruvian creativity. We will serve only twelve diners, where Virgilio, one day, for example, can make a tasting menu with twelve different kinds of potatoes. Or maybe Micha [Mitsuharu Tsumura] can create a Nikkei cuisine menu with all its culinary sophistication. So we would have these two different versions of the country: the real thing and its creative interpretation. And this is part of a strategy to end with this view of Peru as something exotic, and value it instead as something creative.

*But it’s still difficult for this so-called “Western world” to stop looking at us like an exotic place, right?*

Imagine that Virgilio accomplishes in two or three years that, one day, you wake up in New York or Paris and read on the front page of a newspaper, “The best restaurant in the world is Central in Lima, Peru.” That would change everything. That would break with the exotic concept for good, which is an added value, but then you would step into another dimension. That’s why I mentioned earlier about losing your fear. Our responsibility is to convey to the generation of cooks right behind us that they can dream about becoming number one. That is very important.

*You said earlier that when it comes to food Londoners are more open-minded than New Yorkers.*

Depends. In Manhattan, yes. But in Brooklyn people are more willing to try new things.

*I’m saying this because the food critic’s reviews about La Mar in New York City were harsh.*

Very harsh!

*Pete Wells from The New York Times wrote: “When we reached the top of the stairs, images of the tropics came to a thudding halt. Nearly every chair had a winter coat draped over it, giving the room all the elegance of a church-basement bingo game. The coat-check clerk must have gone south for the night, taking along the employee in charge of cleaning up. At the beginning of that meal, the men’s room wastebasket overflowed with paper towels. An hour later, the room was still a mess…” Later, he continues: “Pisco punch came in a goblet as sticky as a jelly jar. Explanations of menu terms like lúcuma and chicha morada were rushed and mumbled. Plates sat around so long before being cleared that they looked like archaeological sites.”*

In New York City’s La Mar there was a managerial flaw, more precisely in the service. But there are also remarks in some reviews bordering on chauvinism and arrogance.

*New York can be arrogant. And at least Wells admits in his review that “there is local chauvinism” when it comes to new culinary trends.*

So, about the service… There is a virtue that everyone recognizes in Peruvians: hospitality. We have welcomed Japanese, Chinese, Italians and other communities to settle in our country. When foreigners come to live here, we are fraternal, hospitable, and eager to share our culture, or invite them to our homes. This can be felt in the service offered at a restaurant. What are we missing to round it up? Knowledge and training to perfection so this hospitality becomes a whole experience. If you add knowledge plus the natural hospitality of Peruvians, you will end up having a super waiter.

*But the truth is that we do not have a service culture in Peru. This is not exclusively an issue in restaurants but also in hotels and other tourist services as well.*

The problem is that nowadays we have 300 cooking schools in Peru and no schools to learn how to be a waiter.

*You created one in Pachacutec…*

Okay, one. That’s it.

*So what do we have to do about it?*

We have so many law schools and no school for waiters. The municipalities, for example, could offer 18-year-old kids a potential job after studying a solid, nine-month technical career. It can be done.

*Tim Carman from The Washington Post wrote last December about you: “At times, he appears to be suffering from an acute case of free-market capitalism: His considerable talents have been stretched so thin that there is, at times, little quality control at his restaurants.” What do you think about this?*

If I am an Italian cook that starts the long way to opening a restaurant, I will submerge myself into a cooking tradition that is, at least, a hundred years old. The voyage of Italian cuisine around the world has been going on for more than a century. Thus, the world I have today is a place where I’ll have a lot to choose from if I need highly trained personnel for an Italian restaurant, 50 brands of pastas, 50 kinds of olive oil, or 50 kinds of tomato sauce, as well as other ingredients from Italy. I can build my restaurant exactly as I want. This is definitely not the case with Peruvian cuisine. We’re dealing here with a group of people pioneering into a whole new world, building the base for those that come behind us have a friendlier world in which they can open their Peruvian restaurant. When we opened Astrid & Gastón in Bogotá, Colombia, we had to borrow pisco from the Peruvian embassy, because nobody sold pisco in the city.

*How long ago was that?*

Seven years ago.

*Can you get pisco nowadays in Bogotá?*

There are at least 50 Peruvian restaurants in the city offering pisco cocktails. In Cartagena, there is a Sofitel – a French hotel chain – that offers in its 24-hour room service anticuchos, tiraditos, pisco sours and algarrobinas. You go out and there are seven Peruvian restaurants just in the old part of the city. Somebody has to be selling pisco.

*Okay, so back to Carman’s remarks…*

If I have to obtain pisco with the Peruvian ambassador, bring ají in suitcases, train somebody that has never heard about ceviche, in the kitchen and the dining room, we’re talking about a completely different world than that of the Italian restaurant. So what are my options? We had problems with service, so let’s stop and let it go. Or let’s keep trying our best, make things different and learn in the process. And we are learning through a trial and error experience sometimes.

*Give me an example of a relevant change you have made.*

By 2014, our restaurants will stop serving on tableware made for hotels. We are designing our own tableware according to our culinary needs, as a sushi-bar has its own for serving tempura, sashimi or makis. We cannot serve ceviche in the same type of plate used for serving lomo saltado. But there has to be a reason, a concept why it should be different, as a result of developing a Peruvian language for its cuisine. This will help us to evaluate the offers we receive to open restaurants around the world. Nowadays we only consider options that include all the necessary tools in order to prevent making mistakes, even if we are aware we still can make them. The difficulties of opening a new culinary path in the world are out there, for sure.

_Read the first part of this interview “here”:http://www.peruthisweek.com/food-gaston-acurio-our-pride-could-come-back-and-hit-us-like-boomerang-100253 ._

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