Can Ceviche Conquer the World? Peru’s Top Chefs Think So
These days, Peru’s hottest export is a gang of ambitious chefs bent on global culinary domination. Here’s a guide to who’s who, plus recipes to try at home from father of modern Peruvian cuisine Gastón Acurio
By Jay Cheshes in the Wall Street Journal
“PERUVIAN PRIDE, it all started with our cuisine,” said Mitsuharu Tsumura, a young Peruvian chef of Japanese origins, seated in the office above his Lima restaurant Maido. Mr. Tsumura had just returned home from Cusco, where he’d been shooting a TV commercial with Gastón Acurio, his country’s most famous food personality. Maido’s chef would be around just long enough to oversee a dinner service before joining Mr. Acurio on the road again, flying to Chile to promote a Peruvian culinary icon, ceviche. Both men are founding members of the Leche de Tigre Gang, a group of Lima chefs (named for the citrusy marinade in ceviche) who’ve held events in Chicago, Miami, Barcelona and Paris. Their goal, as Mr. Acurio put it, is to turn ceviche into a “universal dish, so that one day ceviche restaurants will be opening all over the world.”
That day is already here, with even non-native chefs exploring Peruvian flavors these days: Alain Ducasse introduced a ceviche menu at Rech, his Paris seafood restaurant, last year, and José Andrés just launched his own Chinese-Peruvian spot, China Chilcano, in Washington, D.C.
But that gang of Peru’s own chefs has done the real work of promoting the country’s mix of indigenous ingredients and immigrant influences from Italy, Spain, China, Japan. They’ve been traveling widely on the food-festival circuit, celebrating Peru’s bountiful larder—the coastal seafood, the tropical fruit from the Amazon, the 4,000 varieties of Andean potato—collaborating on dinners, lectures and cooking demonstrations abroad; and opening their own outposts overseas. “We realized that if we worked together we could get to the point where Peruvian food would be a brand known and valued all over the world,” said Mr. Acurio.
Interest generated abroad has helped fuel culinary tourism to Peru. “People used to hop immediately to Cusco to see Machu Picchu,” said Rafael Osterling, a popular chef who, for four years, hosted a cooking show broadcast across Latin America. “Now they stay in Lima for a few days to eat.”
Peru’s gastronomic ascent began in earnest in 2002, when Mr. Acurio, who worked in Paris as a young chef, started to transition from French food to high-end Peruvian at his flagship restaurant, Astrid y Gastón, in Lima. Up to then, the city’s fine-dining options had been all European. A top-down revolution followed, the country’s modern food movement led by a new breed of privileged (and well traveled) chefs, many of them scions of Peru’s most prominent and affluent families.
Most among this group started out pursuing other careers. Mr. Acurio, son of a Peruvian senator, dropped out of law school in Madrid without telling his parents he was using their money on cooking classes instead. “They were expecting a lawyer,” he said of his return to Peru. Mr. Osterling, another politician’s son, was set to begin diplomacy school in Lima in 1992 when a military coup closed it down (and placed his father under house arrest). Afterward he moved to London to study at Le Cordon Bleu. Virgilio Martinez, another former law student, worked for both Mr. Osterling and Mr. Acurio when he started out. He now runs Central, the Lima restaurant ranked highest, at 15th, on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. He’s also a member of the Leche de Tigre gang. “It’s not about promoting our restaurants,” he said of the group. “It’s about showing the world how we’re growing together as Peruvian chefs.”
Peru’s Food Ambassadors // 6 of the Country’s Top Chefs
1. The Nikkei Master
In the five years since he opened Maido in Lima, Mitsuharu Tsumura has emerged as Peru’s most important proponent of Nikkei cuisine, the fusion that grew out of more than a century of Japanese immigration. “Originally it was hard to find the ingredients for Japanese food, so they had to adapt,” he said. Mr. Tsumura will open restaurants in Chile and Colombia later this year, and a China project in 2016. maido.pe
2. The Fine Dining Veteran
In 2000, Rafael Osterling opened Lima’s Rafael, serving a Mediterranean-Peruvian mix in a bright space that still draws big crowds. Ten years later he launched El Mercado, also in Lima, with a menu of hearty Peruvian classics. An El Mercado cookbook is due out this year in both English and Spanish, and he’s also at work on three new places in Lima: a Peruvian brasserie, a takeout shop and a casual bistro. rafaelosterling.pe
3. The Empire Builder
Lima party spot Mayta, Jaime Pesaque’s first restaurant, offers an easy introduction to the flavors of Peru in the form of whole roasted pig, wide pans of duck rice and the like. He’s opened nine other restaurants in five countries since 2010, with more in the works in Colombia, Ecuador and Dubai. “For me these aren’t just restaurants but small embassies of our culture,” he said. maytarestaurante.com
4. The Amazon Explorer
The host of a TV show on rustic cooking, Pedro Miguel Schiaffino sources ingredients from up and down the Amazon for his Lima restaurants Malabar and Amaz, introducing urban Peruvians to the likes of giant snails and carachama caviar. In August he’ll open Eru at the Capitol Singapore hotel. “It’s amazing how connected we are to Southeast Asia,” he said. “We share techniques, ingredients, flavor profiles.” malabar.com.pe
5. The Elder Statesman
Last year, father of modern Peruvian cooking Gastón Acurio handed over his Lima flagship, Astrid y Gastón, to up-and-coming chef Diego Muñoz. Now Mr. Acurio focuses on his books, TV shows and cooking school, as well as nine restaurant concepts he’s launched—50 outposts in all—from San Francisco to Madrid. This fall he’ll open a restaurant attached to a cabaret in Paris, and he plans to launch a fast-casual chain in the U.S. His new book, out this month, is the definitive tome on Peruvian home cooking. astridygaston.com
6. The Archaeologist
At Lima’s Central, Virgilio Martinez, champion of Peru’s ancient food traditions, offers a 17-course tasting menu arranged by elevation and often inspired by expeditions through the Andes. The expense of maintaining a staff of 61 for just 50 seats is offset by two immensely successful ventures in London, which offer more straightforward Peruvian cuisine. A destination restaurant is due to open in two years in a new mountain resort outside Cusco, and Mr. Martinez, who also heads a gastronomy studies program at the Peruvian University of Applied Science, is working on his own book for Phaidon, due out next year. centralrestaurante.com.pe