Gastón Acurio is the ultimate ambassador of Peruvian cuisine. He is the owner of restaurants in several countries and is the author of many books. In Peru, he is the host of his own television show and contributes to a few magazines too. So, imagine our excitement when FACT got the chance to sit down with the culinary genius on his latest visit to Doha and talk all things Peruvian cooking, accolades, awards and what makes La Mar Doha special…
Congratulations! You picked up the 2018 Diners Club Lifetime Achievement Award – and your team have taken home a cluster of accolades over the years, ranking first in the inaugural Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants list in 2013, The Art of Hospitality award in 2017, Latin America’s Best Pastry Chef for Gutsche in 2015. After having accomplished so much – what are your goals for the future?
Me and the Chefs of my generation in some way we were entrusted with a mission, it was to make the world fell in love with Peru through our cuisine. We realized that there was this defeatist sentiment, that Peru was not as beautiful as Europe, neither so valuable nor so fancy nor so sophisticated and that if we wanted to have some success in life we had to cook European food, but the chefs of my generation we realized that obviously that was not true, we had an opportunity in the kitchen to show our people we shouldn’t be afraid to be authentic, we needed to create our own dreams and stop imitating something that wasn’t ours. At the beginning it seemed an impossible dream because we encounter a lot of obstacles, the banks did not want to lend you money, the investors did not want to invest in you because you were Peruvian, the risk was very high, getting ingredients was impossible, nobody knew how to make a Peruvian dish, it cost a lot to train the cooks, good locations were given to open Italian or French restaurants, everything seemed impossible. However, we managed to pass that first stage. Now there is the feeling that the mission has been fulfilled and now we have to do other things. There is already a younger generation that is triumphing in the world of creativity, there are very young guys who are already opening their restaurants. Here in Qatar there are 10 Peruvian chefs in this restaurant. The question is and now what do we do? We have much more to do in Peru, because there are still some important pending tasks there, issues like; childhood chronic malnutrition, extreme poverty, lack of roots to your identity in a country as diverse as Peru, those things have become a new task for me, I have already contributed to make Peruvian food globally recognized and now I am trying to come back to my origins.
Talking about accolades, Congratulations on winning Best Restaurant in Doha 2019 at the Fact Dining Awards. How does it feel to have achieved so much success with La Mar Doha in such a small amount of time?
It’s a bit unbelievable to have won so fast, having such important names here as Nobu, Gordon Ramsey or Hakkasan. I did not believe it, but this place is so beautiful, there is a great team working here trying to offer visitors the best experience possible like our Executive Chef Tomas and our General Manager Tomi, and the whole team in the kitchen, maybe a small big difference is that when a Peruvian chef cooks in a restaurant so far from his homeland he is not only making a living he is also representing his country, so he leaves a feeling in every dish he makes, maybe this is what people have noticed.
Looking back at the time when you changed the cuisine at Astrid y Gaston from French to your own Peruvian cuisine, did you foresee that you will be the catalyst for the big global breakthrough of Peruvian cuisine?
I used to dream about having my restaurant someday, that was my dream as a kid, and I made it come true but at the time I wasn’t dreaming about having a Peruvian restaurant, I was dreaming like any other chef in the world to open a French restaurant because it was the global trend and what would get you closer to any kind of recognition. But time passes and fortunately you discover your roots you recover your memory and without even realizing it everything begins to change in your kitchen until there comes a time when you are not doing what you did before and you start questioning yourself, you start to think that you are here for a reason and it is at that moment that you make a decision to say ok it does not make any sense to represent another culture that is not yours and even with the fear of losing your clientele you still do it and suddenly one day you appear on a list that you did not even know existed and you are there because you are doing something different, then you realize that this has a great potential and you have to turn it into a strategy with very clear objectives that is to promote your country in the world, use the cuisine as a tourist promotion for your country, for your products for your identity, for your people but to get to that point it was a long process of evolution and reflection.
If you were to prepare one meal for someone who didn’t know anything about Peruvian cuisine, what would you serve them?
Ceviche without a doubt, ceviche is the dish that we are most excited to share, because it is the dish that we share the most among Peruvians, among us, it is a gesture of friendship, it is a gesture of forgiveness, of celebration, is a dish that you share on a simple occasion or very special one. It is so special for us we designed a restaurant called La Cevicheria, it is a place to celebrate. Ceviche today is a dish that has become international and is also our most important contemporary ambassador. Moreover, we already know that people will like it, when the General Manager here who is Austrian tried it, he told me the problem of ceviche is that it is so addictive, and you cannot stop eating it. It is apparently a simple dish but to find the right balance of acidity is not easy, that is something that you must carry inside, reading a recipe does not give it to you, there is a precise balance that you achieve only with time, like the cooks here in the kitchen they have been eating and tasting it for years to make it right. How many times have I seen Spanish friends and chefs who had never come to Peru making ceviches in their restaurants in Spain and when they come to Peru for the first time they try ceviche and say “now I understand everything, it has nothing to do with what I was doing” . It happens a lot with the cuisines that travel around the world, for example the Thai or Vietnamese cuisine, if you have tasted it only outside of Thailand, you would think that it is a little bit sweet, and it’s nothing like that, it is rather citrus, herbaceous, spicy but add a dash of sugar when you read in the recipe. Sugar to someone who has not come to Vietnam or Thailand ends up throwing twice as much sugar because they are looking for a sweet taste that does not exist.
What do you think it is specifically about La Mar Doha that has appealed and continues to draw diners in Qatar to visit the restaurant?
We recently talked to the owner of the hotel and he told me that one of the reasons he thought he liked it was because deep down they are similar flavours to their own cuisine, a little spicy, cumin spices, the herbal flavors even the citrus flavour, they are familiar flavors. On the other hand, this place is impressive, is really a palace built for Peruvian cuisine, something that even in my most ambitious dream I wouldn’t have imagined, a dream come true in its biggest dimension.
To this day, what is your biggest inspiration when it comes to cooking?
My memory, memory sometimes manifests itself in a landscape, in a place, in a conversation, in a book, in a taste you try, in a photo that you see and that leads you to remember something you had forgotten, it is the memory that wakes up the need to cook something special, for us cooks everything we cook has to be special even the simplest dish. Food is not something vain or ephemeral, the cooks are aware that at the end of our lives our food will be one of the biggest treasures, one of the most valuable things we will remember. That’s why cooking is so important, is an essential activity in our life is something that chefs should try to promote all the time, the importance of cooking, the importance of creating memories at home cooking with your family.
Share with us one of your oldest cooking tips which you still find useful today?
The recipes are just guides don’t restrict yourself by it, for example if you decide today you will prepare Aji de Gallina (Peruvian chicken stew) and you go to the market to find a chicken, but the chicken is not very fresh and suddenly you see some incredible fresh prawns then you can change your mind and say I’ll prepare Aji de Camarones, because with those prawns, whatever you prepare will come out delicious, if you have a recipe in mind, don’t make it so strict be flexible, the recipe is just a guide but you can use your imagination and creativity and end up preparing something very rich every day
Can you tell us a little bit more about The Pachacutec Culinary Institute which you helped to open in 2007 in Peru. How is it different from other culinary schools?
Pachacutec is the name of an Inca Emperor, first of all this school is for young people who do not have the money to pay for a private cooking school, people who have not really had a chance in life, people who have the dream of being cooks but do not have the economic resources to pay an education. In Peru there are no public cooking schools, whoever wants to become a chef has to have economic means so we thought let’s do this school in a place where there are many deficiencies such as Pachacutec which is an area located at the north of Lima city, I though about the young Gaston who was lucky enough to be a chef to make his dream come true and who is now promoting the Peruvian cuisine around the world. There are also many children in Peru with the same dream and couldn’t afford it and today there are more than 500 students graduated from the school , here in La Mar Doha there are 2 cooks that have graduated at Pachacutec, they are all over the world, some are already heads of kitchen, some have already opened their restaurants. I finance the opening of the school in 2007 and have keep it up running till now, we have to give back to the less fortunate the opportunities that life gives to us, the teachers are cooks who work with us who spend a few hours of their normal working hours to teach at school, so we have very good teachers, the best I would say, the students come out with a lot of energy, strength, enthusiasm, they are very good kids.
You are a busy man – tv shows, book launches, restaurant openings – what is your next project?
I am making a beautiful documentary of 100 chapters, it’s about the 100 dishes of Peru nowadays, we are going to try to tell the deepest story of each dish, the feelings around those dishes told by its protagonists, for example, the story of the Italian grandmother who had to adapt the recipe of her minestrone and turn it into Peruvian minestrone with local ingredients like; tapioca, corn, potato, sweet potato and also we want to hear what a local Peruvian with no Italian origin feels when he eats it because we want to try to consolidate the pride for a nation whose great virtue is its multicultural origins, we want to tell the world the story behind those dishes; wonderful love stories where such diverse and different people were able to share their cultures and transform them into a unique new dish, we want to tell the world that when different people from different cultures get together, only beautiful things happen.
What is your advice for young chefs?
Patience, when I was a kid and studied cooking, to get a recipe, I had to wait until Saturday to go to the library and look for a new recipe, to learn something from another experienced cook I had to invest at least a couple of years working with them , to be able to learn whatever skills he had and took so long to perfect. So today the kids have tools that play sometimes against them, with a button instead of a recipe you can get a thousand recipes, you can also find out in real time how many chefs are opening new restaurants, winning prizes, and all this information can generates some anxiety, the young generation feels the need to get quick recognition because otherwise they will not make it, missing the opportunity of the slow learning process that will lead you to real success in life. Patience is the best advice I can give the young chefs, patience to wait for your moment, without stressing because life is not as fast or as short as it seems to be in social media, it is about enjoying your learning journey and appreciating the wisdom of old people. Do not stress because in the end the recognition is something that one gains in time not from one day to the next.
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