Gastón Acurio and Ferran Adriá, the most renowned chefs in Peru and Spain, respectively, teamed up last year to produce a documentary, Perú Sabe: Cuisine as an Agent of Social Change. The 70-minute film follows Adrià on his first trip to Peru, where Acurio — considered a national hero there — shows the Catalan chef how an emphasis on food and the people that make it has resulted in both economic and social improvements in the country; over 80,000 people, for instance, are enrolled in culinary school, and as Adrià has said before, "Young kids there don't want to be soccer stars. They want to cook."
Acurio and Adrià were in New York City earlier this week gearing up for the film's premiere at the United Nations. In the following interview, which took place at one of the many outposts of Acurio's La Mar Cebicheria around the world, the two talked about how the project came about, what they saw on their trip, and the often contentious issue of chefs and social responsibility.
How did the idea for a documentary project come about?
Ferran Adrià: Gastón came to elBulli and told me about what was going on in Peru, and throughout the course of a very short time, people like Andoni, Juan Mari, and many other colleagues were also telling me how amazing and beautiful what was going on was.
When was this?
FA: This was around 2010, when I had already decided to close the restaurant. So I decided I wanted to do a documentary, and people like Telefonica and Univision got involved, and we came up with the idea of doing a documentary on the trip — seeing Peru through the eyes of a first-time visitor. My only insistence was that Gastón had to be my guide. We spent about ten days shooting, with basically no script.
What did you have in mind for it?
Gastón Acurio: We were both in agreement about what we wanted to highlight: how a country, through cuisine, can achieve many good things beyond simple pleasure and luxury. We went to Cuzco, Machu Picchu, Lima, and other places looking for people and their stories. We wanted to have them explain how food had affected their lives.
Explain some of the cases.
GA: We spoke to a coca leaf farmer who talks about how he's lost much of his family because of the drug trade. He thought he'd become rich taking that path, but it took him nowhere. He then explains how deciding to shift to focusing on chocolate gave him a more honorable and stable path — and he weeps as he tells the story.
There's a woman who's an anticucho vendor. She's been doing that on the same corner for years and years, something that gave her the ability to put her kids through college. There are young kids who didn't have much hope but who found in culinary school a craft, an education, and something that gives them a dream and path to success. There are producers who realize that if they focus on their ingredients, they can find a market for them. And there are diners who begin to feel more and more proud and united by their culture and their food.
Our whole goal was to show that this isn't cheap populism or about ego — that there are many very real examples of how this movement around food has helped this country.
FA: It's not a documentary about cooking. It's about what cooking can do to your life.
Not to be repetitive, because Gastón just ran through those examples, but I'm interested in your perspective, Ferran.
FA: In the 1980s, the world of cooking, especially on the high end, started becoming less closed off from the world, in the sense that chefs started doing TV, and it gradually became more and more popular as a profession and a part of culture. Chefs eventually started talking about sustainability and trying to influence society for the better. But this is the only instance I've seen where a country, in almost no time, makes those values trickle down to the people that normally wouldn't have the luxury to be exposed to or follow those ideas. It's amazing.
Why was that able to occur, do you think?
FA: There are a number of reasons for it. Gastón, for one. Without a leader, this is impossible. Especially without a leader that people love and accept. Also, there are 80,000 culinary students that represent the value that this profession and this world have. There's a domino effect where they spread that to their friends, their families. There's such a fervor around it that it's almost as if they approach it like they're about to win the World Cup.
One of the main goals — and that's why we're showing it at the U.N. — is to show developing countries that it's possible to improve things. If Peru can do it, so can they.
When Mistura took place over the summer and you and a number of other prominent chefs drafted that letter — or "declaration," depending on what piece of news you were reading — a number of observers and prominent writers basically laughed it off. The criticisms boiled down to "What the hell do these chefs think they are doing, trying to change the world?" How do you feel about that, and how do you navigate it?
GA: That's normal, I think. I'm sure that if those critics had been there and seen what was going on, they wouldn't say those things. The world is a world of distrust and a fair bit of cynicism, which is understandable.
Some could look at this as opportunistic posturing or as an amazing contradiction between exclusive, expensive, and beautiful restaurants and a discourse that promotes social integration. But what we're trying to show is that they actually aren't mutually exclusive.
Your presentation at MAD last year had much to do with that. But please go ahead and explain again.
GA: When you go into a beautiful restaurant, you enjoy what the chef makes, pay for it, and go. If you go a little deeper, though, you find that for that restaurant to exist, there are people and stories there. There are young cooks who go to work at that place to seek success, there are products carefully selected that come from honest, hardworking people, there are fishermen who spend the whole night trying to get thing ready for that ceviche to happen. So, what ends up happening is that the chef uses the restaurant, those dishes to share those stories. Beyond being delicious and only open to the few that can pay, a good restaurant becomes a place that tells the stories, efforts, and sacrifices of the people that make it possible.
As diners get more and more curious when they realize that those stories exist, the relationship between the restaurant and the rest of society changes.
Some might argue that if I really wanted to have a coherent argument, all restaurants would disappear and I should move to the Andes and cook there. That would be an error. This is a tool to get the Andes and its people closer to society. That's if you're committed to it and you do it sincerely and relentlessly when the lights are off and the cameras are away.
FA: This is all very recent, and in general, people can and should be skeptical and analytical. Most importantly, I don't think it's a chef's obligation to get involved in politics or social change.
GA: It's optional.
FA: It's for the people that want to do it and that have the time and resources to do it. In our case, we love cooking, we think this is good for cooking, and most importantly, that it has tangible, positive consequences.
Someone will surely read the paper or a blog tomorrow and say, "What the hell do these cooks think they're doing?" But that's because they haven't seen the film, they haven't been down there. That's why we're trying to spread this.
I consider myself a really pragmatic person, and what I see in Peru is important and real. There's still McDonald's, and not all of the coca leaf producers have turned to chocolate, like in the example Gastón gave, but there are huge improvements. Funny enough, I think it's been possible in Peru because it's a developing country. It would be so hard to put this in motion in Spain, for instance.
What I'm saying is, I've seen many pretty-sounding social projects in the past, some of them I've been involved with, that fail. This isn't one of those.
GA: In Peru I live in this permanent state where many critics think that I'm doing all of this as part of a political career.
Rumors constantly swirl that you're trying to run for president.
GA: Yeah, exactly. They think that behind all of this there's a power-seeking strategy. You get really tired denying all of that forty times a day — you get tired of saying that the movement isn't pretentious, that I'm not attempting to put myself on a moral pedestal or trying to force people to think a certain way. The only way to deal with it, for me at least, is to keep doing things and keep trying to show through actions what the intentions are. I'm trying to help and celebrate —that's it. In a world where there's a lot of negativity, sadness, and problems, here's a quite nice example of hope.
FA: The documentary is a storm of optimism. There are things we couldn't even touch on.
FA: Well, in Spain and many other "developed countries," for instance, there's still really heated debate — sometimes very hateful — about modern cooking and traditional cooking. In Peru, there's harmony and respect.
GA: We decided that we didn't have the luxury to bicker and compete with one another. We're all involved in the same thing, which is Peruvian cuisine. We just can express it differently. Before, a cab driver may have pointed at an upscale restaurant and complained that it was exclusive, expensive, and served small portions. Now, they'll point one out to a passenger as a symbol of what great Peruvian cooking can be. It poses no threat to the anticucho vendor.
FA: There's another important lesson here, which you can also see in Denmark: if you are yourself as a country and you celebrate what you have, you'll find your space on the world stage.
I imagine it's a lot, but what are the goals? What's left?
GA: We're reaching an end of a phase that was about celebration, discovery, a revaluation of our own culture, and a realization that the kitchen could benefit the economy and society.
How long did that take, and what's the next phase?
GA: About ten years. Phase two is about really making it happen. This is when the farmer starts working to make his potatoes better, to make his fruits juicier and the cook keeps getting better at showcasing that producer even more. It's about putting Peru on the world's radar, making it so our food is considered world-class, while creating opportunities for those within it. We've written and put those values out there, but now we need to push competitiveness and excellency so it becomes lasting.