Acclaimed Peruvian chef and international restaurateur Gastón Acurio has had quite the year. His Lima restaurant Astrid y Gastón took the #1 spot on the brand new Latin America's 50 Best Restaurants list (it's #14 on the World's 50 Best list) and he was honored with a lifetime achievement award from Latin America's 50 Best. Acurio was recently in New York City attending the Basque Culinary Center summit meeting and braving the lines at Shake Shack. Eater caught up the chef at the Nomad Hotel, before he was off to present at the annual StarChefs.com International Chefs Congress. Here's what he had to say:
You have over 30 restaurants worldwide. How do you decide when and where to expand?
Gastón Acurio: That's a very interesting question. Right now in the world, the message of Peruvian food has been expanding very fast, all over the world. That doesn't mean that all cities are in the right moment to open a Peruvian restaurant, and it doesn't mean that you have the same opportunities .... In some cities, there are already great Peruvian restaurants so maybe the opportunity to make a great Peruvian restaurant, I'm talking about creativity, is calling for that moment because already everybody knows Peruvian traditional food. But it's not the same decision if there are no Peruvian restaurants, where the opportunity and the responsibility is to share first Peruvian traditions, Peruvian ingredients, to share with the people the first messages of Peruvian food.
So what you need to think and to understand and to analyze when you open a Peruvian restaurant in a new city is in what moment is the city's relationship with Peruvian food? If there are a lot of Peruvian restaurants or not. If the message of Peruvian food has been spread or not. If the local audience are really open to new cultures or not. The budget that people will spend on foreign food ... You have to analyze really if you are in the right moment for the right concept.
How do the different places impact your cuisine? Do you adjust for location? For example, what changes are made cooking in Chicago versus cooking in São Paulo versus cooking in Lima?
To answer that question, we need to understand who we are in terms of a movement: a Peruvian food movement. We are a Peruvian food movement, and what that means is that we don't compete with each other, we share. We understand the essence of cooking is the act of sharing. When we arrive to a city, we don't change that way of thinking. We don't arrive to compete, we arrive to share our culture with the people ? We don't want to be a chain. We want to give the head chef in each city the opportunity to put a little bit of his soul in the restaurant, and to the architect and to the general manager and the service leader, to put part of their souls into the restaurant.
We bring our eight or ten ingredients, but we buy locally all the time. When we start a project, we start building strong relationships with local farmers, local fishermen, local suppliers, local communities, local schools, local organizations, like the Monterey Bay Aquarium in San Francisco ? What we do is, we arrive to a city with this pride and honor and consciousness of bringing authenticity, but from the first moment we try to respect, understand, include all the opportunities that the local cities give to us. To give an authentic experience, but original at the same time.
Earlier this year you announced plans to open a London restaurant with Virgilio Martinez in London which will showcase Peruvian cuisine and its culinary talent, sort of a two in one restaurant. Why did you two decide on London? And can you tell me about your collaboration process?
Actually I have a very long personal relationship with Virgilio. He opened up our restaurant Astrid y Gastón in Bogotá, he opened our restaurant Astrid y Gastón in Madrid, and then he came back to Lima to open his restaurant, then he opened in London. We are together representing our country on the World's 50 Best List. So, since we feel as Peruvian chefs that we are ambassadors of our food culture, and since we are good friends, and since we know how to work together, we have the opportunity to build this great Peruvian food embassy in London together. A place where people can go all day, to have a ceviche or a Peruvian sandwich, or a Pisco Sour, the really authentic food of Peruvian culture. Also [there will be a] a very small spot, like a hidden door or something like that,with a Peruvian creativity bar which is just 12 seats ... [with] tasting menus or bringing in a chef from Peru to make a kind of performance, every one or two months. Changing the decoration, changing the music, changing the tableware, changing everything in that small spot. So you have living at the same time, this Peruvian embassy of food culture for everybody and doing creative Peruvian things in the small spot, which is great because it's kind of coherent with London, which is looking for things like that all the time.
Why did you close La Mar Cebicheria in NYC?
There are a lot of different reasons when you close a restaurant not just one. We had a huge space, a huge rent, so with the same amount of customers in another place, another spot ? We realized we needed to move to a place where we could recreate the same atmosphere we have in Lima: happiness, and joy, and loudness, and very casual.
Do you have any further plans to open in NYC?
For sure. We're looking already. We're looking around Chelsea Market or maybe Brooklyn. We're deciding. But we're really concentrating now because we have plans to open in one month in Miami in the Mandarin Oriental. So we'll finish that project and the we'll come back.
What did you learn from opening and closing a restaurant in NYC?
You always learn. You know it's very very very important to ask and keep focus on learning. Every step we move, we need to learn what we did right and what we did wrong ... We need to be very close to New Yorkers to understand how we can manage and match our Peruvian food culture with the expectations of the local New York customers. It's very important in this case.
Is an English cookbook on the horizon? What topics would you want to focus on for your English language debut?
Yes. Actually we are doing three. We are doing one, this kind of family Peruvian cookbook with 1,000 recipes. Very easy to do, anywhere you are in the world, so you can have this Peruvian food culture in your house or as kind of a reference when there's something you want to know to put some Peruvian soul in any recipe. We have this other great book we're doing which is travel that I do through all Latin America finding the talent, presenting the talent and the soul of great chefs of Latin America. Recipes, chefs, ingredients, farmers, and street food vendors, everything that's good, personalities in all the senses. We will share with the world a personality, a farmer that represents creativity, innovation, respect. A great avant-garde Latin American chef in all the countries. And also traditional food chefs that are doing an amazing job, street food vendors that are doing an amazing job ? we want to keep spreading the message that in our philosophy, street food vendors are just as important as avant-garde chefs. There's no difference except for what they make ? The third book is a trip through Peru, through its history, its ingredient, its moment through dishes. Trying to travel through the environment, the flavors, and the soul of Peru through dishes.
Do you have a publisher for these? If so, who?
Yes, we have three different publishers. Nope, I can't tell you who.