[Photos: Allie Lazar]
Chefs, restaurateurs, and food obsessors invaded Lima, Peru this past weekend for Mistura, Latin America's largest food festival (September 6-14) that celebrates Peruvian cuisine's richness and diversity. The event followed the announcement of the first-ever Latin America's 50 Best Restaurants on September 4th, marking an exciting feat for the Latin American restaurant world to finally receive the international recognition it deserves.
Headlining the festivities were a cast of big names like Alain Ducasse, René Redzepi, Albert Adrià, José Andrés, and of course, Señor Peru himself, Gastón Acurio. But these chefs didn't just come to eat pounds of ceviche, drink Pisco sours and convene for the Gelinaz! "pulpo party" food performance. All landed in South America's culinary capital to participate in the four-day-long "Encuentro Gastrónomico": presentations that discussed the latest trends in the restaurant world, modern society's relationship with food, and the importance of honoring the environment and its ingredients. Here now, some Pisco-induced Hangover Observations, estilo peruano:
1. Legendary French chef Alain Ducasse, who recently won the Lifetime Achievement Award at the World's 50 Best Restaurants awards, kicked off the festivities early Friday with a presentation on the importance of eating healthy around the world, telling the audience, "a good cuisine cannot exist without a good product. We need to eat less salt, less sugar, less fat and more grains and vegetables."
2. The man of Mistura, Gastón Acurio, presented a new initiative called "Salsa" which "aims to unite Latin American cooks and share experiences and knowledge." Cooks and chefs from Buenos Aires, Bogotá, Caracas, México City, Santiago, and Sao Paulo will all be involved in this movement that will start a dialogue to connect cooks with agriculture producers. After announcing the Salsa project, well-known leaders in the Latin American culinary world took the stage to speak about their countries. For example, Dolli Irigoyen from Argentina, one of the only leading ladies involved in the entire event (more on that later), spoke about Argentine gastronomic identity.
3. Another Argentine-born chef (and first to receive two Michelin stars), Mauro Colagreco of Mirazur in France, got really corny playing homage to maíz. He demo'ed three dishes from his kitchen totally made out of the indigenous long grain, with each component manipulated to have a unique flavor and texture. "Maiz has invaded our continent," he stated. With more than 15 varieties of maíz, he showed some of the many ways he presents corn at his restaurant: corn polenta, corn foam, canchita corn kernels, corn farofa, cacao and corn, and a "maizotto," which is a risotto made from, yes, corn.
4. Enrique Olvera, who took home both the Chef's Choice Award and the number 3 spot at the 50 Best awards for his Mexico City restaurant Pujol, closed Friday's seminar with a passionate presentation called, "The beginning is the end." "We cook for others, not for ourselves," the chef told the crowd, "Our egos should never be bigger than our kitchens. We need to travel to get to know [places and culture] and not to be known."
5. Hot-ticket restaurants like Astrid y Gastón (Acurio's flagship that ranked number 1 on the Latin America 50 Best Restaurants list), Central (#50 W50BR and #4 LA50BR), Maido (#11 LA50BR), Malabar (#7 LA50BR), Fiesta (#15 LA50BR), Chez Wong, and Amaz filled with chefs, journalists, and key industry players Friday night, but the real party didn't begin until around midnight. And damn, does Lima know how to throw a good party.
[Photos: Allie Lazar]
6. A tiny cantina in the quiet Surquillo barrio, La Picantería exploded with the biggest names in the gastronomic world partying hard until well after 3 a.m. Jumbo half-liter glasses of Chilcano — a local drink made from Pisco and ginger ale — flowed like Magnus Nilsson's Nordic locks, and led to bro-ed out Acurio-José Andrés shoulder hugging and circle dancing around Alex Atala. The biggest winner of the night? Rick Bayless. Whether he was fist-pumping to David Guetta's Titanium or showing off his impressive Latin gyrations, he absolutely killed it on the dance floor.
7. Daniel Humm and Will Guidara of Eleven Madison Park had the misfortune of an early start on Saturday with a presentation exploring chef collaboration. They were followed by Kobe Desramaults of Belgium's In de Wulf with a speech on foraged foods, and a demo of an eight-week-aged pigeon that should be eaten in a "primitive way."
8. Cooking school students packed the house to see Alex Atala, Brazilian bad boy of D.O.M. in São Paulo (#6 W50BR, #2 LA50BR) demo three vegetarian ceviches. Several times during his speech the audience broke out into mad applause for statements such as, "The Brazilian government prohibits the use of honey with 20% moisture. I use it. I would happily go to prison for using this product." To end the presentation, Atala played a powerful slideshow that captured images of environmental and societal consequences of deforestation, contamination and wasteful consumption. "Protecting does not mean to stop using. It's to use sustainably," he said.
9. Sunday presented a slew of demonstrations and videos. Portuguese-born London chef Nuno Mendes discussed dehydration and hydration as a way to concentrate flavors and used the skin of each product. "The skin has a secret, it always has an interesting texture," he told the audience while drying the gills of a fish, "Fish skin fascinates us."
10. Chef and showman José Andrés opened with somewhat of his greatest hits video reel: Andrés on Letterman, Ellen, the Today Show, with Michelle Obama, etc. While sipping on a pisco sour, the owner of 15 restaurants presented a few recipes and ingredients from his innovative Think Food Group, while giving motivational fatherly advice to the crowd of mostly young cooks: "never be afraid to ask questions"; "learning is the most important thing we have"; "cooks can help and change the way people eat"; "we have the possibility to change the world." To close his presentation, he showed a video on a project he's working on (with Shakira) to help rebuild the tourism industry in Haiti.
11. Virgilio Martinez's Central and Mitsuharu "Micha" Tsumura's Maido became quite the talk among chefs, journalists, and local food lovers who all seemed to agree that these two restaurants clutch the coveted top spots in Lima at the moment. During his presentation, Tsumara spoke about comida Nikkei, and how Peruvian-Japanese fusion is an authentic cultural expression of Peruvian cuisine. Golden-boy chef Martinez packed the house to demo several dishes inspired by the theme of this year's festival, water and sustainable use of local aquatic resources.
[Photos: Allie Lazar]
12. The day ended with a presentation/skit from Gelinaz!, the 23-member culinary rock band with a chef cast equivalent of Ocean's Eleven. The presentation introduced their concept and gave a sneak peek at what was to be expected during their Monday night food performance (which honored Gastón Acurio's infamous dish pulpo al cilindro). While the scene opened with an innocent group of school children and Mr. Acurio playing teacher, it quickly shifted over to the dark side starting with a Lynch-esque short film starring a mutant "octopussy" murderer, 10-plus chefs cooking live demos while speaking different languages (at the same time), a live rock band, a shaman, and a whole lot of audience confusion. Bottom line? Gelinaz! would be the gastronomical counterpart to taking ayahuasca.
13. Before René Redzepi began his presentation yesterday morning, he announced a new fund that had just been launched hours before to support Somali chef and humanitarian Ahmed Jama's restaurant The Village, which was bombed by terrorists on September 7. Redzepi live-tweeted the link from the stage and asked all the audience me mbers and chefs to donate, share, and retweet. He continued his speech entitled "What is luxury" and discussed the changes that Noma has made throughout the years that make it the restaurant it is today. He also showed a slideshow of his staff, and introduced each member of his "low-paid restaurant-working" Noma family. As he said, "working in a stainless steel box, it's easy to forget that the real luxury next to you is not the machinery, or the paycheck at the end of the day, or the kilos of caviar. The real luxury next to you is the person."
14. Blaine Wetzel was briefly stopped by security, who thought he was another culinary student trying to sneak into the auditorium early. Wetzel showed a beautiful slideshow of his life as a chef at the Willows Inn on picturesque Lummi Island, explaining his living menu that is inspired by ingredients, not recipes. "Every year I invite chefs to the island to collect ingredients and see what they can create," he told the crowd.
15. Swedish chef Petter Nilsson demonstrated three different dishes using ingredients he found within a few miles radius of his country house in Sweden. The other Swedish Nilsson chef (Magnus Nilsson) gave a brief history of dairy production in his home country and presented three dishes, each based on the transformation of milk into cheese.
16. Andoni Luis Aduriz, who has traveled to Lima six times already, opened up with a personal story on why he became a chef. His mother, a survivor of the Spanish civil war went through periods of starvation herself and told him, "At least if you can cook, you will eat." He spoke about creativity and innovation, saying, "creativity doesn't exist if it's not accompanied by excellence." The highlights of the presentation were the sleek videos showing what his team is working on at Mugaritz, including a short film on his signature macaron de caza.
17. Not surprisingly, Albert Adrià packed the house. He had his sous chef (from Peru) present a dish from his new Peruvian fusion restaurant in Barcelona, Pakta, and spoke about the importance of chef collaboration, saying, "This is cooking, to be around people who know how to cook what you don't." Adrià discussed the importance of highest quality products, flavors, and tastes, saying, "Products and ingredients aren't subjective. But taste is subjective." Shortly afterward, Gastón Acurio and head chef of Astrid y Gastón Diego Muñoz closed the presentations with a brief history in Peruvian cuisine while also looking into the future of Peru's rich and diverse resources.
18. One question asked throughout the string of presentations: where were all the women? Mistura was a completely male-dominated event (in a male-dominated industry), where just about all the chefs invited to speak happened to be men. When asked to speak on this issue in a press conference, Gastón Acurio responded, "We all make mistakes, and we will learn from those mistakes."
19. After weeks of elusive tweeting frenzies, Gelinaz! and the Pulpo Fiction cast finally took the stage last night for 23 courses of octopus insanity. It was an eight-hour food marathon where every course paid tribute to Acurio's great pulpo al cilindro recipe. Each chef not only had to create one dish (that contained octopus), but their task was to take diners on a totally multi-sensory experience, leading them on a psychedelic Willy Wonka boat trip through exploring tastes, textures, sound, art, music, interpretive dance, and magic.