After 15 years cooking in restaurants in Spain, France, Canada, and Australia, including El Bulli, Mugaritz, and Bilson's, Diego Muñoz returned to his native Peru in 2012 to head up the kitchen at Gaston Acurio's acclaimed Lima restaurant, Astrid y Gastón. In just three years, he's bolstered the restaurant's international reputation, elevating it from #42 to #18 on San Pellegrino's World's 50 Best Restaurants list. Muñoz's rise has come at a time of transition for Astrid y Gastón, which both moved to a new location and saw Acurio retire from the kitchen last year. During his visit to Carmel for this month's Relais & Chateaux GourmetFest, Eater met with him to discuss getting to know Peruvian produce, building menus around stories, and his eventual hopes of opening a more casual restaurant.
Let's start by discussing how you go about conceptualizing a dish. What's your process like?
For the past three years, we've been making menus around stories. It's always about Peruvian stories; for example, the cultural migration to Peru. Last year we did [a menu based around] the immigration of an Italian from Liguria to a port in Lima called Callao. So the story was a trip through a life. It's hard to try to fit dishes in a story, so what I do is try to conceptualize: [I'm] always inspired by something that already exists because it has to be linked, or has to be a reference for the story. [We] think about a dish and then reinvent it, and then, once we have all the dishes as we want, we just put them in a sequence of plates. Usually our menus are around 25 or 30 dishes.
"I'm always inspired by something that already exists because it has to be linked, or has to be a reference for the story."
The current menu is called "Memories of My Life." There were a lot of participants —journalists, other chefs, even my parents — everybody gave us references of dishes that make them remember, [that cause] the effect from the Ratatouille movie when he makes ratatouille, thinking of when he was a kid. That was the idea of the menu, that moment.
Were they all Peruvian memories, or more globally based?
Peruvian memories. The menu starts when [Peruvians] finish school: The bell rings, and usually in Lima we go out and have a little sweet treat: ice cream or candy. There's a typical guy that used to sell these sweets on a big drum, painted red and white. That's how we start the menu, with that drum, and inside is a lot of sweets: acidic ice creams, cookies with shrimp, anchovy meringues, things that are sweet and savory. It's a strange start, because it starts with a sweet. Then we go with the memories of what your grandmother used to cook, or what your mother used to give you that you didn't like. There's a fruit drink: We always had a fruit tree in the backyard of the house. Some dishes are tributes to products that are already extinct, like these bivalves called machas. We made a ceviche out of an apple [variety] that's a really great apple, but it's not very good looking: When we got the beautiful red and Granny Smith perfect apples [in Peru], everybody started to consume those.
They are Peruvian memories, but we want to create a conversation at the table about your memories. We get clients from all over the world, and... they get excited and start to talk about their own memories also. The menu works because they get the reference of the Peruvian memories, but the conversation on the table through these two-and-a-half hours, three hours, is about everyone's memories, which is nice. We had a Chilean customer who said, "I just felt like I spent my childhood in Lima, because of [eating] this menu." It was very nice.
So, you're about to change the menu again.
We're going to change the menu in April, and we're [leaving stories behind]. It's been enough, we did six stories already. Now, we're going to conceptualize the menu around the Lima region, which goes all the way from the Andes to the Pacific. There's a big desert, a beautiful sea with a lot of produce in it, and then the different latitudes of the mountains give us different produce. We've got nine different valleys in the region, so for the next three years, we're going to get to know what the farmers are doing in each of those valleys. For the dishes, we want to use produce that has the first and last name of the producers.
Why was it important to you to transition from this storytelling model to a more traditional model?
[The old model] made us really comfortable with changing every six months, which then allowed us to produce more ideas. We now have a test kitchen in the restaurant, with two guys always developing or investigating things. We're seeing different produce. I think it's a good opportunity to start working around the markets, and what's in season. For example, if we only have 10 portions of halibut, we're only going to serve that. We're doing a vegetarian menu as well: In the mountains, the farmers eat a lot of vegetables. They only eat animal protein when it's a party.
In your travels, have you been seeing Peruvian ingredients used more and more?
It is happening, and it's really important. We've cooked Peruvian in a lot of places of the world, and we've always had to take our ingredients, especially chiles, which are the base of our cuisine. Now quinoa is a success everywhere. The limes, avocados, and asparagus are perfect. We did a dinner in St. Petersburg in November, and I said, "Okay, I need to make asparagus ceviche," because for us, it's really hard to get. It's crazy that it's easier to get perfect asparagus in St. Petersburg than in Lima, because everything we grow is going to the U.S.
Have you been able to convince some growers to hold onto asparagus?
We have. The funny thing is that they're not able even to charge us for what we get. Our market doesn't represent anything to them. They're just leaving some asparagus on the side for us.
In the U.S., we drifted really far away from eating seasonally and locally, and are just now coming back to that. Do you feel like Peruvian culture has done the same thing?
Yeah, of course. Before this really big Peruvian gastronomy revolution, we were cooking or eating French or Italian [food that had] nothing to do with our roots. I think nobody would ever try to impress somebody from overseas by cooking them Peruvian food at home. But now, we've switched a lot. I've seen it a lot around the world as well; everybody's switching. We are more proud of being Peruvians, and showing that we are Peruvians in what we eat. That's a very powerful change. I think that's a global thing as well. Everybody's just looking inside and they're cooking from where they live, their surroundings, which is good.
"We are more proud of being Peruvians... That's a very powerful change."
For home cooks in the U.S., is there any particular dish or ingredient that you would recommend people try if they've never tried Peruvian food before?
Of course, ceviche. It's actually turning into a technique, ceviche, because it's a basic dish made of five ingredients, and now everybody's doing ceviches of everything. Even us: We're doing vegetable ceviche, apple ceviche, sweet cucumber ceviche. What else is impressive? We always feature a potato dish on our menus, and we try to keep it as simple as possible, because I think the farmers and nature have done the work already. Every year, we cook and study five different varieties of our Peruvian native potatoes. There are thousands of varieties, so we rotate it every year. The farmers, they choose what they're going to give us, so there's always a yellow-flesh potato, a white-flesh potato, a purple one, a red one, and a funny-shaped one. We cook what they give us. They're all different: the starchiness, the amount of water. Sometimes it's better to cook them very fresh; sometimes aging them is much better. We are learning. We eat guinea pig, as well. It can be offensive for some people, but people from the Andes, they've been eating guinea pig for centuries now. Alpaca as well. I'm not a really big fan of alpaca, but...
What does alpaca taste like?
The fat content on the meat is really, really low, so there's not much flavor in it. I prefer to eat it raw, or when it's cured and salted; that's really nice.
Video: MEMORIAS #3, Astrid&Gaston 20 años:
How has your day-to-day changed since Gaston Acurio left the restaurant?
Since I arrived in 2012 from Australia, it was always the plan that he was going to leave. He left me to design the menu, do what I thought was right. He made an announcement before I came, but nobody actually paid attention to that.
Nobody paid attention? They probably didn't believe it.
It's a hard thing, and I think people don't understand what's going on, who's running the restaurant. The restaurant has his name on it, it's part of the experience. Even my own family doesn't understand that Gaston doesn't run his own restaurant, so imagine outside customers.
Gaston has moved into the fast-casual space. Is that something that you would ever consider doing?
For sure, if I do my own thing, it's going to be really, really simple. That's the way I am. I'll probably get my wife involved in it, because we've had a longtime dream to have something really simple together. I don't even know if it's going to be in Peru, but sometimes I feel like doing a nice pizzeria, or just a coffee shop, or a breakfast restaurant. Or a deli where maybe I can do menus on Sunday night. At the moment, I'm really happy where I am in the restaurant, but if I turn to something new, it's going to be something simple.