There is more to Peru than ceviche, the tangy raw seafood dish for which the country is famous. That starts with its street food, in particular the $1 anticucho – beef-heart kebabs marinated in garlic and aji panca chili – that will thrill even the most sophisticated palate. And from there, it can get as expensive—and as adventurous—as you’re prepared to accept. Drawing from a diverse range of ingredients plucked from the country’s rugged, bone-chilling Pacific coast as well as its hot and humid Amazon region, Peruvian cuisine is being shaped by a group of pioneering chefs whose adventurous tastes have helped put the country on the global culinary map. Peruvian chefs took seven out of the top 15 spots in the debut listing of “Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants,” the regional offshoot of Restaurant Magazine’s global top 50 list, which was unveiled in Lima in early September. Gastón Acurio’s Astrid & Gastón took top honors, and Virgilio Martínez’s Central, located in the same upscale Miraflores neighborhood as Astrid & Gastón, ranked fourth. Pedro Miguel Schiaffino’s Malabar, which combines exotic Amazonian ingredients with a touch of European flair, came in at number seven. And Maido, Mitsuharu Tsumura’s restaurant, earned an 11th-place spot for its take on Peru’s unique Nikkei cuisine, a Japanese-Peruvian mash-up that draws on a tradition that’s longer than you might have known: the large Japanese migration to Peru that dates to the late 1800s. From Michelin-starred purveyors of haute cuisine to hole-in-the-wall standouts, The Financialist highlights the chefs behind the restaurants whose eclectic concoctions are helping shape Peruvian cuisine into one of the world’s finest. Astrid & Gastón Chef: Gastón Acurio The global ambassador of Peruvian cuisine is 46-year-old Gastón Acurio, who not only nabbed the top spot in the LatAm 50, but also pocketed a lifetime achievement award. Acurio and his wife Astrid, a German pastry chef, opened the doors to Astrid & Gastón in 1994, and have since established branches around the continent, as well as in New York and Madrid. Other restaurants in Acurio’s culinary empire include Cebichería La Mar, which has locations in San Francisco, Bogota and Sao Paulo, and T’anta. In his home country, Acurio has achieved a level of fame approaching Mario Batali’s in the U.S. Even cab drivers refer to Peru’s most renowned chef simply as Gastón. “Over the past 10 years, we’ve made a great effort to make sure Peruvian cuisine is recognized throughout the world,” Acurio told The Financialist.
“And we’ve finally achieved it.” Nowhere is Acurio’s flair and creativity more evident than in El viaje, a highly artistic winter 2013 tasting menu that aims to create a complete narrative through food. The culinary journey traces an Italian immigrant’s journey from Liguria to Callao, Lima’s port, by fusing the two cuisines over the course of a meal that stretches to nearly five hours – an hour longer than the three-and-a-half hours recommended to tackle The Fat Duck’s notoriously long tasting menu in England. Patrons embark upon their meal by opening a leather package to find a menu disguised as a ship ticket and a photo-lined diary laying down the thoughts of the Italian immigrant as he adapts to the New World. The unique tasting menu starts off with a deconstructed Negroni cocktail. The first “act,” as the restaurant calls its courses, begins when diners open a small leather suitcase that fits onto a dinner plate to find five heavenly bite-size treats that an Italian mother might pack up for her departing son, including onion and artichoke antipasto, salted fish with lemon and mascarpone, Parma ham and fruit. Later, a renowned Peruvian ingredient makes an appearance: cuy. This guinea-pig terrine is paired with papaya and seeds from other Peruvian fruits and served upon the deck of a ceramic boat, complete with a buxom prow. Acurio and his team are taking a shorter trip of their own early next year, when they plan to move Astrid & Gastón from Lima’s Miraflores neighborhood to Casa Moreye, a stunning villa located in the more upscale San Isidro quarter. Central Chef: Virgilio Martínez Virgilio Martínez has worked his way around the world, apprenticing at both New York’s legendary Lutèce and Spain’s Can Fabes before setting up shop on his home turf at Central. And he’s still got one foot overseas: Martínez is the executive chef at Lima, a London-based Peruvian restaurant that earned its first Michelin star at the end of September. His techniques may showcase that international training, but at Central, the main ingredients are local. The restaurant sources seafood and local algae from the Pacific Ocean and incorporates native ingredients such as kañihua, a crunchy herb that grows at an altitude of more than 12,000 feet in the Andes, into the dishes. Martínez’s most recent culinary masterpiece is Mater Uno, a 13-course tasting tour of Peru that sources ingredients from the country’s highest and lowest geographical points, sweeping through the extensive coastline, the Andes and the tropical Amazon. One particularly memorable item: Toma de mar, scallops coated in the Andean kañihua. Topped with tumbo (banana passion fruit) salsa, the textures and flavors of the dish give even the most jaded of palates a sharp wake-up call. Malabar Chef: Pedro Miguel Schiaffino Whether he’s manning the kitchen at the award-winning Malabar or fulfilling his role as executive chef at ámaZ, Pedro Miguel Schiaffino is sure to be bringing tastes collected in Peru’s remote jungle to the table. Although the Amazon basin covers around 60 percent of Peru, most of Lima’s urban dwellers (as well as its foreign visitors) are nevertheless unfamiliar with its signature ingredients. Schiaffino, along with Brazil’s D.OM. in Sao Paulo, is acting as matchmaker, introducing diners to dishes that feature everything from an obscure Amazon river fish called paiche to giant river snails dressed in a spicy chorizo sauce. If you want to taste a piranha, however, you’re on your own. Maido Chef: Mitsuharu Tsumura Peru’s large community of Japanese immigrants – Latin America’s second largest after Brazil – has for decades been mixing the tastes of home with the flavors of their adopted homeland in a fusion cuisine known as Nikkei. But Chef Mitsuharu Tsumura is helping Nikkei gain fans outside the country’s Japanese community. “If you look at Peruvian food, it’s a melting pot with Italian, Spanish and even African influences,” Tsumura said. “And Nikkei fare is equally interesting and diverse, both in terms of ingredients and techniques.” Soy sauce and miso with aji, a spicy Latin American sauce that comes in an almost limitless number of varieties, form a sort of condiment bridge between the two cuisines, Tsumura said. One of the restaurant’s signature dishes is a sushi-inspired homage to a Peruvian dish called Arequipa’s adobo, made with pork jowls cooked at low temperature in a Peruvian adobo sauce over shari, or sushi-style sticky rice. Lobo de Mar Otani Chef: Luis Otani Kawaguchi Although Peru’s master chefs are finally receiving the accolades they deserve, there are still hidden gems in Lima that await adventurous travelers. Take Lobo de Mar Otani, a simply decorated Nikkei cevichería in the decidedly untrendy neighborhood of Santa Catalina. Second-generation Japanese-Peruvian chef Luis Otani Kawaguchi, a former soccer coach for the national squad who is now in his late 60s, still picks his fish by hand every morning, exemplifying the kind of attention to the detail to brings diners back time and again to tuck into the substantial 100-dish menu. Staples such as ceviche get vamped up simply by adding ginger, while cockles are given the aji Amarillo – soy sauce and ginger – treatment.