March 1, 2006

Chef prepares Peruvian cuisine to conquer the world

By Mary Milliken

LIMA, Peru (Reuters) - Peru, the land that gave us the
tomato and the potato, has another gastronomic gift to the
world: a chef named Gaston Acurio.

He aims for nothing less than 50,000 Peruvian restaurants
around the world where food lovers could savor the hot peppers,
lime, onions and fish of a ceviche, creamy yellow Andean
potatoes or maybe even someday the Peruvian delicacy of guinea

Acurio can't possibly do it alone and he prefers to stay at
home in Lima creating recipes. But he is so convinced of the
power of Peruvian cuisine that he is inspiring financiers and
fellow chefs to go out and conquer the world.

"Our dream is that in 10 years there will be 50,000 to
100,000 Peruvian restaurants out there," Acurio said at his
headquarters in a Lima mansion. "There are something like
200,000 Mexican restaurants in the world, so why shouldn't we
aspire to something similar?"

The 38-year-old chef is an icon in food-crazed Lima, where
he owns -- with wife Astrid, a German pastry chef -- a handful
of top restaurants, stars in a popular cable TV cooking show
and publishes best-selling cookbooks. His rise has coincided
with what he calls "a total revolution in gastronomy in Peru in
the last 10 years."

But he not only wins accolades for his food. Peruvians are
puffed up with pride because he is promoting one of their most
beloved cultural treasures.

"Gaston is taking our cuisine around the world," said Rosi
Zusman as she ate lunch at Tanta, his hip food emporium where
counters are piled high with a Peruvian version of tapas.

Acurio has opened award-winning restaurants in four other
South American cities and recently cooked at the international
chefs' summit Madrid-Fusion alongside greats like Chicago chef
Charlie Trotter or Ferran Adria of El Bulli in Catalonia.

The Spanish press gave him rave reviews and one newspaper
told readers: "Remember this name: Gaston Acurio."


One visit to his La Mar "cevicheria" near Lima's oceanfront
is enough to see that Acurio has the Midas touch.

People of all ages line up every day to eat at the breezy,
reasonably priced, lunch-only restaurant. Among 110 dishes on
the menu are a tuna ceviche with Japanese spices and a grilled
octopus brochette over a yellow potato mash.

"We have created a cevicheria that you could envision in
New York, Thailand or Shanghai, and that is an example for
others to imitate as they go and conquer the world," said

La Mar franchises will open this year in Mexico and Panama,
while California and London could be on the agenda for 2007.
Acurio's friend, Japanese chef Nobu Matsuhisa of the famed Nobu
restaurants, says Londoners will love his ceviche.

While Acurio stays home, many among his young, 500-strong
staff are ready to travel and spread his vision.

"When the time comes and they ask me to go abroad, I will
go happily," said chef Silvia Fernandez, 21, working behind the
La Mar ceviche bar. "Who wouldn't want to go?"

But even with Peruvian chefs, demanding Limenos, as the
locals are known, have doubts their ceviche can be emulated

Acurio says he has the know-how and technology to create
flavor bases that can be copied all over the world to turn out
a ceviche just like at La March

"Peppers are the umbilical cord to Peruvian cuisine and we
have worked very hard so that this flavor is always present,"
said Acurio.


In his office next to his test kitchen, he uses white
boards with lists of hundreds of ingredients and preparations
to cook up his next creations.

He is submerged now in "chifa" -- the Chinese-Peruvian
fusion that he feels doesn't have enough Peruvian in it. He is
thinking of all the Peruvian ingredients he can throw in or on
a wonton.

"When I need ideas, I just go out here," said Acurio as he
walked out onto the mansion's balcony on a quaint colonial
square and gestured toward the ocean.

But it is hard to imagine Acurio needing more ideas.

He is close to opening in Lima his first sandwich joints,
where the stars will be pork and ham sandwiches, the recipes
culled from Acurio's favorite dives.

Instead of French fries, he will serve fried yucca sticks
and he hopes he can pull Peruvians of all classes away from the
ubiquitous American-style fast food.

"We are trying to create the sandwich place of our dreams
with the artisanal character of our cuisine, which is something
people today value much more," Acurio said.

He also plans to open "anticucho" or brochette joints in
his quest to restore Peru's street food tradition.

And the sandwich and anticucho restaurants could go abroad
in franchises, just like the cevicheria.

But does he see foreign diners digging into the guinea pig,
usually served whole and splayed, that he insists beats rabbit
any day?

"If you take the head and feet off, yes, perhaps," he said.
"But all countries have their nonexportable food."