If you hear the word ‘Peru’, the first thing that comes to mind is proably either Machu-Picchu. But it shoudl perhaps be Gastón Acurio.
If you live in Doha, it’s probably the latter, thanks to the award-winning La Mar by Gastón Acurio in InterContinental Doha.
The restaurant, which bagged Best Newcomer at the Time Out Doha Restaurant Awards 2019, is testament to the incredible flavours of Peru, all championed by one of the world’s biggest superstar chefs.
Famous for his food, restaurant expansion, books, TV and more, Acurio shares details on what makes Peruvian food so interesting and how he took it all across the world.
What is the essence of Peruvian cooking?
To understand Peruvian cuisine, you need to delve into its history a bit. We are a country with more than 7,000 years of culture, history and agriculture, of course. Things started changing from the 16th century because of the arrivals of the Spanish, Europeans, Chinese, Africans and then the Japanese. But instead of building separate communities, we merged everyone and everything together.
So all these communities have an influence?
Interestingly, our grandfathers married our grandmothers, but they’re all from different origins. Our parents are sometimes part Italian and part Japanese. It could even be a mix of Chinese and African and other times Spanish. Imagine the dining scenes. You could love risotto from your Italian mother and fried rice from your Chinese father. You can’t cook everything, so you have to come to an agreement and create just one recipe where you somehow join both your favourite dishes. Every dish in our culture is a kind of love story.
That’s so beautiful.
A beautiful love story of tolerance, sharing and the capacity to be so different yet fall in love. We tried to find the perfect point where both cultures could get together and create something new. Sometimes, our dishes can look Chinese, Japanese, Italian or European. But when you taste it, it’s different. It’s Peruvian – you have a little bit of the world and a little bit of the origins of Peru at the same time. That makes our dishes multicultural and unique.
What ingredient is absolutely essential to call a dish Peruvian?
Peruvian chillies, of course. We call them aji. No matter what cuisines you mix together, you can throw in some aji to make it Peruvian. You get both the flavour and the colour. We have a dish called causa which is mashed potato. Without aji, it’s just mashed potato but when you add the Peruvian chillies, that’s when it becomes a causa.
You’re a culinary legend, the father of Peruvian cuisine. What’s the story behind this?
We understood that we had a big opportunity to introduce Peru to the world in a new light, with a focus on our culture and our food. We always assumed our heritage could never be as important as European culture and heritage to the world. All we wanted was to make the world fall in love with our flavours. We never claimed that we invented our dishes. Everything is from our multicultural ancestors with original Peruvian touches. We worked together to do away with the notions that we’re competing against other cultures and chefs. To make our mark on the world, we knew we had to focus on our recipes created with love and beautiful ingredients. We spread the message together and the struggles were plenty initially from finding ingredients to investors. But things worked out eventually, after we overcame several obstacles, and now Peruvian food is all over the world.
How did you move from studying law in Spain to studying cooking in Paris?
I’ve always dreamed of being a chef since I was six years old, but my family convinced me my dream was unusual. Normally, children in those days dreamt of being lawyers, doctors, engineers and all the other clichés. Chefs those days never had the opportunity to speak to audiences like they do now. Nobody could understand my dream. Hence, I went to Spain to become a lawyer. I was alone without any family and at that time, Spanish cuisine was gaining worldwide importance. Chefs were doing amazing things and I was very influenced and inspired. Ultimately, I decided to abandon law studies and enroll in a cooking school. I kept it a secret from my family. Three years later, they were waiting for a lawyer to come back home. That’s when I revealed I had become a chef instead.
Naturally, your family didn’t approve.
For five years, I thought they were just embarrassed with my decision. It was unfair of me to think that because the truth was they were just worried. They didn’t understand what I had done and if I had a chance to succeed. I discovered this when my restaurant valet told me my father passed my restaurant every night to check how many cars were in the parking. He would then go to other restaurants and count the cars there, too. When he discovered my restaurant always had more cars, he would heave a sigh of relief and be really happy. That’s when I understood he was never embarrassed, just worried.
How has all this worldwide fame impacted you? How do you stay grounded?
For me, it’s all about loving what you do, realising your dreams and seeing the happy faces of people when they eat. Having several restaurants is a mission. And I’ve always been motivated by the need to take Peruvian cuisine to different parts of the world. But deep down, I’m still a little kid with big dreams. Being able to share my passion with people, that’s what keeps me grounded. I never forget my job and my responsibilities.
Your wife is a pastry chef. So, which one of you makes better dessert?
Of course, her.
Have you ever attempted to…?
[Laughs] No! Absolutely not, she would never allow it… No, no, no. Actually, she is a pastry chef because that’s what we both decided. We both wanted to become chefs but sharing a kitchen like that is impossible if you’re a couple. I would not recommend that to anybody. It’s better to find your own niche. We work together perfectly, I cook the mains, she makes the dessert.
What is the most unusual fusion combination you’ve tried?
Every community that we received to our country brought their own culture. So, in a couple of years, the recipes became Peruvian because they were adapting. For example, we now have a very huge Venezuelan community arriving to Peru. And they have arepas. Of course, they don’t have arepas stuffed with lomo saltado which is a Peruvian dish. But now you can easily find this in Peru. There’s always a chance to create unusual combinations. If we get the Indian, Thai or even Qatari community, we will immediately add Peruvian flavours to their food.
Have you tried Indian food?
Yes, I love it. I love all the breads, the curries, the vegetarian cuisine is amazing in India. The flavours you get from the stews, lentils, potatoes and, of course, the naan with different fillings are incredible. The curries with breads are my favourites and then the lamb biryani is simply amazing, too.
What are you looking forward to this year?
We are opening in a neighbouring country soon as well as in Paris. By the end of 2019, we will inaugurate a beautiful restaurant in USA. Besides the openings, I’m shooting a documentary with 100 chapters – 100 of the most important Peruvian dishes with the history behind each dish and how it all started. It will showcase how only wonderful things can result in mixing cultures together. 2019 looks very positive indeed.
La Mar, InterContinental Doha (4484 4098).