Who is Gaston Acurio? If you are Peruvian, travel throughout South America, or read The Washington Post (USA), Wall Street Journal (USA), or Telegraph (UK), you may have heard about Gaston, the Peruvian celebrity chef and restauranteur known to most by only his first name.
Parisian Le Cordon Bleu trained, Gaston has become the emissary of Peruvian haute cuisine, expanding his culinary empire of more than 40 restaurants northward and east – through South, Central, and North America, and even to Europe. Gaston is helping elevate non Peruanas’ experience with Peruvian cuisine beyond the fast-food pollo a la brasa (roast chicken) chains encircling the globe like kudzu vines through a neighborhood. I have nothing against pollo a la brasa. I just believe there’s just so much more depth and sophistication to Peruvian cuisine than one great hangover meal. The concepts of Gaston’s restaurants vary widely (including, yes, pollo a la brasa) to high-end anticuchos, to French-Peruvian fusion at flagship restaurant Astrid y Gaston – the latter of which is named for both the chef and his German-born wife. What unites each of these establishments (at least the ones within Peru) is their farm-to-table local sourcing and a clear focus on Peru’s agricultural bounty and cultural traditions.
To illustrate the influence and impact of Gaston, I’d like to share my experiences with three of Gaston’s restaurants: two in Lima and one in Cuzco. While none of them vaulted to the top of my list (see my last post for the winner, Danica), I enjoyed each experience. Unfortunately, I managed to save no photos, so you’ll have to trust my word pictures and links to their websites to help you explore further. Gaston’s passion is evident in each. I look forward to trying Gaston’s North American La Mar franchises closer to home, such as the Mandarin Oriental in Miami. My guess, though, is that Gaston’s food tastes best closest to the source – in Peru. I hope that any of you reading have the opportunity to taste Peruvian cuisine at its best.
If I walked into Panchita with no prior information, I would instantly recognize in its decor and ambiance the masculine signatures of a sleek, modern steakhouse: tan woods, slate-grey stone walls, oversized, rough-hewn dining tables, water features, etc. Panchita specializes in grilled meats, particularly anticuchos, which are traditionally skewered meats (think kebabs). Everything I tried of my colleagues’ varied orders was executed well. If you want to get real, try the anticuchos de corazon – yep, hearts – a Peruvian delicacy, though not particularly memorable to me. I grilled octopus, which was a first for my seafood picky self. I will admit that this octopus was perfectly cooked – flavorful, not a bit rubbery or fishy. Had my mind been able to move past the the concept of eating tentacles, I would have ordered it myself. But alas, even a year later, I just cannot rid my mind of the turn-off knowing I ate something with its own suction cups. I played it tame myself with grilled steak brochettes with vegetables, and one of the best Pisco sours I’ve had. Panchita was definitely a top 10 meal for me in Lima.
La Mar was my favorite Gaston experience and probably my #2 restaurant in all of Peru. From their addictive sweet potato and plantain chips served with a variety of house-made salsas to a delicate take on the traditional causas (somewhat of a mashed potato-polenta hybrid with various meat toppings) to the stars that were their perfectly tart and spicy ceviches, La Mar brought out the sea and seafood lover in me. Since I’m allergic to shellfish, my ceviche options are a bit limited, but an Asian Nikkei ceviche with tuna was a generous portion that I promptly devoured. It was a great lunch after which dinner had no choice but to be anticlimactic.
High amidst the Andes, at the intersection of Incan imperial and Spanish colonial history, Cuzco is Peru’s cultural capital and the perfect backdrop for Gaston’s homage to the biodiversity that is Andean cuisine. Named for a traditional, fermented corn-based beverage, Chicha’s menu basically is divided by habitat or province of origin (del agua, de la tierra, de la pais – from the water, land, the country, etc.). My friends seized on the opportunity to try Andean trucha, or trout, as well as ceviches. I was going for a light meal that day, so regrettably, my Chi Cha experience was limited to a hearty vegetarian minestrone soup made with quinoa instead of pasta and topped with pesto. For dessert, we passed around bite size delicacies that included alfajores – sandwich cookies usually filled with dulce de leche. Unfortunately, our schedule was tight, so our experience was a bit of a whirlwind that did not give us the time to savor each bite.
Gaston’s passion is evident in each one. I look forward to trying Gaston’s North American La Mar franchises closer to home, such as the Mandarin Oriental in Miami. My guess, though, is that Gaston’s food tastes best closest to the source – in Peru. I hope that any of you reading have the opportunity to taste Peruvian cuisine at its best.