Food is powerful. After breathing, we all have to eat. And food can bring people together for celebrations or in times of sadness.
In Peru, food has become the glue that has held together a nation that experienced difficult times over the last forty years. And today food has made Peru one of the most important culinary destinations in the world, even more so than France.
Much of the credit goes to the talents of a brilliant young chef, Gaston Acurio. As he developed his own cooking style he was able to integrate the best of Perus local bounty its seafood, its grains, and potatoes to create a new brand a true Peruvian cuisine.
Gaston Acurio launched a culinary awakening that has made a trip to Lima a must for any self-respecting chef.
So much so that world-renown Catalan chef, Ferran Adrià, has traveled to Lima often, even helping to sponsor a documentary about Gaston, his cooking school, and the young students who seek to learn from the master not only to become great chefs but to find a pathway out of poverty.
Patricia Perez, the talented filmmaker, whose 2011 documentary about the Mistura Festival, the largest gastronomic event in Latin America won her several international prizes, has taken on the legend of Gaston Acurio.
It’s the story of how a classically trained French chef became the leader of a food movement that is starting to make a difference in the way the world views Peruvian cuisine. “Finding Gaston,” is a love letter to his work. Watching the movie reminds us of the power of food to revive lost traditions that are essential to Perus historical and tangible cultural legacy.
Its release in time for the 2014 Mistura Festival also underscores the role that Gaston, Perus one-man culinary ambassador, plays in branding his nations cuisine.
This film traces Gastons conversion from Cordon Bleu chef to the purveyor of everything Peruvian. We also learn about race and class in modern-day Peru. Gaston Acurio was born to privilege. His family expected him to study law. Instead he ditched his studies in Spain and turned to cooking.
He went north to France, studied classic French cuisine,, and when he emerged from this training, he and Astrid, a German woman he met during his training in France, decided to return to Peru to open Astrid y Gaston, thinking that what Lima needed was a good French restaurant.
Their successful attempt to improve the level of continental eating in Lima evolved into a journey that today integrates local ingredients and spices with French haute cuisine. Today Astrid y Gaston is listed among the 50 best restaurants in the world.
They have also built a restaurant empire with branches of the famed Peruvian restaurant popping up in cities like Santiago, Bogota, New York, Madrid, and soon Washington, D.C.
In documenting Gastons conversion to authentic Peruvian cooking, the movie shows Gaston with local growers to sample in his new dishes indigenous women who bring him the best quinoa from their communities and potato farmers whose ancestors have for centuries grown the thousands of potato varieties.
Not only does the film document how Gaston acquires the flavors of his native land, but also the experiments he performs to make them part of his own repertoire. The birth of Perus food brand is evident as we watch the wonderful graphic displays of Gastons new edible creations.
The movie is visually beautiful. Scenes of indigenous women wearing their traditional polleras, or colorful flared skirts, contrast with the formality of his urban restaurant clientele. Gastons appreciation of his kitchen workers talents, the many humble young men and women who seek a future by learning to be chefs, is also a deeply emotional part of this story.
In 2007 Gaston built the Pachacutec Culinary School in an area two hours outside of Lima. There he personally trains youths to cook. Many of these students travel up to three hours each day to attend classes taught by Gaston and his restaurant chefs. The project underscores his own commitment not only to the kitchen, but to the social improvement of his nation.
Towards the end of the movie Gaston provides a deeply moving monologue about what it means to give back in a country like Peru where at least a quarter of Perus population is still living on less than two dollars a day, with rates much higher in rural areas. It reminds the viewer that food can also be used to transcend some of the nations deepest social inequalities if used as a tool to create economic opportunities for all.
Gaston has created new agricultural value chains through his revival of Peruvian crops, as documented by some of the farmers who are grateful for this renewed interest in ancient foods. Ironically, judging from the number of young Peruvians who want to study at the school, cooking may be the new soccer when it comes to a career that leads to fame and riches.
Forty years ago Peru was plagued by a military dictatorship. Even after the return to elected governments, the grinding poverty, income inequality and hyperinflation, and violence fueled revolutionary movements. Both Sendero Luminoso and the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Group claimed to represent wide swaths of the population who had been excluded from economic development. By the early 1990s violence and internal conflict were the norm.
Fortunately, these dark days of Peruvian history have ended. Today the nations leaders all see the potential of food and the work of Gaston Acurio as transformative. In this celebration of a long tradition of indigenous foodstuffs and Perus biodiversity comes a new beginning for a nation once wracked by conflict. It is the narrative that Peru wants to project to a globalized world.
Machu Picchu and the ruins of the Incan Empire are no longer considered to be off the beaten path for American tourists. But more than these incredible monuments to Perus ancient civilizations, it is the food created by chefs like Gaston Acurio and the Mistura Festival that celebrates the bounty of the land, which has reshaped the image of a country and taken Peru in a new direction.
Thanks to Patricia Perez documentary the world will be able to see the spectacular food that Gaston has made famous, and equally important, viewers will get to see the power of food to recast the narrative about a rising South American nation.
Johanna Mendelson Forman is a Scholar-in-Residence at American University where she teaches about Conflict Cuisines at the School of International Service.