Guillermo Payet is visiting Peru for only the third time since fleeing 15 years ago at the height of the Shining Path insurgency. Sitting in Lima’s crowded Astrid y Gastón restaurant next to chef-owner Gastón Acurio, Payet’s close friend from the old days, he bites into a delicately lacquered shrimp and closes his eyes. “That taste ...” he murmurs, searching. Then the eyes flash open: “Melcocha! Those candies from school.”
Acurio shakes his dark curls yes, and both men smile at the memory of the old man who sold homemade molasses taffy from a wooden box at their elementary school. The dish, infancia, is Acurio’s story of his childhood: peanuts from the ball game, molasses candies from school, and camarones and tamarind from Sunday Chinese dinners. It’s his playful take on chifa, Lima’s widespread, peppery, 150-year-old version of Cantonese cuisine.
Here at Astrid y Gastón, with its tiled floors, contemporary Peruvian art, and walls the color of sachatomates, or tree tomatoes, the stories keep coming. The next plated tale, in the form of a classic ceviche of wild sea bass with lime and red onions, is about people who have long caught fish in the morning and had a taboo against eating it later than lunch, celebrating the catch at midday in one of the city’s thousands of noisy, thatch-roofed cevicherias. “A cevicheria is more than food—it’s an ambiance, a happy mood, a whole world,” says Acurio, offering me a tangy bite from his own fork.
Each of Acurio’s dishes is an homage to and a reinvention of one of this country’s many traditional worlds of cooking. A tiradito, sliced raw bonito, is Acurio’s interpretation of Peru’s nikkei, or second-generation Japanese, cuisine. His bright-orange erizos—sea urchins on tender ribbons of raw calamari—recall one of the nikkei pioneers, Nobu Matsuhisa, who in the ’70s blended Peruvian spices with Japanese sushi and popularized ingredients limeños had never considered, prying sea urchins away from confused fishermen by explaining they were for his dog. Tuna skewers are Acurio’s nod to Lima’s street vendors, who sell anticuchos—usually beef-heart kebabs—from streetside carts. A stuffed pepper recalls Arequipa’s picanteria cuisine, while risotto with black scallops speaks of the African-inflected criollo food still served in most homes. “In Peru, we have twelve different cultural and regional cuisines,” explains Acurio. “Depending on what I want to talk about in a dish, I can use any of those dozen stories.”
For Payet, the flavors of these dishes heighten his sense of everything in Peru being familiar but entirely new. Fifteen years ago, when he left, no one dared to mix the various distinct cuisines in Peru. There was no such thing as novoandino cooking, much less 12 cooking schools in Lima with classes by that name. The country was politically and geographically isolated, so that little of its astonishing variety of foods—tropical fruits from the Amazon, wild mushrooms from the Sacred Valley, black scallops from northern lakes, 3,000 varieties of potatoes—showed up in the markets here. Even when they did, limeños disdained ingredients from the Andes, considering them peasant food. “When I grew up, if you ate guinea pig you were a savage,” Payet says, biting into a leg of roasted organic guinea pig nestled in its bed of oca ravioli in a pecan sauce with Pisco (Peru’s brandy).
When Acurio, 38, and Payet, 42, were kids, people who ate out at restaurants—almost exclusively the white upper class—were only interested in fine French or Italian fare. When Acurio opened Astrid y Gastón, in 1994, he was fresh from Paris (Le Cordon Bleu) and had every intention of serving French haute cuisine. As the son of a former prime minister (who thought Acurio was spending all that time overseas learning to be a lawyer), he was aiming at the Eurocentric upper class. “I wanted to teach Peruvians to eat foie gras and truffles.” He ignored traditional Peruvian cuisines and ingredients. “I was fighting to get dried porcini mushrooms and didn’t see the fifty varieties of fruit we have right here.”
But things had changed in Peru while Acurio was gone. The publisher of the daily newspaper El Comercio, Bernardo Roca Rey, an avid amateur cook, had experimented with underused, undervalued native ingredients and created new dishes with them, like a quinotto, a risotto made of Andean quinoa. A chef named Cucho La Rosa opened El Comensal, the first novoandino restaurant, and then Roca Rey’s daughter Hirka Roca Rey followed suit with Pantagruel. (Both restaurants, “ahead of their time,” Acurio says, have closed.) Serious cooks with European training began taking a look at Peru’s native fruits, tubers, grains, and animals and using them to create sophisticated new recipes. Roca Rey proclaimed it a movement, and as the head of an empire that brought daily food columns and inexpensive new cookbooks to newspaper subscribers every few weeks, he made it so. He and others recognized Acurio’s creativity, and tried to steer him into the fold. “I told Gastón not to imitate the French,” says Cucho La Rosa, “but to make a cuisine that is Peruvian.”
Acurio and other cooks of his generation took the advice to heart. “We were doing French cuisine, but we were Peruvians, and you have to follow your Peruvian personality.” That personality is bold; whether nikkei, chifa, or criollo, what all the imported Peruvian cuisines have in common (besides ají peppers) is flavors that are stronger than the original. It’s also more willing to experiment. “Because we’re a poor country, we’ve been inventive. We have more than three hundred soups and four hundred ceviches,” Acurio says. “We’re a mix of cultures, and we don’t close our culinary frontiers.” It was a relief for Acurio to acknowledge his roots. “In France, they told me my minestrone wasn’t any good, because it wasn’t French,” he says. “But believe me, it was good.”