Acurio spent a year traveling all over Peru in search of ingredients and flavors, and was amazed at what he found. “We’re only eating five percent of our produce.” He began the slow work of sourcing the best ingredients and training producers to bring him what he wanted. “At first, the farmer, dumping everything from one big sack, thought I was crazy when I asked him to put potatoes in one bag and herbs in the other, so they wouldn’t get crushed.” Back in Lima—starting off with creative cocktails featuring Pisco and Amazonian fruits—Astrid y Gastón’s nouvelle Peruvian cuisine quickly took off. Now Acurio is a celebrity; he stars in a weekly cooking show, has written 12 cookbooks, and has opened ten restaurants throughout South America—and he’s planning new cevicherias in Ft. Lauderdale and, he says, all over the world.
For all the movement’s influence, Acurio doesn’t consider himself a novoandino cook, because he doesn’t stick too close to Peruvian roots. “It’s good to value ethnic Peruvian products, but it’s a prison to only use things native to Peru. I don’t care if asparagus wasn’t born here, it’s good grown here.” As for alpaca, which novoandino cooking champions but which can taste tough and nasty, Acurio shakes his head emphatically. “I’m a Peruvian,” he says, “but first I’m a chef.”
At the Surquillo market, near Miraflores, the tony neighborhood where Payet and Acurio grew up, Payet makes a wide gesture at the produce. “You can see why I was horrified when I first went to the grocery stores in the States,” he says. Here are countless baskets of potatoes—red, fat, black, and bright orange with pink spots. There’s purple corn and yellow cobs with kernels as big as horse’s teeth. At another stand are colorful piles of tropical fruits, most of which I don’t recognize. “This is why I started LocalHarvest,” Payet says, referring to his website, which is the largest database of family farmers in the U.S., where people can log on to find local farmers markets and products. He likes his food so local he keeps chickens in his backyard in Santa Cruz, California.
Before I met Payet, I didn’t know anything about Peruvian food. I assumed it was like Mexican food, but with more potatoes. He turned me on to dishes I’d never heard of—a peppery chicken stew called ají de gallina, a beef and tomato dish with french fries stirred in called lomo saltado—and ones he made better than anyone else, like green tamales with chicharrones. We share a passion for food, and a birthday, and each year we cook our hearts out to celebrate. Over the years, tasting his Peruvian dishes, I’ve nudged him to go back—and to take me with him—on a culinary tour.
It was difficult for Payet to return to Peru, partly because the circumstances of his leaving had been traumatic. Terrorists had bombed his office, and only quick talking had saved him from death in the Andes when he encountered the Shining Path. He went to the States; others of his generation went to Europe, where many of them learned the culinary techniques that they are now incorporating into the Peruvian cooking revolution back home.
After our dinner at Astrid y Gastón—a comprehensive introduction to new Peruvian cuisine in one meal—we decide to take apart the menu, in a sense, trying out several of the components. We start with a classic street-vendor breakfast, but in a spiffed-up location: Santa Ana, a small café in posh San Isidro. With coffee and glasses of fresh papaya juice, we eat typical breakfast sandwiches: lomo de cerdo ahumado (pork sirloin sausage cured with hot peppers and paprika) and chicharrones with yam. Over corn cakes (pasteles de choclo) and tamales, the chef, Pablo Secada, tells us that he cooks from old family recipes, and he compares notes with Payet on how to cook tamale masa in broth. They discover they both have a favorite old Peruvian cookbook, one with a recipe that begins, “The day before, you kill the animals and wash them well.”
We make our way through foggy, dirty-faced Lima to a tropical bright spot for lunch: a typical cevicheria, La Isla Escondida. There we are greeted with plastic cups of Pisco Sour at the door, and by eight of Payet’s childhood friends, who’ve eaten here or at another cevicheria every Friday since high school. Under thatched roofs, with bright plastic fish decorating the walls, we devour plate after plate of ceviches—there are 31 on the menu—along with varieties of tacu tacu, rice-and-bean dishes, and causas, which are various fish, olive, and sauce concoctions on top of a base of cold mashed potatoes. One of Payet’s friends, on his fifth or sixth beer, nudges me during the ever more boisterous meal. “This,” he says, poking a fish on the plate, “was alive this morning.”
At dinnertime, we settle in at Toshiro’s, a Japanese restaurant in San Isidro. Improbably located next to a cheesy casino, it is spare and serene, with windows facing an outdoor garden of hanging bromeliads. A photo inside places chef Toshiro Konishi alongside Nobu and Australia’s Tetsuya Wakuda, and the meal, though simple, turns out to be the best Japanese meal I’ve had since I dined at Tetsuya’s. Tender, flavorful raw fish is mixed with Peruvian ingredients in dishes like salmon with flying-fish roe and maca root from the Andes. Dessert is an ice cream of my new favorite fruit, the subtle, caramel-flavored, divine lúcuma. “Bestial,” says Payet, his highest compliment.