The next morning, we meet up with Acurio at T’anta, where he makes Spanish-style tapas with Peruvian ingredients (mini potato causas, stuffed baby peppers, fried yuca with peppery salsa huancaína). Then we are off to his cevicheria, La Mar, for a Pisco Sour, gorgeous ceviches, causas, tiraditos, and deep-fried fresh bottarga, in an upscale version of the traditional thatched-roof restaurant. In the evening, Acurio recommends Malabár, a nouvelle Peruvian restaurant where chef Pedro Miguel Schiaffino uses many of the fruits and vegetables he has researched in the Amazon. Like Acurio, he trained in Europe—in Mantua, Italy. “It didn’t make sense for me to come back to Peru and make regional Italian cuisine,” he says. At 29, he sees Peruvian cuisine as having infinite potential. “In France and Italy, they have hundreds of years’ worth of master chefs. We have Toshiro, who is our master, and we have Gastón, who is young. But it’s an exciting start. Peruvians are beginning to appreciate their own foods.”
Payet spends his time during the trip in a state of wonder. “There’s so much variety now,” he tells me. “All these ingredients I knew from traveling in the Andes or the Amazon, but never saw on the coast in Lima—now they’re making it to restaurants and to people’s tables. Everyone’s experimenting.”
We have our last meal in Lima’s crowded Chinatown, at Acurio’s favorite chifa, Salon Capon. The food has a different accent than Chinese food from the States—there is no soy sauce, more peppers. One of Peru’s favorite dishes, lomo saltado, was originally a chifa stir-fry. As we eat a tender whole rockfish, eggplant with dried fish and sausage, and fried wontons, a girl of about eight comes up to speak to Acurio. “She told me she wants to grow up to be a chef,” he says, with a proud smile. “That wouldn’t have happened ten years ago.”
Acurio’s cellphone rings; he checks his watch and pops another piece of calamari into this mouth before leaving. “In another ten years, Lima will be like Paris,” he says. “People will come here just to eat.”
Payet and I exchange satisfied nods. We will definitely come back to Lima to eat, and then head out—to the Andes, the Amazon, the Ica Pisco region, mystical Machu Picchu, or the desert with its giant animal-figure Nazca lines—into a country that is almost as vast, varied, and unexplored as its cuisine.