In Peru, children don’t grow up dreaming of becoming soccer stars anymore, but celebrity chefs like Gastón Acurio. It is said that there are more than 80,000 students enrolled in cooking schools across Peru thanks to Acurio’s activist and philanthropist philosophies and worldwide fame. He opened the award-winning The Pachacútec Culinary Institute in one of Peru’s poorest neighborhoods and has become the face of this culturally rich Andean country’s cuisine.
With over 40 restaurants all over the world, including La Mar and his most famous Astrid & Gastón — which was named best restaurant in Latin America and which he opened nearly two decades ago with his wife Astrid Gutsche — Peru’s cuisine rose to great heights in the eyes of the international gourmet world. And for foodies who have long been well aware of Peru’s outstanding gastronomical offerings, it’s known that Acurio, 51, has been the Pied Piper in leading this culinary revolution and putting Peru on the map for culinary tourism. Thanks to him, several other Peruvian star chefs ranging from high-end restaurants to street food innovators have emerged creating both economic and social advances in this country by way of the kitchen. He’s also spread his fame by authoring dozens of cookbooks and hosting the television show, Aventuras Culinarias, which explored rural and urban kitchens of Peru.
One of his keys to success was his realization of the diverse set of ingredients around him, native ingredients like quinoa, which no one knew about years ago or the superfood cereal kiwicha or the tuber olluco. Now out of the top ten world restaurants, two are Peruvian. Though he once considered a career in law, he ended up studying at the Cordon Bleu in Paris and returned home to Lima and opened Astrid & Gastón with fellow Cordon Bleu alum and current wife Astrid Gutsche. After briefly featuring French dishes on the menu, Acurio and Gutsche switched their focus to local ingredients. “I wanted to prove to our people that we weren’t condemned to imitate others’ cultures, others’ cuisines—we have a beautiful cuisine that deserves to be celebrated around the world,” Acurio told Condé Nast Traveler. “There were no tours in Lima at the time, and I knew one of the best weapons that we could use to convince people to visit our country was the food.”
Over the years Astrid & Gastón, located in a sprawling 300-year-old hacienda, has repeatedly appeared on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list and his cevicheria La Mar can be found in cities from San Francisco to Buenos Aires and his home-style Peruvian restaurant Tanta has expanded to cities such as Chicago and Madrid. He’s described his restaurants as embassies, ultimately making him Peru’s greatest culinary diplomat ever. “A restaurant is an opportunity for people to discover our nation through our ingredients and our recipes,” he told New Worlder. “Any restaurant could become an embassy of peace, an embassy of sharing, building bridges instead of walls.”