Gastón Acurio is not only the most well-known chef from Peru, but he’s also an incredibly successful one, with close to 50 restaurants all over the world, including La Mar Cebicheria Peruana. We caught up with him during a tour of his restaurants in the U.S., for which the goal is to raise awareness and funds for The Pachacútec Culinary Institute helped to open in 2007 in Peru.
The Pachacútec Culinary Institute provides classes covering the history of Peruvian cuisine, kitchen techniques, nutrition, and the English language. The classes are taught by the best chefs of the Acurio Corporation restaurants as well as outstanding professionals of the often called “signature cuisine.” The program leads to the Cooking Technician title that has official value. When they finish their career program, the best students get internships in the best restaurants in the world. In 2011, the school received the Monocle Magazine International Award, which awarded the first place worldwide to the School of Cooking for the level of training provided and its social impact in favor of young people of limited resources.
What inspired you to open a cooking school?
I had all the opportunities that I could dream of — I dreamed of becoming a chef, and I trained in Paris when it was a mecca for chefs. I started by opening a small restaurant and was able to further my dreams. Years passed, and I arrived at a point where I had a company with investors and restaurants all over the world, and I wanted to give back.
I was receiving so much from Peruvian food, and, yet, it belongs to all Peruvians. I didn’t invent the recipes. Peru is a country in development, so we still have a lack of opportunities. Many dream to be a chef but don’t have the opportunity. I chose to open a school because education is the most powerful tool to fix the inequalities of life.
Tell us about the school and how it’s different from other culinary schools?
What we do is humanistic training, building strong souls. We want to reconnect people with the hopes and dreams that life can give you. With a private cooking school, sometimes more than fifty percent don’t graduate, In our case, it’s less than five percent who don’t succeed. When we opened, the cooking schools were very French, so we focused on Peruvian food cuisine and culture, thinking that one day, Peruvian cooking skills will be important everywhere.
The whole idea is to create ambassadors of cuisine. Chefs everywhere must believe they are ambassadors for peace and food culture. When you share your cuisine and your culture, only good things can happen.
Why do a fundraising tour now?
Because we have the proof that the school works. After 10 years, more than 300 graduates all over the world are working in the culinary field, and some have opened their own restaurants. It’s the perfect proof that if you have a good education and goodwill, you will change lives. Every year, we have more kids than we can receive — we send the ten best to a six-month stage in the best restaurants in the world. For example, right now we have two students at El Celler de Can Roca and two at Mugaritz, but there are another ten waiting behind. With these fundraising dinners, everyone has a good time, but they also change lives.
What is your restaurant philosophy?
You have to have simple but very strong principles. In the case of La Mar, it’s using the freshest seafood — principally local, always sustainable, seasonable.
The second thing is that cooking is not about competition but about sharing, so every day you need to keep the same spirit in your memory, remembering why you became a chef. [It’s] not about business or competition, but, rather, being focused on making people happy.
Third, is respecting your culture. I can buy local, but I need to trust in my origin and my flavors, the flavors of Peru. That doesn’t mean you stop creativity. Every day, I find new ingredients or fish; I might do the same ceviche but with a different fish or work with a new farmer, but it’s all keeping in the spirit of the concept, not losing the focus of what we are. We are very casual, fresh, authentic, and always curious.
Last, if you want to make customers happy, first make your team happy. If your team is happy, they will cook great. We try to offer opportunities for people for moving on and up. We give the leadership to the head chef to become the captain of the boat, to know that he’s building team happiness every day.
What has it been like opening restaurants outside of Peru?
It depends on the city; San Francisco is different than Miami, which is different from Chicago. About 200 Peruvian restaurants have opened in Miami, so it was easier to open a Peruvian concept there — almost 10 years ago in San Francisco, we had to introduce the food culture.
The most challenging thing is to understand the city and the moment and look back and see what you can offer. Each restaurant is easier than the next because I’ve already made the biggest mistakes!
Photo credit: Ines Menacho (Gastón Acurio).