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August 22, 2008
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Gaston Acurio boosts Peru's culinary confidence

LIMA, Peru - It's a confidence issue, really.

That's why you've probably never tasted aji de gallina, deboned chicken drizzled with creamy chili sauce, or lomo saltado, Peru's classic beef and tomato stir-fry, says Gaston Acurio, the nation's wildly popular leading chef.

"We have a mentality: Nobody will like our food even though it's tasty," he said recently from his breezy culinary workshop in Lima's bohemian Barranco neighborhood. "People think the things Peruvians do are Third World."

Acurio, however, lacks neither confidence nor schemes for changing his country's global culinary status.

His name might be mostly unknown in the United States, but here he enjoys celebrity akin to Bobby Flay, thanks in part to a string of successful restaurants and a popular television program in which he scouts Peru's out-of-the-way gastronomic gems.

He already has expanded his culinary empire with high-end eateries Astrid y Gaston in Spain, Chile and Colombia, and the more casual La Mar in Mexico City and Panama.

And now, Acurio is coming to the States.

"If you can sell a hamburger in Peru, why can't you sell ceviche in the U.S.?" he says of his nation's classic dish of refreshingly raw fish.

Acurio, 40, is convinced Peruvian food could, and should, be as popular as Japanese or Thai food, and that it belongs on every street corner and built into every strip mall in the United States.

Next month, he takes the first steps in that direction, launching a branch of his La Mar restaurant in San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf district, with more planned for Las Vegas, New York and Miami.

Then, in a sort of culinary reverse-colonization, Acurio hopes to inundate the U.S. and European markets with his many brands, from a mall-friendly stuffed-potato franchise to microwavable Peruvian favorites and seasonings for grocers.

Acurio acknowledges his plans are ambitious, but he says investors have been eager to back his projects, and that the La Mar locations slated to open in the States already have financing.

Of course, winning over investors and winning over the American palate are entirely different games.

Success, he thinks, will hinge on finding the elements of Peruvian cuisine Americans already embrace from other cultures. And given the popularity of sushi, Acurio is gambling on ceviche, the main plate of the La Mar franchise.

It's a plan that some in the food world think might just work.

"If you're going to peg Peruvian food's success to one dish, ceviche isn't a bad dish to do it with," says Kate Krader, restaurant editor for Food & Wine magazine. "Americans have already shown themselves to be head-over-heels in love with sushi, tuna tartar and other types of raw-fish dishes."

There's also a benefit to being unique, says Tanya Steel, editor-in-chief of Epicurious.com. "There's not a top-notch Peruvian restaurant in America right now, so I think there's room for one," she says.

Acurio's plans for a line of Peruvian sauces, spices and snacks - including a ceviche marinade - however, might be a harder sell among American home cooks unaccustomed to preparing raw fish, Steel says.

But for Acurio, cracking the American market is more than a business challenge. It's also a personal mission to earn what he considers long overdue culinary credibility for Peru.

"Our work is to make the Peruvian gastronomic heritage - that we've always had - become recognized everywhere," he says. "And the only way to do that is by opening restaurants throughout the world."

And that's all part of a dream that began when Acurio was a boy, a dream that didn't mesh with his father's plans.

"He wanted me to be president," Acurio says with a laugh. After two years of law school in Madrid, Spain, Acurio dropped out to enroll at the city's restaurant school. From there he went on to study - and meet his wife, Astrid - in Paris.

Cooking in Europe taught him the power of innovation, how to respect a traditional cuisine while also reinterpreting it. It was a skill that served him well when he returned to Peru to draw inspiration from the foods of his childhood.

The result was Astrid y Gaston, his first restaurant, a contemporary-Andean restaurant Acurio and his wife opened in Lima in 1994.

Many of his dishes are Peruvian classics, including lomo saltado and tacu tacu, a lightly fried, chunky mash of Andean beans and rice.

And, of course, there is the showcase seafood that has propelled Acurio to fame, including tiradito - a sort of Peruvian take on sashimi. One of Acurio's signature tiraditos is a plate of chilled, raw sardines splashed with a tangy yellow chili sauce.

Chupe de camarones, another favorite, is a creamy tomato and river crawfish stew accompanied by a poached egg and buttered toast. It's his own take on his family's recipe.

"What we cook is what we lived, what we taste," he said.

And soon, he hopes, Americans will develop a taste for that life.


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Tahoe Daily Tribune Updated Aug 27, 2008 01:24AM Published Aug 22, 2008 03:00AM Copyright 2008 Tahoe Daily Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.