Free From A Dark Past, Peruvian Entrepreneurs Embrace Their Roots

Dec 2, 2014

Chef Gaston Acurio, second from left, and his Leche de Tigre Gang prepare seafood dishes at La Mar at the Mandarin Oriental.
Credit Maria Murriel / WLRN

Superstar chef Gastón Acurio is a trend-setter.

For the past four years, Astrid y Gastón, his flagship restaurant in Lima, Peru, has made the San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants list.

His fusion of traditional Peruvian foods and French cooking techniques has earned him fame on gastronomy’s global stage. And it’s helped put Peruvian cuisine on the map, especially in South Florida.

“In the last 10 years," he says, "we passed maybe from 10 restaurants to more than 200 Peruvian restaurants all over Miami.”

In this year’s report of top culinary trends, the U.S. National Restaurant Association ranked Peruvian cuisine as positively hot among restaurateurs. Especially popular is its staple, the Andean grain called quinoa.

Quinoa, in fact, was considered sacred by the ancient Incas. Its modern revival is part of a larger rediscovery of -- and a newfound admiration for -- Peru’s ancient, indigenous roots. For the simple fact of being peruano.

From food to fashion, music to architecture, enterprising Peruvians like Acurio are taking this fascination full-swing. That’s true both at home and in ex-pat communities like Miami. Acurio recently opened his first Florida restaurant, La Mar, at Miami’s Mandarin Oriental Hotel.

Arroz con mariscos at La Mar by Gaston Acurio at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel.
Credit Mandarin Oriental / Courtesy

“You forget that we have 7,000 years’ history of heritage and culture and design in architecture, in everything,” Acurio says. 

At this year’s Miami Fashion Week, an Inca-inspired Peruvian designer named Chiara Machiavello captivated the crowds.

And in cities as far-flung as New York and San Francisco, spiritual groups have invited a Peruvian therapist named Elba Bravo to conduct workshops. Speaking by phone from Lima, Bravo said her aim is to help people get in touch with their Andean souls.

“I show people the Andean archetypes of men and women," Bravo says. "They’re in our collective ancestral memory.”

That memory, however, was all but cut off in the late 20th Century. In the 1980s and '90s, Peru was terrorized by the Maoist guerrillas of the Shining Path. Because they claimed to represent indigenous peasants, Peru’s Inca heritage lost much of its luster.

That and the dark criminal scandals of Alberto Fujimori -- Peru’s former president, who's now imprisoned -- made that a time when Peruvians could not embrace their identity, according to Acurio.

“We were wrong," he says. "We were afraid.”

But those days are past, and the Peruvian, Andean, Inca ethnicity is cool again -- bacan​ in Peruvian Spanish. That’s especially true now that Peru is one of Latin America’s economic powerhouses -- Miami’s trade with the country has doubled since 2010.

“So this new generation... about 18 to 25 years old, they are proud to be Peruvian and they want to be global at the same time," Acurio says. "They don’t want ideologies, they have dreams – for themselves, but for their country, too.”

Elba Bravo, the therapist, says this generation is also less racist -- and that more indigenous Peruvians today are part of the middle class.

“We’re much prouder of our races, our facial features, our surnames.”

Peru’s return-to-roots movement has become so much a part of life there, it’s received one of the highest compliments: satire.

A Lima-based Facebook page called Hummus of Barranco pokes fun at trendy Lima hipsters and posts photos of them. One is a dread-headed young white woman peeling an Andean bean. “I don’t know to cook,” the fake caption says. “But I’m traveling on the spaceship Pacha” -- the Inca word for Mother Earth.

Credit Facebook.com

And food is at the heart of the craze. 

Award-winning Peruvian chef Javier Florez and his wife Marita Astete run the Miami restaurant chain Aromas del Peru. Florez turns traditional Peruvian dishes into his own cuisine -- like his passionfruit version of the seafood cocktail called ceviche.

But he says what matters most is that it’s Peruvian. And being proud of that again is the best trend there is.

The Latin America Report is made possible by Espirito Santo Bank