Peru's top chef ready to conquer S.F.
Stacy Finz, Chronicle Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 25, 2008 . San Francisco Chronicle
The Key limes are wrong, the sweet potatoes are of a different variety, and even some of the fish vary from those called for in the original recipes.
But as long as Gastón Acurio, who plans to open his first American seafood restaurant in San Francisco this September, can cook with the chiles from his homeland, he says he'll be OK. His food will be authentic - even if it's made here, with American ingredients.
The 40-year-old Acurio has been called Peru's great chef. That description would have been an oxymoron 15 years ago, when not even Peruvians thought their cuisine worthy of a fine-dining experience.
"The food was nice," says Acurio. "Something you ate at home."But for a white-tablecloth dinner, it was always French. Now he says, there's barely a French restaurant to be found in Lima.
Although classically trained at the Cordon Bleu in Paris, Acurio decided to return home in 1994 and embrace his native fare, an amalgamation of ingredients and cooking styles influenced by the Incas, Japanese and Chinese settlers, African slaves and Spanish ancestors. During the next several years, he and other contemporary chefs worked tirelessly to elevate Peruvian food to a permanent place in the gourmet hierarchy. He opened Astrid y Gastón, a high-end restaurant named for him and his wife, a German pastry chef he met in cooking school. Later he opened La Mar, a trendy cebicheria in the Miraflores district of Lima.
The obligatory cooking show and a cookbook quickly followed. Now, with restaurants in seven countries, including Spain, Mexico and Venezuela, with the San Francisco waterfront project, and plans to open more in Costa Rica and Brazil, Acurio is considered one of Latin America's most influential chefs.
Acurio is known for his many ceviche recipes, which are often served with sweet potatoes and corn. The fish in Peruvian ceviches don't macerate in the marinade for hours to cook, as in Mexican ceviches. The fish is raw - more like sashimi with a ceviche base.
His other specialties include cooked seafood made with various chile sauces; causa, a cold potato dish prepared with smoked trout and raw tuna; and tiradito, thinly cut strips of raw fish.
Last week, Acurio stood in an Emeryville commercial kitchen, his unruly mop of brown hair and casual black T-shirt doing little to disguise his intensity as he and his team tested recipes.
"The ceviche is 70 percent there," said 35-year-old Jose Luis, the chef who will run the kitchen at Acurio's San Francisco La Mar, a spin-off of the Peruvian restaurant.
Acurio spooned a chunk of the citrus-drenched California halibut into his mouth.
"It's only 20 to 25 percent there," said the chef, who attempted to covertly scold Luis in Spanish about how he thought the lime juice had oxidized.
The San Joaquin Valley sweet potatoes, while not perfect, were a close match to the ones that grow in the Andes. Acurio is firm about wanting to source ingredients from local farmers. The chiles, however, are non-negotiable. They have to come from Peru. Chiles are key.
"The DNA of Peruvian food is the chiles," he says. The mainstays of his country's cuisine are the aji amarillo or yellow chile, aji limo or habanero, the aji panca (a dark red chile that tastes fruity) and the aji rocoto (a chile grown in the Andes that resembles a mini bell pepper). The chiles add flavor more than heat to his food, which is not overly spicy.
Red onion and Peruvian black mint, or huacatay, are also crucial ingredients.
"It's like the bass in the music," he says. "It's our rhythm."
Emmanuel Kemiji, a master sommelier and vintner who is creating La Mar's wine list, says the process has been a bit daunting.
"The first challenge was to figure out what the hell is Peruvian food," says Kemiji, adding that he initially looked to the South American country as an obvious source for wine selections. "They make wine in Peru. But they shouldn't."
Kemiji says he plans to go with varietals from Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Spain and California that will complement Acurio's seafood and the six or so meat dishes planned for the menu. There will also be a pisco bar. Pisco is a Peruvian version of grappa that can either be drunk straight or in a cocktail like the popular pisco sour. "It's their national drink," says Kemiji.
And Acurio, the son of a Peruvian politician, is true to tradition. But he hasn't always been true to his father's wishes. Gastón Acurio Velarde, a former prime minister and senator, wanted his son to be an attorney. So he sent him to law school in Spain. After a year, Acurio quit and began attending cooking classes at Sol de Madrid, a hotel trade school.
"When my father came to visit, I would hide my recipe books and pull out the law texts," he says. Eventually the jig was up, and Velarde agreed that his son should go to Paris.
Now, the younger Gastón is doing his part to be an ambassador of his country by taking Peruvian food worldwide.
As he and Luis continued to experiment with the ceviche, someone asked if they were getting closer to perfection.
"It will never be 100 percent because we're not in Peru," he said. "There are some things we cannot reproduce."
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