Gastón Acurio: «I never thought I would serve hamburgers to survive»

Gastón Acurio, in his kitchen in Lima. / EFE

The Peruvian chef opens Madrid Fusión Bogotá with a call to reconnect with the local public after a pandemic that has emptied his dining room of tourists

The dining room of his restaurant emptied overnight, but far from throwing in the towel, Gastón Acurio saw in the pandemic “an opportunity to reconnect with our lifelong audience.” The Peruvian chef opened the second edition of Madrid Fusión Bogotá this Thursday, inviting the profession to take care of the local clientele with a cuisine “seasonal, close, affordable, simple and faithful to its roots.” He has had to serve the first course of an event that aspires to be “the largest gastronomic congress in Latin America”, which will be attended by chefs such as Leonor Espinosa, Viviana Varese, René Frank, Ángel León, Davide Carachini, Najat Kaanache , Eneko Atxa or the Enjoy team.

Acurio was humbling to acknowledge that the success of his flagship Astrid y Gastón had made him “forget the local audience” and focus on “a more sophisticated international customer.” When that global tourist disappeared due to the closure of borders, he found himself with “many debts to pay” and the need to keep alive, not only the restaurant, but also its equipment, its suppliers or its legacy. “We started doing things to survive that we had never imagined, such as a delivery of hamburgers, ribs, tacos or roast chicken,” he explained. The response from the people of Lima was extraordinary and, when the restaurant reopened its doors, they filled their tables like in the 90s.

The “cook and activist”, capable of instilling self-esteem in an entire country, wanted to go back to his origins in 1994 when, recently arrived from Europe, he and his partner opened a restaurant “where we then served French cuisine.” He soon found a “path of his own” by revaluing ancestral products such as guinea pig or by drawing inspiration from his own family memories. “We were used to believing that ours was not as good as what was foreign”, but by embracing his identity, the awards began to arrive and his international projection skyrocketed.

That ‘boom’ served to create a gastronomic community in Peru that showed itself to the world as a model of connection with the environment, link with producers and respect for the inheritance received. “Today they are normal values ​​in gastronomy but then they sounded very strange.” The paradox is that meanwhile ‘Astrid y Gastón’, which attracted a high-level global audience and moved to a palace in the Barranco neighborhood, became inaccessible to Peruvians. “They had not forgotten us, they could no longer afford to come to eat.” Now that his menu has gone from $ 200 to $ 25, Acurio once again feels the thrill of “seeing neighboring customers return again and again with their families.”

The power of social transformation that Gastón embodied in Peru is an example for Colombia, which in Madrid Fusión Bogota aspires to “exalt our gastronomic diversity, strengthen our business fabric and accompany the hospitality sector in its recovery,” said María Paz Gaviria at the inauguration of the event. To “the brave who fall and rise” -in the words of Benjamín Lana- a second edition is dedicated “closer and more intimate” that aspires to be “the most important cooking congress in Latin America.”

Enjoy and Aponiente show their insides on the other side of the Atlantic

While the in-person congress takes place in the Ágora space of the Colombian capital, Madrid Fusión Bogotá is broadcast openly through the web bogotamadridfusion.co. The same technology that allows the event to be accessed by a global audience is offering the possibility of building bridges over the Atlantic to enter the kitchens of world-class restaurants such as Barcelona’s Enjoy or Aponiente from Cádiz.

Until now, few were the lucky ones who know the space where Oriol Castro, Mateu Casañas and Eduard Xatruch develop their creativity. “People think we work at NASA, but this is a normal kitchen,” they joked when they showed the Enjoy Lab. They opened refrigerators, cabinets and drawers, displayed notebooks and work papers, or reviewed their vast library of ideas in an invaluable virtual presentation for anyone who wants to explore the limits of the kitchen.

Their intervention was an opportunity to attend the birth of culinary ideas, such as a prototype of a bearnaise with alcohol that occurred to them just a few days ago, after attending a presentation in San Sebastián Gastronomika on funds and sauces. “We still have to debug it,” they warn. It also allowed us to take a look at the 2020 catalog, which will one day be part of volume 2 of his book, which has just received the National Gastronomy Award, or discarded ideas that may be recovered in the future.

From the creativity laboratory of Enjoy, the congress traveled to El Puerto de Santa María, where it looked at the landscape of marshes that can be seen from the kitchens of Aponiente and that “serve as pantry and inspiration.” Ángel León showed a country bathed by two seas imaginative ways to feed on what is under the waters, from sausages based on whitebait to vegetables, fruits, tubers or marine cereals such as eelgrass. An example that, when it comes to food, “we do not suffer from scarcity, but rather we waste a lot of wealth.”

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