Plate of shellfish at the Cevicheria La Mar in Lima
© Patrick Tombola

Expedition Cuisine

  • TEXT FRITZ SCHAAP
  • PHOTOS PATRICK TOMBOLA

Crabs from the Amazon, algae from the depths of the ocean, clay from the Andes: In the quest for new ingredients, Peruvian cooks explore the country’s riches – their culinary creations are conquering the world.

On the other side of the windows, the waves roll in toward the misty coastline, but Jonas Kecskemethy-Vass is oblivious to the natural spectacle. He is standing in the kitchen of his restaurant with skewered livers frying nearby and coworkers filleting fish, while he himself coats hare schnitzels with breadcrumbs; the hare was shot in the mountains yesterday.

The Peruvian capital, Lima, with its freshly acquired reputation as a culinary melting pot, attracts people like Kecskemethy-Vass, a cook and musician from Berlin, whose father is Peruvian, and who spent his teenage years here in Lima. When it’s summer in Europe, the 34-year-old travels the world with his band, Feathered Sun, and the other half of the year he spends working as a chef in Peru. Two years ago, Kecskemethy-Vass left the German winter behind for the first time and made his way to his old home country, where he founded the restaurant concept 5p. He has been returning regularly ever since. This year, his pop-up restaurant is in Santa María del Mar, an hour’s drive south of Lima.

Indian traditions and customs play into Peruvian cuisine, which is also enriched by Spanish flavors and African slave influences. Migrant workers coming in first from China, then from Japan, also influenced Peruvian cooking with their own food culture – and now along comes Kecskemethy-Vass with schnitzel and pancakes! For a long time, the many different culinary traditions wanted to have nothing to do with each other, and each continued to simmer quietly in its own juices.

But then, ten years ago, a man came up with a project that has since become a real gastronomic revolution. That man was Gastón Acurio, 49, who trained at the famous Le Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris and had already run a first-rate French restaurant in Lima back in the 1990s. Now he decided to focus on Peru’s culinary potential.

A farmer in Peru

From field to lab: At his restaurant
 Gastón Acurio uses Peruvian ingredients

© Schapowalow
A chef at Astrid y Gastón pours liquid nitrogen over an ice block

Small artworks: A dessert, chilled with liquid nitrogen

© Patrick Tombola

  So Acurio took a good look at his country. He saw three climate zones and 83 ecological zones, a coast rich in fish, the Amazon jungle, the Andes. He saw blank spots on chefs’ maps: thousands of unknown ingredients that were freshly available all year round. Many hundreds of varieties of potatoes grow in Peru, and the same applies to corn. Acurio saw a land full of incredible flavor possibilities. With his wife, Astrid Gutsche, who has German roots but was raised in France, he opened the Astrid & Gastón and ventured onto new paths, combining the gourmet cuisines he had learned in France with recipes and ingredients from all over Peru.

He soon found like-minded culinary pioneers. A group of internationally trained Peruvian top chefs soon came together, including people like Rafael Osterling, for instance, and together they proclaimed their Cocina Novoandina (roughly: New Andean Cuisine) and combined the traditional fare of their native country with new techniques and flavors.

Cocina Novoandina is the biggest unifying factor in Peruvian society. Just a short time ago, no one in Lima would have dreamed of bothering with ingredients or traditions from, say, the Amazon rainforest. Thanks to the culinary connection, the peoples living there and the inhabitants of the big cities are coming closer together again, both intellectually and culturally.

And the cooks? They are now celebrated like pop stars in Peru. They have become public figures, role models, and people hang on their every word. They are socially engaged, opening cooking schools for the underprivileged and inviting people from the neighborhood to their restaurants.

Inside the restaurant Astrid & Gastón in Peru


Gastón Acurio's restaurant, called Astrid & Gastón

© private

  In the past few years, restaurants have emerged that are places of pilgrimage for international food tourists. The most famous is the Central, a veritable temple of fine dining and possibly the best restaurant on the continent – number one on the Pellegrino List (The World’s 50 Best Restaurants) for South America, and fourth in the world.

The restaurant is run by an old skater friend from Kecskemethy-Vass’s teenage days, Virgilio Martínez, a tall, rangy man with the look of an artist. The 39-year-old Peruvian has already worked in the kitchens of an array of Michelin-star restaurants in New York, Singapore, London and Madrid.

Three times a month, food hunters make a foray into the jungle

When he saw what was emerging in his native country, he returned to Peru and spent a year traveling the country from north to south, from east to west, on foot, by car, donkey, and boat. That’s how he came up with his “Expedition Cuisine,” which is all about the history of the dishes and the different cultures from which they come.”

A two-story city villa in Miraflores, one of the trendy districts in Lima. There’s no nameplate proclaiming the restaurant Martínez designed with his mother, just a great, heavy cedarwood door. Inside simplicity prevails – clear lines, clear light, and a clear focus on the food. “Virgilio never lost his skater mentality,” says Kecskemethy-Vass, when we visit his friend, “whenever he sees something, he starts thinking of ways to use it outside of its usual context.

When a skater looks at a terrain, he doesn’t see something he can hold on to, but something full of trick potential.” It’s along these lines that Martínez cooks, says Kecskemethy-Vass, taking a sip of the Pisco Sour with which our host welcomed us. No exponent of New Peruvian Cuisine is as radical in his interpretation of his country’s species diversity as Martínez. Three times a month, he sends expedition teams into the mountains, into the jungle and out onto the ocean, and quite often leads the forays himself.

He meets with members of tribes living in remote corners of the country, has them show him barks and berries, and forages in marshes and on mountainsides. He finds and uses herbs that have never before found their way into a cooking pot in Lima: new potato varieties, fruits, leaves, bacteria and even clay. He creates his menus according to altitude. His taster menu starts at 25 meters below sea level – a deep-sea algae soup with anglerfish, an ungainly, bony fish of the Lophiiformes order – and ends at 4200 meters, the peaks of the Andes.

That’s where Martínez discovered the cushuro bacteria, which he uses to create chlorophyll-filled bubbles reminiscent of caviar. He serves them on dried tunta potato foam and creamed isco potato.

A family eats in the 5p in Punta Hermosa

At the 5p in Punta Hermosa, Jonas Kecskemethy-Vass puts fish on the table ...

© Patrick Tombola
At the 5p, fish comes barbecued or marinated in lemon juice

... barbecued or marinated in lemon juice

© Patrick Tombola

  Peru offers practically no restraints to Martínez’ quest for discovery. And so guests at his restaurant should not be puzzled to find themselves presented with what appear to be three stones, when the Dry Andes course comes along. At 3900 meters, Martínez came across a clay with a very distinctive flavor, in which he now serves a particular variety of high-altitude potato. Shock-frozen foam coated in gray clay, these edible stones melt in the mouth like tangy, earthy ice cream.

“Most of our work is concerned with redrawing the culinary and cultural map of Peru.” That is how Martínez his “modern wonderland.” In the same vein, Pedro Miguel Schiaffino, the famous chef of the Malabar, opened another restaurant a few years ago, the Amaz, which is devoted entirely to Amazonia. At the Amaz, which is done out in the style of a river landscape but never descends to kitsch, you can sample Amazonian snails, jungle fish and rare cocoa varieties in a variety of forms.

Still other cooks are using foreign influences to enhance Peruvian cuisine. Probably the best-known exponent of that school is Mitsuharu Tsumura, founder and head chef of the Maido. Peru’s emergence as a culinary wonderland encouraged him to open his own gourmet restaurant. At the Maido, Peruvian and Japanese cuisine merge to become a single culinary entity, which has already established a name for itself: “Nikkei.” His success proves the 35-year-old right. His restaurant is usually fully booked, and 70 percent of his diners are gastronomic tourists who have traveled in especially for the experience.

Mitsuharu Tsumura at his restaurant, the Maido

At his restaurant, the Maido, Mitsuharu Tsumura serves Nikkei food ...

© Patrick Tombola
Nikkei food is a mix of Japanese and Peruvian flavors

... a mix of Japanese and Peruvian flavors

© Patrick Tombola

  Nikkei cuisine is more than fusion food, says Tsumura. He takes Japanese flavors and techniques and combines them with local dishes with a Peruvian focus: The result is a completely new culinary art form in its own right.

Even the Peruvian national dish, ceviche – raw fish marinated in lime juice – has a Japanese flavor here. Today, ceviche is no longer marinated for several hours, but prepared fresh and served almost raw. Tsumura is regarded not only as one of the most important chefs in Peru but also on the international scene, he writes books and has his own television show.

As part of his menu “The Nikkei Experience,” he puts “sushi of the earth” on the table, a Nigiri version of classic Peruvian steak and egg dishes, in which Japanese citrus sauce is injected into the egg yolk. Guinea pig is also served in a Japanese guise, as are classic Peruvian stews and ribs. And so Lima’s chefs continue their culinary expeditions – may their curiosity be never-ending.


 

This story first appeared in Lufthansa Exclusive, the frequent traveller magazine. For more information about Lufthansa Miles & More offers, please click here.