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How Latin America became a culinary force to be reckoned with

Exactly 25 years since Astrid y Gastón first opened its doors, we examine how a culinary revolution that started in Lima has inspired chefs from Buenos Aires to Bolivia to use ancient ingredients to create modern dishes that taste incredible and contribute to ongoing sustainability.

While it’s possible to trace the roots of Cocina Novoandina (Novo-Andean food) back to the late 1980s, South American civilizations have been farming, foraging, hunting and cooking for millennia. The incredible geographical and climatic extremes of the continent, coupled with the sophisticated agricultural know-how of the Incas and those who went before them, have resulted in a variety of ingredients that is second to none. The French may boast of their 1600 different kinds of cheese, but Andean nations can lay claim to 4000 native varieties of potato. Not to mention 70 different quinoas and 55 different corns.

A cornucopia of potatoes in a typical Andean market. (Photo: Dottie Day)

When he opened his paradigm-shifting restaurant Astrid y Gastón in 1994, Gastón Acurio applied some of the techniques he had learned at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris to the dishes and ingredients he had grown up with. Case in point: quinotto, a risotto made from quinoa. Acurio was full of big ideas and lofty aspirations but even he couldn’t have dreamed of how far we would come…

An Amazonian take on baklava, featuring the superfood Sacha Inchi. (Photo: Astrid y Gastón's Facebook page)

Paris, London, New York…Lima

Hot on Acurio’s heels were a host of other innovative Peruvian chefs. Rafael Osterling (like Acurio, a former lawyer who has since seen the culinary light), Mitsuharu Tsumura (the poster boy of Nikkei cuisine, a fusion of Peruvian and Japanese styles) and Pedro Miguel Schiaffino (the godfather of Amazonian ingredients) to name but a few.

One chef, however, looms above them all like an Andean apu. Virgilio Martinez – who starred in the Netflix series Chef’s Table, was at one point voted the best chef in the world and is the man behind Central restaurant – doesn’t just cook, he “explores the Peruvian territory [by] focusing on ecosystems and elevations.” Central “takes diners on a journey through every altitude, from 20 meters below sea level to 4,100 meters above it, in 17+ courses. The tasting menu is a reflection of Martínez and his sister’s research into ingredients in the Andes, the Amazon, and the sea.”

Rose apple, maca and sweet chilli. (Photo: Central's Facebook page)

Peru is the only country in the world to have two restaurants in the Top 10 of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants – and they are both in Lima. Central is currently ranked #6 in the world (down from a high of #4) and Tsumura’s Lima flagship Maido has risen to #7.

In addition to making waves at global awards, Peruvian cuisine has also infiltrated the international dining scene with brands like the upscale La Mar ceviche chain (the brainchild of Acurio) boasting outlets throughout the Americas and chefs like Martinez and Osterling launching highly successful fine dining venues in London and Bogota respectively. Ceviche, meanwhile, seems to feature on every second menu on the planet…Although its quality does vary widely. 

Homegrown heroes

While many of Peru’s best chefs have spent some time honing their skills in the kitchens and/or culinary schools of Europe and the US, all of the very best ones seem to come back to Peru at some point. Alejandro Urbina Olivares, a veteran Peruvian chef who is currently based in Texas, says there are two main reasons for this. One, it’s much more affordable to open and run a restaurant in Lima. And two, it’s well nigh impossible to source many of the ingredients that make Peruvian cuisine unique outside of Peru. (Good luck organizing import permits for even a hundred varieties of potato, let alone 4000!)

Sachapapa soba with clams and crabs. (Photo: Maido's Facebook page)

SA Expedition’s founder Nick Stanziano, who spends almost as much time in Lima’s restaurants as he does exploring Inca roads, puts it simply: “You can source the best saffron in the world in French kitchens, but it’s extremely difficult to find, say, cushuro (an Andean algae) in New York.” For this reason, he continues, “the top Peruvian food can only be eaten in Lima,” a city which has 25 world-beating restaurants in an area smaller than Manhattan.

Cocina Novoandina may have taken some inspiration from other parts of the world, but it remains firmly rooted in the Pacific, the Amazon, and the Andes. The rise in local culinary schools and the plethora of jobs available in top-notch kitchens, means that instead of going abroad to learn, young Peruvian chefs are going overseas to earn (experienced Peruvian chefs are hot property on the global dining scene) the dollars and euros with which they can open their own restaurants back home. The renaissance of Peruvian gastronomy is about more than simply putting food on plates – it’s about national pride and economic sustainability.

The Don Ignacio School of Culinary Arts in Lima. (Photo: Astuviaje)

Inspiring a continent

What started in Lima soon spread to other South American cities. Sao Paulo (Brazil), Santiago (Chile) and Buenos Aires (Argentina) have all featured on the World’s 50 Best list, and the award organizers have been inspired to create an entirely new category for Latin American restaurants.

But perhaps the most fascinating case study comes out of La Paz, Bolivia. Landlocked, underdeveloped and one of the poorest countries on the continent, Bolivian gastronomy has historically been overshadowed by its neighbors’ feats. Despite the fact that, much like Peru, it has a plethora of native ingredients (barring seafood!) and a long history of cooking. I lived in La Paz about a decade ago and although I ate extremely well, almost everything I consumed could be described as ‘hearty’ rather than ‘gourmet’.

La Paz’s fine dining scene was given a massive shot in the arm in 2012 when Claus Meyer – co-owner of Copenhagen’s Noma restaurant, a four-time winner of the World’s Best Restaurant award – opened both a restaurant (Gustu) and a culinary school (Man’qa) in La Paz. Meyer, who had never visited Bolivia, chose the country based on reports from the Danish NGO Ibis, which has worked in Bolivia for decades and is now heavily involved in Manq’a.

Caramelized 'papalisas', cream of chicken and 'isano'. (Photo: Gustu's Facebook page)

Stephen Taranto, Director of Sendas Altas and SA Expeditions’ Bolivia partner, says the first roots of Bolivia’s culinary revolution were laid by organizations such as the PROINPA Foundation, an NGO whose aim is to conserve Andean crops and stem rural depopulation by promoting agricultural biodiversity. PROINPA has done this by establishing seed banks (since taken over by the government and allowed to languish), by developing participatory methodologies that identified certain communities as Microcenters of Agricultural Biodiversity and by establishing on-farm conservation efforts.

Gustu, which is staffed mainly by previously underprivileged Bolivian youth, gave all this fantastic local produce the chic, modern platform which it had been lacking. And then some. While Gustu’s foreigner-friendly prices are beyond all but the richest Bolivians, the plethora of young innovative chefs and restaurants it has inspired are frequented by the country’s now-burgeoning middle class, says Taranto, rattling off a list of restaurants opened by young chefs who have either worked at Gustu or studied at Man’qa without ever setting foot outside of Bolivia. In addition to Gustu’s top-down approach, La Casa de Los Ningunes (The House of the No-ones), an experimental community that focuses on comida consciente (conscious cooking) among other societal overhauls, has also had an impact by working from the bottom up and making locals and visitors more aware of the threats facing Andean agro-biodiversity and Andean farming systems in general.

Either way, in less than a decade the city has transformed from a gastronomic backwater into a foodie heaven, and it’s done so with very little help from abroad. Taranto’s favorites include Ali Pacha (high-end and extremely creative vegan tasting menus), Popular (beautiful, modern takes on traditional Bolivian fare including chajchu) and Sabor Clandestino, a clandestine pop-up restaurant that hijacks different venues around the city two or three times a month.

An upscale interpretation of "basket chicken". (Photo: Popular's Facebook page)

Do your bit for agricultural biodiversity

Latin America’s culinary revolution has given its people – both the middle-class urbanites who dine in the new wave of restaurants and the traditional farming communities that supply them – renewed pride and purpose. But still, the trend is for agricultural biodiversity to decline every year. Agricultural biodiversity isn’t just a nice to have, it’s essential to “ensure the production of food, fiber, fuel, and fodder, to allow adaptation to changing conditions including climate change and to sustain rural peoples’ livelihoods.” One of the most effective ways of stemming the decline is by ensuring that farming heirloom varieties continues to make economic sense for rural communities.

May 30 is the National Day of the Potato in Peru. (Photo: H. Holmes/RTB)

Whether you’re planning a trip to Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, Chile or Brazil, let us help you to plan an itinerary – and a menu – that focuses on sustainably sourced local ingredients and unique South American flavors. Who said doing good couldn’t taste good?

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