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Behind the Line: From Peru with ceviche

Chef Gastón Acurio brings the flavors of Peru to U.S. market

La Mar is Gastn Acurio's first foray into the North
    American restaurant scene. - By Lauren Kramer
By Lauren Kramer
June 01, 2009

The current economic climate is not a friendly time for any restaurateur to debut, but Chef Gastón Acurio is confident that the Peruvian cuisine he features at La Mar Cebichería Peruana on San Francisco's Embarcadero will be well received by American diners.

The 11,000-square-foot restaurant opened in September 2008, featuring traditional and 
reinterpreted Peruvian dishes centered on ceviche, raw fish cubes briefly "cooked" in the acidic juices of Peruvian limes. The fish is tossed with red onion and crimson chile and served with corn kernels and sweet potato in one of La Mar's signature sauces.

A wide variety of seafood, ranging from Dungeness crab to Kona kampachi and Alaskan halibut, features prominently on La Mar's menu. There are several varieties of ceviche, as well as tiraditos or Peruvian-style sashimi, and causas, traditional Peruvian whipped potatoes with seafood salads. Other classic Peruvian dishes and stews include Peruvian prawn soup, tiger prawns with Andean mint pesto and roasted grouper with Manila clams and calamari, served in an ají panca stew with green tamale cream.

Acurio is no stranger when it comes to showcasing his native country's food. The 41-year-old chef has opened 35 Peruvian restaurants in 14 countries, though La Mar's opening in San Francisco is his first foray into the North American market.

"We as Peruvian cooks have a great product, a great food with fantastic flavors that are modern, light, authentic and different," he says.

"Sharing our cuisine with the world is an opportunity to promote our country and to seduce the world with our culture, much the same as the Japanese did some 30 years ago with sushi."

Acurio hopes to open more La Mar locations in New York, San Diego and Los Angeles, but not until he is certain that the San Francisco restaurant is doing the best it can, and that its diners really appreciate the Peruvian flavors. How he came to this point is an interesting story.

A few years ago, he abandoned plans to study law in France and instead attended Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. It was there he met his wife, pastry chef Astrid Gutsche. The couple returned to Lima, Peru, in 1994 and opened a French restaurant, Astrid y Gastón.

Within five years Acurio became a master of Peruvian food, acclaimed particularly for his reinterpretation of classic Peruvian dishes. Acurio went on to open various styles of Peruvian restaurants all over Latin America, including the ceviche chain La Mar Cebichería Peruana, the casual eatery-deli T'anta, the fast-food Peruvian sandwich restaurant Hermanos Pasquale and La Pepa, a juice bar.

"This is the right time to get the momentum going on Peruvian cuisine," says Edgar Perez, who owns a New York-based Peruvian marketing and catering company, Flavors of Peru. "Peruvian cuisine is healthy and brings a wealth of flavors to the American palate, including well-known seafood dishes. Also, it's very flexible in terms of concepts, and adapts well to fine dining and casual restaurants."

Acurio asserts that Peruvian products are undervalued, and that through his work and that of other Peruvian chefs, they are trying to globalize their country's traditions and create a global brand. "Peru is a very rich country with a lot of poor people," he says. He hopes that by exporting the concept of Peruvian food worldwide, he can help to build supply chains that will connect Peruvian producers to the world market.

If anyone can do it, Acurio can, according to his peers. The celebrity chef has helped create dishes based on the "anchoveta" fish as part of a national effort to promote its consumption and still finds time to taste food from Lima's street cart vendors. Acurio has inspired many other Peruvian chefs to spread the flavors of his local cuisine around the world. "I'm part of a movement of Peruvian chefs," Acurio says. "We have a wonderful variety of different flavors in our cuisine, and our mandate is to try to share this food with the world."


Contributing Editor Lauren Kramer lives in British Columbia


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