My trip to Peru last September included a long list of food destinations, such as the Mistura food festival or Chez Wong’s secret ceviche hideaway. But I also really wanted to visit Astrid + Gaston, not only because Gaston Acurio’s restaurant was recently ranked number 1 in South America and number 14 in the world by San Pellegrino, but also because their tasting menu “El Viaje” was about a journey from Italy to Peru, and the theme of cultural fusions always fascinates me. So when I was able to get lunch reservations for two, I immediately invited my uncle, who shocked me when his first response was no. Why wouldn’t someone want to eat at one of Peru’s most famous restaurants? You clearly haven’t met my uncle.
My uncle has lived in Lima all his life, and from the way he drifts thought the streets, specially at night, I can tell he knows his way around, that he knows about every hidden huarique, Pisco bar, cafe, and restaurant. When we meet, it’s like hanging out with the older brother I never had, and I am like the younger brother he always wanted. He tells me stories of growing up in the poor barrio of Rimac and about my grandmother, his mom, who made him fall in love with Peruvian food. From stews, to stir fries, soups, and desserts, everything she cooked was a magical delicacy. I specially remember her strong hands making the dough for picarones, the sweet potato and squash Peruvian donuts. So when I say that my uncle is an expert on Peruvian cuisine, the criollo cuisine from Lima, I am not exaggerating. He knows every dish, every recipe, from its history to which place serves the best version. And whenever we go out, he always takes me to the most modest places, where the lower class of Lima has always enjoyed their ceviches, papa rellenas, and Chilcanos, nothing fancy, but truly delicious.
So when I invited him to have lunch with me at Astrid + Gaston, he first said no. Well, not exactly so bluntly. He’s too polite for that. He said it was not his first choice, that there were many other places we could go. I suspect it was a reluctance to eat somewhere in Lima that was so upper class. So fancy that very few Limeños could actually afford to eat there. I’ve been conflicted about this topic for some time as well. Shouldn’t a meal served by Peru’s most famous chef be available to all Peruvians, and not just those who could afford it? Well, to be fair, many of Gaston Acurio’s other restaurants in Lima, around Peru, and the world, are quite accessible to everyone. This would be a very special lunch, maybe once in a lifetime experience. It would be a meal at a world-class restaurant, and I wondered how it would compare to the French Laundry in California or Arzak in Spain. Finally, after explaining how we had an opportunity to taste something so unique, I was able to convince my uncle to join me, and I am glad he did, because together we shared one of the most unforgettable meals of my life.
They say that the pleasure of a meal, or a wine, is magnified by the company you had at the moment. Later, if you have the same meal, or wine, by yourself or with other company, it will taste different. That first taste, that first moment is unique, and will never happen again. I am certain this is true, and what made my lunch at Astrid + Gaston so special was that I shared it with my uncle. But even more special was seeing his reaction to every dish. Bite after bite, he was slowly being convinced that this type of gastronomy was actually something he could enjoy. That it was possible to be creative and still honor the roots of Peruvian cuisine and the Italian culture that arrived here. It made me very happy to see this. To witness his joy. To hear him whisper “espectacular…” To take this journey with him. When we left the restaurant he had a tremendous grin. Almost mischievous, like he had discovered a secret. Chef Acurio, here is a Limeño, born and raised, who truly knows what Peruvian cuisine is all about, and your meal gave him a new experience. And it made him smile. It made me smile too. Thank you.