Letter from the Editor: Chefs Hitting High Notes in Peru Vol: 112

June 2014

Dining in Peru is as much about theater as is about eating, and a Peruvian chef is as much a history teacher and geography expert as he is master of cuisine. On the wings of such visionary chefs as Gastón Acurio of Astrid y Gastón, Virgilio Martínez of Central, and Hector Solis of Fiesta, Peruvian cuisine has risen to new and dramatic heights. And heights matter in Peru.

Located in the central Andes, the average altitude of Peru’s peaks is around 13,000 feet. From the clouds to the bottom of the Amazon River Basin and on toward the coast, the altitudes and ecosystems change drastically. Just like the Incas and the ancient civilizations who came before them, today’s chefs have to adapt to these climatic variations that dictate the vast Peruvian pantry. The chefs we visited do more than merely adapt, they’re flourishing, pushing the dining experience to the next level with passion and pride.

In Peru, tradition abounds, and we saw it most often in the form of choclo, the indigenous giant kernel-ed corn. We sipped pisco—without the sour—diving deep into pisco neat with Ricardo Carpio of PiscoBar. We tasted wine at Central selected by a somm who came to Lima from Atlanta and found a new life, hometown, and world of wine to explore.

Our Peruvian travel feature explores the best of the restaurant world—from fine-dining served on ice and stone, to lunch at the steps of Machu Picchu, plus a slew of sites and places to stay. We’ve also documented a “Day in the Life of a Peruvian” through pictures. In this Dishrag, we’ve captured the best of Peru, from the cutting edge to the majestic terraces cut into the Andes.

Carved into the sides of mountains, hillsides, and down into the Andean valleys, these terraces are the most stunning evidence of Peru’s historic ability to adapt. Incan agricultural terraces provide not only a serene vista and glimpse into the past, but also a lesson on sustainability that speaks directly to the modern chef. With their terraces, the Incas fed an entire civilization from intricately devised, sustainable farming practices—all on land that would’ve otherwise been infertile. They were able to figure out, through methodical testing on the terraces, the crops that grew best at various altitudes during different times of year. The terraces themselves retain heat and prevent plantings from freezing overnight. The Incas (and the Wari that preceded them) also ingeniously harnessed the power of gravity for efficient irrigation and drainage on the terraces. Corn, beans, potatoes, barley, and quinoa were most often cultivated and rotated through the terrace system. Some modern-day Peruvian highlanders still farm using the sustainable terrace practices of their ancestors. Many researchers of today believe that the terraces offer much to learn as we move forward with the sustainability movement.

Martínez was particularly inspired by the rich cultural history of Peru as it relates to food and agriculture. He designed his entire 17-course menu—“Heights: A World Elevation”—around what is grown at various altitudes. In addition to the kitchen at Central, Martínez has a rooftop garden and a lab where every dish is thoroughly fleshed out before making it on the high-concept menu.

Chef Jaime Pesaque of Mayta presented a menu based on geographic coordinates, coordinating the ingredients in his dishes to where they grow or are cultivated naturally. Huaca Pucllana, Chef Marilú Madueño’s restaurant, is located smack-dab next to a 500-year-old adobe pyramid. She’s serving traditional dishes dating all the way back to the Incas, updating them and adding African and European flourishes from Peru’s diverse ethnic melting pot. Chef Miguel Schiaffino is bringing wild edible flowers, funky fruits, and fresh water snails out of the jungle onto tables at Ámaz. And at Maido, Chef Mitsuharu Tsumura uses nori in his ceviche sauce, and maca in his fukujinzuke, continuing the tradition of blending Japanese and Peruvian cuisines.

But it’s the everyday food of Peru that casts a spell on visiting palates, and reveals the true beauty of the country. Tiradito (crudo) at Mayta, Maido, and Huaca Pucllana. Chaufita (fried rice) at Maras. Solatdo (stir fry) at Fiesta. Quinoa tabouli, causa (cold potato mash), and quinoto (quinoa risotto-style) at El Parador de Moray. And ceviche everywhere! It’s these dishes that people eat each day that make you fall in love with Peru.    

Antoinette Bruno