As Lima becomes a foodie hotspot, restaurants produce jobs and pride

Elsa Casimero, a student at the Instituto de Cucina Pachacútec, hopes to work in Lima's bustling new restaurant scene. (Yvonne Brandwijk)

LIMA, Peru — In the dusty and dangerous settlement of Pachacútec, where the desert surrounding Lima fades into a beach on the Pacific Ocean, a sign in the sand points toward perhaps the last thing you’d expect to find here. “Cocina”, it says — kitchen.

A sandy path leads to a tidy brick box of a building, nothing special on the outside. But inside is a bright and bustling kitchen with white-tile walls and floors. Thirty local teenagers, all in chef’s whites, are busy chopping vegetables on stainless steel countertops and simmering soups on gas-fired burners.

Elsa Casimero, expertly peeling crayfish, is one of them. The 19-year old moved to Pachacútec at the age of four, when just a small number of families squatted here on the outskirts of Lima. Now, Pachacútec is home to 200,000 people and too many gangs, who trade in illegal drugs and human organs.

Elsa now dreams of starting a career as a chef. This will help her whole family, she says. Once she has her own restaurant, they all can come and work with her. “Gastronomy is the first step ahead,” she adds. “With the money I earn as a chef, I want to study law.”

The cooking school, Instituto de Cucina Pachacútec, was founded by Gastón Acurio, a chef whose name has become synonymous with Lima’s fast-growing restaurant scene. Acurio started the school to make it possible for ambitious but impoverished youth like Elsa to participate in what is becoming Lima’s most promising industry.

Elsa Casimero was four when her family moved to Lima’s Pachacútec settlement. Now the area is home to 200,000 people. (Yvonne Brandwijk)

The students pay one-tenth the cost of a high-end academy for a 2-year course and a guaranteed job: 90 percent of students find work before they graduate.

Six days a week, Elsa and her classmates learn cocina novoandina — the fusion cooking with Spanish, Chinese, Italian and Japanese influences that Lima is becoming famous for. Students learn the ropes from chefs working in Acurio’s growing food empire. Javier Tucno, a chef at Acurio’s Tanta restaurant, tests students once a week on what they have learned. Teams of five prepare a five-course meal, ranging from a Peruvian variation of crab consomme to mazamora morada, a kind of pudding with purple corn.

“Sometimes, I have to remake the same sauce five times before it has the right taste,” Elsa says. But she knows it’s part of the deal. “I want to learn. That’s the only way to change my life.”

Gastro-boom town

During the past 15 years, Lima has developed from a modest city known for roadside stalls selling rice and beans or guinea pigs on spits into the proud home of the world’s culinary vanguard. Lima boasts three of the world’s 50 best restaurants, according to a prominent ranking. Each year, Mistura — South America’s biggest culinary festival — takes place in the Peruvian capital. The next one, starting in October, is expected to draw half a million people from across Peru and around the world.

The ingredients, cooking techniques and recipes are not new — some go back as far as the Incas. For years, Peruvians simply kept them hidden away, in their hearts and homes. After decades of terrorism and hyperinflation, young people grew up with the idea that everything that came from outside Peru was better. Anyone who could afford to leave studied abroad. No one dreamed that foreigners might develop a craving for Peru’s ceviche or quinoa.

Food lovers from across Peru and around the world flock to Lilma’s annual food festival, known as MIstura. (Yvonne Brandwijk)

Between 2000 and 2012, the Peruvian economy doubled in size, and things started to change. Twenty percent of Peruvians worked their way up into the middle class — something not even neighbouring Brazil has managed. And one thing this rapidly expanding middle class loves to do is eat out. Since 2001, the number of restaurants in Peru has doubled to 80,000 — half of them are in the capital.

The resulting gastro boom brought Peruvians from different backgrounds and income groups together, and kick-started the engine of social change. Food is now a big business in Lima: For people like Elsa, restaurants offer a career path that never existed before.

Many people, from celebrity chefs to dishwashers and investors to farmers, have played a role in bringing this about. But no one has done more than Acurio, the chef behind the beachside cooking school in Pachacútec.

The son of a Peruvian senator, Acurio dropped out of law school to study cooking at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. Mid-way through the 1990s, he set up a traditional French restaurant in Lima. He found it “fantastic” that the Peruvian economy was on the up again. But he also recognized that Peruvians were lacking a shared identity on which a new society could be built. He cites himself as an example: “I wanted to be French — but I wasn’t,” he says. “I began more and more to ask myself: ‘So who am I, then?’”

He looked around and saw homegrown ingredients no one was using. There were children in Lima with no opportunities. And farmers working hard to feed the cities with no appreciation. He made a resolution: Things had to change.

Long before it became fashionable to promote local food, Acurio replaced Parisian beef bourguignon with Peruvian ceviche in his restaurant. Rediscovering Peruvian ingredients and dishes become his mission, which he carried out by forming alliances with local chefs and farmers. In 2008, Acurio launched the Mistura food festival as an homage to the diversity of Peruvian food. Here, he brought the whole food chain together, from traditional chefs and street cooks to fishermen and farmers.

Chef Gastón Acurio rediscovered Peru’s uunique ingredients and has become a national hero. (Yvonne Brandwijk)

Mistura marked the founding of the Peruvian food movement, and the start of what Acurio calls the “gastronomic revolution”. According to him, inequality and poverty were an excuse for young people in Lima to pick up guns. “Instead of fighting for power, we are showing that through sharing, connecting and together coming up with ideas, you can build a society that offers opportunities for all.”

Acurio is now a national hero. He travels the world and runs a swelling global operation of 44 Peruvian restaurants in 12 countries. The restaurant where it all started, Astrid y Gastón, is one of the top restaurants in Latin America. While not all Peruvians can afford to dine there, almost everyone knows his name and philosophy. Acurio has achieved what no political leader has yet been able to in Peru: to unite the country.

“Our cuisine mixes different cultures in a pan,” Acurio says. “Food is the perfect way to connect descendants of the Chinese, Japanese and European immigrants with native groups from the Andes and the jungle.”

A future in farming

The small farm run by the Silvera family just outside of Lima is an example of how the capital’s gastro boom is making a difference for people in the countryside.

The farm sits in the Pachacamac Valley, 40 kilometres (25 miles) southeast of Lima. Once green with crops such as strawberries and trees growing avocados, apples and bananas, the valley later turned into a barren wasteland as farmers who found it hard to scratch out a living here pulled up and left. Diana Silvera, 23, whose parents used to grow corn and vegetables here, was one of them. Several years ago, seeing little opportunity working on the farm, she left for Lima to work as a nanny.

Now, she’s back — not because her career failed, but because she sees a serious future in her parents’ farming business.

Diana took courses in organic farming. The family is now one of the regular suppliers to Virgilio Martínez, another top chef in Lima. Martínez visits the farm on a monthly basis to talk to Diana. She tells him what’s growing, and he adjusts his menu accordingly.

Diana Silvera quit work as a nanny and returned to her family’s farm, which supplies one of Lima’s top chefs. (Yvonne Brandwijk)

During the weekend, Diana sells strawberries, fennel and sweet potatoes at an organic farmers’ market in an upscale Lima neighbourhood. This is where the idea for the next step in her business plan was born. Diana wants to organize tours to the farm — she thinks tourists as well as Lima’s growing ranks of foodies will find it exciting to see where the ingredients in their favourite dishes grow. “The sign to welcome the guests has already been hung up,” she laughs. “All we need to do is to put together a good lunch menu. In Lima that should not be a problem.”

Diana is one of the 5.5 million Peruvians who profit indirectly from Lima’s gastro boom, according to the food industry lobby Apega. Soon, Elsa and her classmates at Instituto de Cucina Pachacútec will be, too. While the impact in terms of jobs is clear, the global success of chefs such as Acurio also seem to be helping to restore the country’s self-confidence and appreciation of its own culture. According to a recent poll by Ipsos Peru, 96 percent of Peruvians are proud of their nationality. More respondents saw cooking as a source of national pride than being home to Machu Picchu.

What started with food is now permeating into other sectors. Lima’s new middle class doesn’t study abroad and isn’t interested in copying European or American lifestyles. They prefer to eat and buy local.

La Victoria, a neighbourhood once infamous for poverty and crime, is now home to 15,000 businesses. From clothing to table linen to mattresses, almost all of the products are made in Peru. The lifestyle of those proud to buy local now even has a name: cultura chicha — it’s a play on chicha morada, the popular drink from the Andes made from purple corn, cinnamon and pineapple juice. Peru is the only country in the world where McDonald’s broke its exclusive deal with Coca-Cola in order to sell the national soft drink Inca Kola.

Lima’s expanding middle class loves to eat out. (Yvonne Brandwijk)

Economists and anthropologists are warning not to let pride turn into arrogance. Optimism is good, but hubris could lead to complacency — and Lima can’t afford that. The city has too many problems, in the form of crime, poverty, traffic jams and pollution, to sit still. Acurio is the first to say that Lima needs more than great restaurants. It also needs clean waterways, good transport and security for its people.

But gastronomy has laid the foundation for a new Lima, and Acurio is convinced that the city is ready to take the next step. Together with politicians and business leaders, he is working on relaxing legislation to make it easier to get innovative business concepts off the ground. Acurio hopes to set up scholarships for disadvantaged children, and restore Lima’s central market and fish processing plant. He also wants to reinvigorate Lima’s river, which has dried up and become a rubbish dump where drugs are sold, and hopes to clean up Lima’s Pacific coastline. After all, the ocean is the source of the fish for all that ceviche that all the world now wants to eat.

In order to contribute to Lima’s future, he has taken a step back from the kitchen at his top restaurant. Not to go into politics, as the popular press likes to suggest. But instead, to travel Peru again, find stories and recipes, develop concepts and inspire and connect as many people as possible. “We haven’t won anything yet,” Acurio says. “It has only just begun.”

Reporting for this article was supported by the ‘Innovation for development grant program’ of the European Journalism Center which is financed by the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation. See more of the Future Cities project: www. futurecities.nl

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Stephanie and Yvonne are a journalist and photographer team telling original stories about emerging cities through a video, print and audio project, Future Cities. Full bio

LEARNING FROM LIMA

  • Chefs in Peru’s capital have rediscovered unique local ingredients, putting a number of Lima’s restaurants on the global foodie map.
  • A growing middle class in Lima loves to eat out, fueling tremendous growth in the number of restaurants in the city.
  • From farming and fishing to cooking, the local food scene is putting millions of people to work. 

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