Hail to the Chef

5 minute read

Has the cult of the celebrity chef finally gone too far? In a poll of Peru’s likely voters conducted in mid-February, 23% said they would pick Gastón Acurio to become President in elections scheduled for 2016. His restaurant in Lima — Astrid y Gastón — is No. 14 on San Pellegrino’s list of the 50 best restaurants, an annual ranking much obsessed over by foodies around the world. Peruvians appear to be even madder about Acurio. Some who spot him as they drive by greet him with the shout, “Gastón, Presidente!”

You may say 23% is not a lot. But that’s support for someone who has been asked again and again to run — and has said again and again that he won’t. Indeed, when he was accosted a few weeks ago by a drive-by acclamation to seek the presidency, he responded with a loud “No!” Nevertheless, the groundswell led a potential political foe to publicly dismiss Acurio as a serious choice. Alan García, who held the presidency in the late 1980s and then again in the first decade of this century, said his fellow citizens would eventually come to their senses.

But why shouldn’t restaurant chefs be considered serious candidates for high office? The best ones are experts in more than just food, and the heat they can handle comes not just from a stove but also from prickly customers, the budgetary infelicities of food costs and the journalistic depredations of restaurant critics. And, if any country will elect a chef to the presidency, it is surely going to be Peru.

The country is caught up in what can be called an alimentary nationalism: the proud renewal of millennia-old culinary traditions. This surge of foodie patriotism has forged a new identity for Peru, different from recent decades of violent guerrilla warfare and predatory presidencies. It is a kind of regional cultural pre-eminence that the country has not enjoyed since it was the seat of the viceroy of most of Spain’s South American colonies. The best restaurants of Lima are as haute as those of any great culinary capital — from the modernist cooking of Barcelona to the foraging of Copenhagen — if not more so. Indeed, they may have a better palette to please the palate, offering the culinary riches of the sea, the mountains and the Amazon. Acurio, 46, is the leader of this movement.

The thought of him in politics isn’t far-fetched; the son of a prominent Senator, he was groomed to inherit his father’s career until he went to Paris to learn to cook (it’s also where he met his wife Astrid). Acurio — who runs a restaurant empire that extends from California to Chile — has used his success to give back to the country. Not only has he elevated the once pooh-poohed cuisine of the street and the countryside, he also founded a culinary school in the suburban slum of Pachacútec to train world-class chefs — Peruvian talent to be exported. At a panel to mark the 20th anniversary of Astrid y Gastón, a young woman enrolled in Pachacútec spoke movingly of how she was taking this chance to go out into the world to show what Peruvian chefs can do. An Aymara quinoa producer, meanwhile, thanked Acurio for helping turn the grain into a global phenomenon and economic boon for the indigenous people. “Granitos de oro,” she called quinoa. “Grains of gold.” Such stories would be gold on a campaign trail.

I was with Acurio the day the poll results came out. He was welcoming several other celebrity chefs to his home in Las Casuarinas, a posh development in the hills of eastern Lima. When the talk turned to “El Presidente Gastón,” Acurio once again said he was not running. Everyone then ridiculed the situation by joking about which ministry each would get in Acurio’s imaginary administration. There was much laughter.

Growing up with politics, Acurio knows all about its hazards. When we spoke, I remarked on the stunning view from his home: practically all of Lima from south to north and then westward all the way to the Pacific. There are two islands on the horizon: the larger one, San Lorenzo, has the silhouette of Capri, but the smaller one, El Frontón, is more interesting. He reminded me of its recent past as a prison. In 1986, Maoist guerrillas jailed there staged a riot and took hostages. The President ordered the navy to retake El Frontón, which it did mercilessly; close to 100 prisoners are alleged to have been summarily executed. It remains a stain on Alan García’s career. Acurio is well aware that you can play with fire in the kitchen, but in politics, you really do get burned.

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