Diego Muñoz looks out over his kitchen crop, where a hat-wearing gardener carefully crouches to pluck leaves for tonight’s menu. We’re leaning against the stairway of Casa Moreya, a colonial hacienda where Diego is the head chef at Peru’s most famous restaurant: Astrid y Gaston. Inside, behind the white colonnades, a team of around 100 cooks are grilling, smoking, sous-viding and whatever else they do to place the restaurant among 20 of the planet’s best. That Peruvian food is this year’s hot ticket will be old news to the feverish gourmand. But, Diego remembers, dining here in Lima wasn’t always this good. “I travelled a lot of the world,” he says. “When I came back, it was all different from when I left.”
Diego departed here for Parisian cooking school back in 1998, graduating to a career in the world’s most celebrated restaurants: El Bulli, Mugaritz and the Royal Mail in Dunkeld, Victoria Australia. Back then, there wasn’t a scene in Lima. “It wasn’t really common to be a chef in Peru,” he explains. “You had to go against the current.” But, just as Diego was leaving Lima, his future boss, Gaston Acurio, was almost single-handedly putting Peru on the culinary map. At his restaurant Astrid y Gaston in Lima’s Miraflores district, Acurio polished the natural brilliance of Peruvian ingredients with the techniques he learned at Le Cordon Bleu. It was, and remains, a hit.
Almost twenty years later, with an international profile and a booming local industry, dining in Lima is wildly diverse. Sporting a totally distinctive mix of Quechuan, Spanish, Chinese, French and Japanese cuisine, Peruvian food is like no other. “Before, I think no-one was really proud about Peruvian gastronomy,” says Diego. “Nowadays, you can travel anywhere in the world, and there is a very proud Peruvian talking about his food.”
As head chef, Diego is unflinchingly modern in both Astrid y Gaston’s casual-dining outlet, La Barra, and even more so in the 28-course degustation-only fine-diner next door. Over lunch I sampled Cuy (perhaps better-known as guinea pig) served à la Peking Duck, with purple corn crepes and hoisin hot pepper; then greedily ate a tender octopus served with broad beans, local rocoto qapchi cheese and airampo, a delicious purple fruit that grows on a cactus high in the Andes.
It’s a sophisticated take on some unique produce. But, a visit to the nearby Museo Larco deftly reveals that despite his obvious talent, it wasn’t Gaston Acurio who invented Peruvian food. As he led me through the vast corridors of exquisite pottery depicting corn, fish and fruit, the museum director Andrés Álvarez-Calderón explains that ancient Peru had a rich culinary history. “Though we did have some help from mother nature,” he admits quietly.
Peru, says Andrés, is unique as one of the first places human beings came together and began to live in cities. To his mind, the country’s unique position at the head of the Humboldt Current (a stream of cold water from Antarctica) resulted in abundant sea-life, a temperate climate and rich agricultural land, making it the perfect place to become a cradle of civilisation. The richness of local produce allowed the indigenous population to live collectively, farming the land and establishing religious and political infrastructure that continues to exist today. “They developed the arts, and they also developed the culinary arts,” laughs Andrés. “Which is the most important, because it’s the one you put inside your mouth.”
A quick trip across the suburb to the San Isidro market proves his point. There’s a startling variety of produce on display, some familiar and most decidedly not: enormous custard apples or chilli moyà; lumpy cocoa-seeds like vermillion alien eggs; long, bitter, peppery seedpods called pacai; sweet, stripy melons; a modest sample of the 3,000 species of potato and a galaxy of other unidentified foodstuffs.
Across town at Central – another member of the world’s 50 best restaurants – young gun Virgilio Martinez is conducting virtual tours of the entire nation, guided entirely by tongue. Using a unique altitudinal context, Virgilio takes diners starting from the depths of the Humboldt to the peaks of Mt. Huascarán. “If we focus on one altitude, we see one ecosystem. So we only use products from this ecosystem,” he explains from the foot of the table, moments before serving the first dish: a peppery Tiger’s Milk vichyssoise topped with freshly-cut flowers. “That’s the vision of the Andean world.”
Starting out at sea with dishes like Ten Mile Fish – calamari with dehydrated sargassum barquillos, presented on a cold rock – and moving inland with The Dry Andes – a dish composed of edible chaco clay – we end up in the mountains eating Extreme Altitude- cushuro, a river bacteria served on a bed of native potatoes. Obviously, Virgilio’s menu is high-concept stuff. “Our idea is to bring Peruvian produce in different ways. Sometimes, we do traditional, like ceviche, but sometimes we try to erase any traditional ideas and take inspiration from what we see in nature,” he says. “We travel to the Amazon and the Andes. We try to provide 100 per cent traceability of the producers, even with the wild ingredients.”
It’s exciting, individual and occasionally challenging cuisine. But not everyone in Lima’s doing dehydrated cream and powdered seaweed. At El Pan de Chola in Miraflores, Jonathan Day is baking real-deal sourdough using local wheat and rye. He grinds it himself. “We don’t have a bread culture as Europe has. We’re used to fluffy, airy, tasteless white bread,” admits Jonathan. “It has been hard to introduce something that people aren’t used to.”
The talented young baker became fixated on bread training as an actor in London, where he learned to bake from his neighbours. “When I came back, I realised we didn’t have good bread,” he recalls. “I started baking just for me and my family in the garage at my parents’ house. Then, little by little, my friends started asking for bread.” Because gastronomy has been so successful for Brand Peru, Jonathan believes locals can be a bit suspicious of anything without that patriotic bent. But, judging by the number of punters queuing for warm, crusty, sourdough, El Pan de la Chola’s bread is obviously catching on.
But while we can focus on a sophisticated scene the equal of New York, Tokyo or even Melbourne (sorry Sydney), those locals really do have a point. As proof, on checked, plastic tablecloth laid over long wooden benches, La Picantería is serving up the dish all Limans know and love: ceviche.
I sit, occasionally touching shoulders with the ceviche-lover next to me. Our waiter, Oscar, asks which fish we’d like and we point hopefully at a word on the menu. In the kitchen, a young woman selects a fresh fish sitting on the counter and begins her preparations. While attempting to photograph the chef as she folds the bright pink meat away from the bone, I’m bustled away from the kitchen: I can’t take any photos. Rebuffed, I sit back down and receive a spoonful of impossibly fresh fish with its citric tang, served simply with little spherical peppers that come from the jungle. Suddenly, it’s clear why they want to keep this one secret.