Gastón Acurio is a name the foodie cognoscenti will recognize. Though not quite a popular brand name like Mario Batali or Bobby Flay or Alain Ducasse, the Peruvian chef has created destination restaurants in the otherwise gray city of Lima that gourmands flock to whenever they can, eschewing the tourist havens of Machu Picchu and Cuzco. Hailed as the "next superchef" by some magazines, Acurio now has his eyes set on global conquest. His goal: to make Peruvian cuisine as familiar around the world as Mexican, Chinese and Thai.
He established a bridgehead outside Latin America in September, opening La Mar in San Francisco, which specializes in seafood and Peru's signature creation, ceviche. But that is just the beginning. He sees New York City as the real launching pad for rapid expansion. "If we make it in New York, we will be ready to green-light all of our brands," he says. "But first we need to pass the test there." Acurio has scouts checking out the city, looking for the right location for the right price. He hopes to firm up a deal shortly.
Peruvian authorities, businesspeople and even Acurio's competitors in Peru are cheering him on, hoping to cash in on an eventual boom in Peruvian food. Luis Kiser, head of the Peruvian Franchise Chamber, believes that the country's cuisine will put Peru on the map, opening the door for the export of other products, from multicolored potatoes to pisco, a local brandy. "Mexico got jalapeños and tequila on shelves in stores in the United States, with food leading the way," he says. "Peruvian food is the tip of the iceberg for everything we have to offer."
Peruvian expansionism is already radiating across Latin America. Acurio's fine-dining flagship, Astrid y Gastón, operates in seven countries outside Peru. La Mar has restaurant in six countries, and Tanta, which offers light fare, just opened its first locale outside of Peru in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. A number of other multi-star restaurants have also branched out to neighboring countries. Twelve Peruvian restaurants have franchised their formulas and are operating abroad, again mostly in the rest of Latin America. Another 20 are in the process of expanding beyond Peru's borders, and Kiser ticks off a long list of restaurants that could follow the same path. He expects there to be at least 50 Peru-based food franchises operating by the end of the decade. That's up from zero in 2000.
In the fast-food segment, Peru's Chinawok, which specializes in cuisine developed by the descendants of the country's Chinese immigrants, is one of the fastest-growing franchise businesses in Latin America, with 52 branches in operation and another 10 set to open by the end of the year. Bembos, a Peruvian hamburger joint, has operations in other Latin American countries as well as two in India (serving a non-beef burger).
Acurio takes heart from the success of Japanese cuisine around the world. He says that 40 years ago, no one imagined that raw fish, seaweed and super-spicy wasabi would be a worldwide craze. But now there are more than 40,000 top-quality sushi bars in the world; last year they generated more than $150 billion, and another $40 billion in related products were sold. That example is warming the hearts of Acurio and his compatriots who have visions of Peruvian restaurants on Main Street, U.S.A., serving up such staples as cuy (the national dish of roasted guinea pig), cow-heart kebabs and purple corn juice.
Peruvians, however, do not want to wait decades to conquer the world's palates. "We are living the same kind of moment Japan did decades ago, inventing a market where one does not exist," says Acurio. The world is a different place from the one in which Benihana first branched out of Japan and opened in the U.S. in New York in 1964. Tastes have become more global and transportation allows fresh produce to move from a farm in Peru to a restaurant kitchen in Europe or the U.S. in less than 24 hours, making it easy to start and sustain a trend.
Peru's private and public sectors are both pushing for internationalization. There has been an explosion of cooking schools, with more than 6,000 students learning the art of haute cuisine, and Peru is a constant presence at all major international gastronomic fairs. The government passed a decree declaring that food is part of the nation's heritage, saying it "contributes significantly to the consolidation of national identity."
Ernesto Cabellos, who directed a documentary on Peruvian chefs and food called Cooking up Dreams, says, "There are no loose ends. There is a systematic proposal to expand Peruvian cuisine, and I am willing to bet that in 10 years, we will have created a market that rivals Mexican food."