Built on the foundations of a former Incan temple, the centuries-old Cuzco Cathedral in Peru is home to an 18th-century painting of the Last Supper, but unlike the Da Vinci original, Christ and the Apostles are dining on guinea pig. Historical accuracies aside, the painting epitomizes Peruvian pride in local cuisine and the nation’s willingness to mash-up cultures. Centuries later, these characteristics helped turn the country’s gastronomy scene into a new banner of national pride.
The San Pellegrino-sponsored World’s 50 Best Restaurants List epitomizes Peru’s meteoric rise. Despite no entries before 2011, Lima had two Top 20 restaurants in 2014, a tally matched only by San Sebastián, Spain. Likewise, a Latin America list debuted two years ago, and Lima currently claims the top two spots with Central and Astrid y Gastón (numbers one and two, respectively). Only Buenos Aires has more restaurants on the Latin America list (11 to Lima’s eight), but the Peruvian capital has three times as many in the Top 10. The Michelin Guide does not rate restaurants in South America, but last year London-based Lima by Central chef Virgilio Martínez became the first Peruvian restaurant to earn a Michelin star.
The ceviche and pollo a la brasa in the U.S. are mere hints at the style, diversity and originality firing up kitchens in Peru. Just as Mendoza draws crowds for an Argentine wine experience, travelers now flood Lima for the hottest culinary adventure in South America. Peru arguably rivals Scandinavia as the trendiest food destination, and informed travelers can enjoy the full range of Peruvian flavors in Lima.
Gastón Acurio, the most important and influential Peruvian chef, founded Astrid y Gastón in 1994. In the decade previous, the country had three different currencies, quadruple-digit inflation and violent rebel groups like Shining Path. Against such a backdrop, the people hardly took to the streets to demand more haute cuisine. Poverty and violence limited the restaurant scene to upper-crust snob fests that only served European fare. Astrid y Gastón itself opened as a French restaurant.
In the 1990s, several seismic shifts turned the tide. For starters, improved economics and security sparked new business and foreign investment. The famed Inca site Machu Picchu, which drew 41,000 foreigners in 1991, increased tourism as visitor numbers swelled to 352,000 in 2000 and 842,000 last year. Most importantly, the aforementioned Acurio disregarded the stigma of native cuisine and took a stylistic turn from Paris to Peru. The staunchly Eurocentric upper class shunned the nation’s so-called peasant food, yet the Le Cordon Bleu-trained chef changed minds with Peruvian twists like Peking Guinea Pig and quinoa risotto. Many dishes also defied European table manners by making diners eat with their hands. For the son of a politician, Acurio certainly had a defiant streak.
More chefs followed suit. Hector Solis, a third-generation chef from Chiclayo, brought his northern style to Lima with Fiesta in 1996. Paris- and London-trained Rafael Osterling opened the eponymous Rafael in 2000. Italy-trained Pedro Miguel Schiaffino launched the Amazonian-sourced Malabar in 2004 and ámaZ in 2013. Martínez, an alumnus of Astird y Gastón restaurants in Bogota and Madrid, introduced Central in 2009. Like Acurio, many Peruvian chefs learned elite technique in Europe and then applied it back home, and global praise for New Andean cuisine sparked a space race-style rivalry to innovate and elevate.
Modern Peruvian cuisine takes elite French and Japanese culinary techniques and applies them to traditional and locally sourced foods. Several chefs add molecular gastronomic touches a la Catalan powerhouses elBulli and El Celler de Can Roca, and dishes often exit the kitchen looking as if a paintbrush and tweezers were as fundamental as the spoon and spatula. While many countries have similar influences, few claim an ecological playing field like Peru.
The country’s fertile ecosystem includes the fish-rich Pacific Ocean, the towering Andes, the high-elevation Lake Titicaca, the coastal desert and an Amazonian region (Loreto) larger than Germany. From the warm coast to the chilly mountains, Peru is a mix of cultures, climates and terrains with different flora and fauna ready to be crafted into a feast of flavors. Epitomizing the immense biodiversity, Peru claims more than 3,000 types of potato, and genetic testing suggests all potatoes might stem from a single species that originated in southern Peru. In addition to homegrown goodness, the Spanish conquistadors brought animals, grains, produce and distilling technology that the natives quickly incorporated into their kitchens. For example, the coastal Moche people marinated fish with local banana passion fruit for over 1,000 years, but Spanish citrus fruits turned the dish into ceviche.
Andean tuber, ancient grain, aromatic herb, Amazonian fish and exotic tropical fruit are all in the game and utilized by chefs to maximize the nation’s natural resources. Central, for example, offers a tasting menu based on ingredients harvested from the region’s entire range of extreme topography—both above and below sea level—that includes edible deep-water algae (80 feet below), frozen Andean clay (12,800 feet above), balls of bacteria (13,800 feet) and an avocado dish (9,435 feet) in which the kitchen dehydrates the skin around the seed and turns it into a cracker.
If biodiversity is one pillar of Peruvian gastronomy, the other is a cultural melting pot that soaks up influences like a sponge. The traditional cuisine, criolla (Spanish for Creole), is a colonial-era mix of pre-Columbian native and Spanish cuisine with Moorish and African touches, the latter stemming from African slaves working in their masters’ kitchens. In particular, the street food classic anticuchos (grilled beef hearts) likely originated with Afro-Peruvians making use of meat cuts tossed aside by wealthy colonists.
In the 19th century, the Peruvian kitchen expanded further as waves of Japanese and Chinese immigrants arrived to work on railroads, fisheries and farms. Lacking ingredients from their home countries, the Asian population modified their dishes with local ingredients. Today, chifa is the name for Chinese-Peruvian dishes like chaufa (fried rice) and lomo saltado (beef stir-fry), while Nikkei is Japanese-Peruvian fusion with ceviche rolls and sashimi-style tiraditon. The Asian influence led to more twists on traditional Peruvian dishes, and the Japanese immigrants helped improve knife technique overall. Important chefs like Rosita Yimura and Humberto Sato helped popularize Nikkei, which Mitsuharu Tsumura advanced to the highest level at Maido.
“Peru is a multi-cultural country, and you can see it reflected in the gastronomy,” says Franco Kisic, an Adrià family collaborator and Director of Operations at IK Restaurant in Miraflores. “African, Indian, European-this is what makes our gastronomy exciting-the fusion, the biodiversity, the flavors, the land and the culture.”
Peru deserves the gushing praise for its culinary rise, but it would be disingenuous to ignore the obvious growing pains. The restaurants strive to compete on the same playing field as Noma, Ledbury and French Laundry, but glaring issues include undertrained sommeliers, inconsistent service and divided focus. Do not be surprised if servers at Fiesta and Ko by Osaka petition customers to tip in cash, and Malabar servers seem lost in the Amazon with out-of-date menus and uncertainty about tasting menu changes. The impression is that many Peruvian restauranteurs visited Michelin-level establishments and attempted to duplicate the style of service without fully appreciating it.
Many restaurants also suffer from low-information sommeliers, and Astrid y Gastón is no exception. During a tasting-pairing at the venerated restaurant, a German Riesling (misspelt on the pairing list) arguably wiped out the flavor of its accompanying pacay-based seafood dish. Asked the idea behind the pairing, the sommelier called it a contrast of temperatures, i.e., hot and cold, which suggests a sophistication level on par with pizza and beer or Kim and Kanye. Likewise, another server described the final pairing as a surprise beverage, but when later asked for the big reveal, the server simply said Scotch. The citrus peel notes in this Scotch overpower any hint of peat, which whisky nerds will recognize as dubious.
Another concern is the impression that San Pellegrino might unduly influence restaurants jockeying for position on its 50 Best Restaurants lists. The Nestlé-owned company has a near-monopoly on the fine-dining scene with water product and logo-branded server outfits. For example, Central, the current Latin list-topper, famously served filtered water bottled on site but now defaults to Acqua Panna (a San Pellegrino brand) at 20 soles a pop (3.1 soles to the dollar). San Pellegrino’s prevalence may simply reflect brand availability, competitive pricing or local investment, but the dominance is such that it evokes suspicion that politics (whether real or wrongly assumed) might influence the restaurant rankings.
These issues will likely improve with time, but the most significant concern is that star chefs will spend less time in their home kitchens as they target more-profitable markets or expand at rates that compromise quality. Even the great Acurio includes the inferior Madam Tusan restraurant in his portfolio, and his infamous La Mar NYC misfire had none of the spark of the Lima original. Likewise, February is high season, yet Rafael Osterling (Rafael) and Diego Muñoz (Astrid y Gastón) were among the few cooks seen in their kitchens during a visit last month. A new generation of Peruvian chefs will hopefully maintain or elevate the nation’s new standard of excellence, but travelers hungry for the experience that sparked the revolution should visit Lima now before more chefs pivot away from their local pots and pans.
For those planning a culinary adventure in Peru, several tips can help maximize the experience, including the following:
•For ceviche (or “cebiche”), check out classic joints like La Mar, El Mercado and Red, but opt for variations that are less common back home.
•Explore distinct Peruvian styles like Nikkei (Maido, Osaka), northern Chiclayo (Fiesta, La Picanteria) and Amazonian (Malabar, ámaZ).
•Experience an Andean adventure with dishes like guinea pig (cuy), pigeon (pichón), alpaca or rocoto relleno (stuffed hot pepper).
•Skip the wine pairings in favor of bottles, or try popular pisco (grape brandy) cocktails like pisco sour and chilcano.
•Learn more about the cuisine by taking a cooking class at the multilingual Sky Kitchen in Miraflores or the Spanish-only Urban Kitchen in Magdalena del Mar.
•Miraflores is the central spot for dining, but venture into San Isidro, Barranco, Churrillos, Lince, Santa Catalina and/or Surquillo for other top options.
•Never, ever, ever trust the days/hours of operation listed on the restaurant websites.
•Visit a few Peruvian restaurants at home first for a culinary frame of reference for the journey.
“Peruvian is a new up ‘n’ coming cuisine, even though it has been there for more than 500 years,” says LA-based Peruvian/Nikkei chef Ricardo Zarate, a three-time James Beard nominee. “Peruvian cuisine is rapidly becoming popular in countries surrounding Peru, and it has big potential in Europe. [In the U.S.] I definitely see Nikkei becoming a trend and chifa style.”
Peruvian gastronomy has a multi-cultural identity that transcends the traditional limits of Latin cuisine, and it is making its mark around the world. Of course, travelers find the best dishes in Peru, and price points are generally lower than most culinary capitals. From bacteria balls to Amazonian snails, gastronomic adventures await in the former Incan empire.
(NYC-based sommelier Alan Bickerton contributed to this story.)
David Jenison is a Los Angeles native. He has covered entertainment, restaurants and travel for more than 20 years as a writer and editor.