High Food in Low Places: The Gourmet Cooking School in the Middle of the Slum

Today we bring you a very interesting article published in the August 22th edition of Time Magazine, about a cooking school created by star chef Gastón Acurio in the town of Pachacutec, a poor settlement in Peru. Gastón Acurio has one thing in mind: to create the next generation of elite chefs who will follow his lead in world’s haute cuisine no matter their background or economical capabilities, just their talent and dedication to cuisine. Here the article by Lucien Chauvin for Time Magazine.

The shantytown of Pachacútec looks a little better nowadays than when it was first created 11 years ago. At that time, there was no electricity, no water and no roads for the thousands of squatter families removed from private property from the far side of Lima, the capital which lies some 30 miles away from Pachacútec. Many of the houses are still ramshackle and clearly made of scrap wood and plastic. But public services are now in place as is a paved road.

And a squat collection of brick buildings, sitting on a sandy bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, may make Pachacútec worthy of its name — that of the all-conquering founder of the Inca Empire. But this time, the aim of the conquest goes beyond the Andes: it is global and the weapons are culinary.

Peruvian restaurateur Gastón Acurio, who has opened cevicherías around the world to gastronomic acclaim, envisions training a small army of low-income youth from Pachacútec and other slums to become the shock troops of his country’s varied and versatile cuisine around the world. Students pay around $30 a month for a two-year course to be trained to the same standards as the best cooking schools in Lima, which is easily the culinary capital of South America.

Even though the amount is a tenth of the cost of the high-end academies, it is still a large chunk of change for families in Pachacútec, where the monthly wage hovers around $225. Rocío Heredia, who runs the institute, says that while the tuition is low, the idea is that each student needs to pay the flat monthly rate to so that they feel that they “own” the project. “We began by giving the students everything, but decided that the model discouraged them from becoming fully invested in the school.” In addition, however, the classes are underwritten by Acurio and other Peruvian chefs, as well as the local supermarket chain, Wong. The professors all volunteer their time and services.

The promise of a career in haute cuisine (or, as Spanish speakers prefer, alta cocina) has generated more than 600 applications each year since the inception of the Pachacútec Culinary Institute in 2007. Very few make the final cut, which takes place after an extensive winnowing process. First, 150 students are selected for an initial four-month training program that includes languages, math, history and geography — but not cooking. Only the 30 with the best grades, attendance records and personality get to move on to the kitchen.

Not all survive. The first graduating class had nine students. The second 12. This year, 20 are expected to complete the program, which runs six days a week. Each student is required to complete several internships and enroll, with the help of the institute, in an English-language school. “The internships are an indispensable part of the program,” says Heredia. “And they are not glamorous. Interns wash dishes, chop vegetables and see how a kitchen is prepared. They need to see how everything works, from the bottom up, if they want to be expert chefs.”

Students learn the ropes from chefs working in Acurio’s growing food empire. Manuel Cumpen, a top chef at Acurio’s Tanta restaurant, tests students once a week on what they have learned. Teams of five prepare a full course meal, including, recently, a Peruvian variation of crab consomme followed by braised pork. Rosa Rojas, the lead pastry chef for Acurio’s restaurants, is in charge of desserts. Her recent exam for first-year students was to prepare five desserts simultaneously. Working in teams, the students had one hour to present pastries ranging from the traditional Peruvian favorite mazamora morada — a kind of pudding using purple corn — to apple strudel, in case a tourist has a craving for it.

Increasingly, the students are being instructed by top ranked chefs brought in from around the world. Among recent guest professors was Andoni Luis Aduriz, whose Mugaritz restaurant outside San Sebastian in Spain was voted third best in the world this year in the top 50 ranking prepared by Restaurant magazine. Other invitees include Giancarlo Morelli of Italy’s Pomiroeu restaurant and Patricia Quintana of Mexico’s Izote restaurant. All showed students how to prepare signature recipes from their kitchens.

The students, needless to say, eat it up. Jessica Espinoza, 22, who is about to finish the program, says the rigorous schedule has been worth it. “I always wanted to be a chef, but could not afford it,” she says. She has specialized in seafood and plans on traveling throughout Peru when she finishes the program to learn firsthand about regional cooking before trying to land a job at a top restaurant and, eventually, opening her own place. “We have been trained in everything, from cleaning to storage to preparing dishes taught by the masters,” she says. “We need to take advantage of every minute the institute offers us.”

Anthony Cruz, 20, started at the institute this year. He began cooking for his family when he was 13 after his mother got sick. “I was hooked from the start and when I heard about the institute I applied immediately. There is nothing else like this,” he says. Cruz hopes to follow in the footsteps of two recent graduates who have received scholarships to study abroad, one in France, the other in Spain. “Peruvian food will be my specialty, but studying in Europe, learning techniques, is something that opens the field wider.” 

The gusto of the Pachacútec students has made a strong impression on visiting instructors. “They have an eagerness to learn that I have not seen in students in traditional culinary schools. They have an enormous desire to learn and are looking for new information. The future of our gastronomy depends on kids like these,” says Natty Echeverría, a well-known local chef and professor at a top-end school who recently offered a guest lecture to the students. “The same day I was in Pachacútec I also offered a presentation at one of the best schools. I am sure that if I asked the kids in Pachacútec to make me a dinner they would prepare something that in taste and presentation would be better than students at the expensive culinary institutes, because they are committed and want this.”

Acurio makes no bones about what he hopes all this enthusiasm will lead to. “We are developing a vanguard project that will train an army of chefs who will revolutionize this country,” he says. “I see Peruvian cuisine as a way of transforming lives to help build a more just, prosperous and democratic society.” But the number of new Peruvian chefs who measure up to international standards will, he believes, change the balance of power in the culinary world. Acurio, who learned the art of cooking in France, encourages study abroad, but believes that Peruvian cuisine and the Pachacútec Institute can eventually help reverse the trend, bringing foreign students to Peru to study.

“When I wanted to be a chef I had to leave Peru because there were no culinary schools,” says Acurio. “Today, we have around 50,000 people in institutes and students from throughout Latin America coming to Peru to study. In 25 to 30 years, Peru can be a reference point for anyone wanting to study gastronomy.” He adds, “One of the tasks of Peruvian cooking right now is defining our potential as part of the dream of ‘Peruvianizing’ the world.”

This article is property of Time Magazine. It was published in the August 22, 2011 Edition, Vol. 178 No. 7. Flavors of Mexican Cuisine is not the copyright owner of this article. We are only republishing it here for information purposes. It was written by Lucien Chauvin.

About Carlos Dragonné

Pues en resumen puedo decirles que soy escritor y periodista, además de cineasta de profesión y cocinero por afición. Egresado de la Universidad del Cine AMCI, Campus Ciudad de México y director de, hasta el día de hoy, poco más de 20 cortometrajes, entre ellos "Miedo", "De banquetas y ausentes", "Rear View" y "Silencios Rotos", además de producir "Oliver y las Moscas", "Andrés ha Muerto" y "La Mancha". Soy, también, analista político. Escribo desde hace 8 años en Milenio Diario. Actualmente me pueden encontrar los domingos en la sección de opinión. Tengo un libro de poemas por publicarse, además de haber participado en "Amates 19", una antología poética de Amarillo Editores y ya estoy preparando la edición de lo que será mi segundo libro. Ya los mantendremos informados. Hay tres cosas que me pueden apasionar al exceso. Obvio, dos de ellas son las que puse arriba (escritor y cineasta), pero la tercera es la cocina. Ustedes denme una cocina en la cual expresar mis ideas y les garantizo que disfrutarán lo que de ahí salga.
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