Last year I was fortunate to dine twice at Astrid y Gaston in Lima, Peru, recently honored as the top restaurant by Restaurant Magazine’s 50 Best Restaurants of 2013 in Latin America and savor chef Diego’s delectable cuisine. His food is perfection, flawlessly executed and exquisite in detail with a complex layering of flavors. This young Peruvian chef cannot be compared to others in his genre as he has created a cuisine with a sensibility that is his own. I have had many great meals in my lifetime but in this instance I can still taste the delicate ceviche, the charred octopus with infused broth and two weeks ago the starter of Negroni, the potato pasta, cassata of mango and I could go on endlessly about exotic yet familiar tastes that continue to linger on my palate.
Charred Octopus with infused broth at Astrid y Gaston, Lima, Peru
Since 1999 Diego has done stints at restaurants like El Bulli and Mugaritz in Spain, Grand Vefour in Paris, France, then Canada and two celebrated stints at Bilson’s , Sydney Australia. He returned to Lima to join Gaston Acurio’s famed Astrid y Gaston restaurant as head chef and very shortly brought it from #42 position in “The World’s 50 Best Restaurant” by Restaurant Magazine in 2011, to #35 in 2012 and in 2013 he brought it to #14 .On September 4th 2013 the first ever 50 best list of restaurants in Latin America was announced and Astrid y Gaston with Diego at the helm in the kitchen was chosen as the top restaurant in this region with Alex Atala’s D.O.M, Sao Paolo, Brazil in the second place.
In this watershed year he also wowed the audience at Madrid Fusion 2013 and in November 2012 on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of Alain Ducasse’s restaurant Louis XV in Monaco he joined 14 other big names chefs from around the world to offer a tasting using typical ingredients from the Cote d’Azur.
I first met Diego when I dined at Astrid y Gaston on my first evening in Lima Peru. I was introduced by my friend Franco Kisic whose late twin brother had been good friends with him and they had worked and trained together. After dinner we had a very interesting conversation which went into the early hours. Diego and I met again on my subsequent visits to Lima and I had the opportunity to eat his food at the restaurant and appreciate it even more. We have kept in touch since, hung out backstage at Mistura and few weeks later were in Spain for the Gastronomika.
We have had some very interesting conversations about food, chefs and his exciting culinary journey.
My questions for Chef Diego Muñoz:
How is the surfing going?
Are you kidding I have had no time in the last few weeks with all the culinary royalty in town. (All the renowned chefs like Ducasse, Adria, Bottura, Scabine etc in town for Mistura could not stop raving about his new tasting menu ‘ El Viaje’ the journey of an Italian immigrant from Liguria, Italy to Callao, Peru and back as told in plates of sublime food).
Is this fascination with organic produce in Peru part of the international trend?
Not really since in our developing economy in Peru there is a two pronged effort to encourage social gastronomy and organic ethics. With the new gastronomic impetus we went back to our farmers to find that they had been growing organic all along from the time of the Inca’s and we are ensuring that it stays that way.
What brought you back to Peru after working at some of the most iconic restaurants abroad?
The emerging gastronomic culture, the human connections and values and the revival of products like quinoa, corn and potatoes by indigenous growers in remote areas like Ayacucho were all instrumental in drawing me back home. I also have the chance to train and inspire people to cook and learn in my kitchen and we have stagiares from Peru as well as all over the world.
Do you feel a social responsibility to use local ingredients?
Yes, it is very important to me. With the gastronomic boom we have even ventured into potato farming with small farmers to build a network between chefs and producers. This helps us ensure consistency and save the diversity of produce.
What is your favorite product to work with?
Potatoes of which we have over 3000 varieties (this number is debatable because in other conversations with chefs in the region it varies from 2500 to 4000, but one cannot deny the mind boggling selection of this tuber in its various forms and colors) and so many possibilities to create with them. We are slowly bringing back forgotten varieties. Every year we use four new varieties that small farmers grow for us with our help.
What inspires you on a daily basis?
I don’t look for inspiration; it comes to me when I am engrossed in work or from nature, particularly the ocean. I like to swim everyday if I can and you know I love to surf.
How important is technology and research in the kitchen?
It is important to concentrate in your own discipline but at the same time it is imperative to keep up with the advances to keep the line moving. Contrast is good because it brings in some freshness. Technology is fun and necessary at times to bring some creations to the plate but I have had some really bad meals when it is used for effect and destroys the integrity of the product. I believe in more cultural research than technical.
So more anthropological research as is evident in your new menu “El Viaje”?
Exactly. In order to build a bridge between the past and farmers and cooks while using technology to move ahead.
Which other cuisine interests you?
For me Italian is my favorite, especially simple Italian food from northern Italy. I like Massimo Bottura’s food very much as well as him for his intelligence and creativity and he also has the most incredible music equipment in his kitchen.
Who do you admire the most in the food world?
For me at the top of the list is Ferran Adria because I got to know him and learn a lot from him when I worked at El Bulli. If he believes in something, it does not matter how impossible it is he persists till he achieves it. My time there opened my mind to possibilities and taught me the value of produce.
What are your thoughts about casual service replacing fine dining, for example at Barbot’s L’Astrance in Paris?
After El Bulli I worked with Pascal and I think it may be the way to go and interesting to observe but then in 2006 I dined at Alain Ducasse’s Louis XV and loved the formal experience. I like both kinds of service and it’s great when perfection and performance both come together.
In April you said no more traveling after the 50 Best awards in London, but where have you been since and where are you heading now?
I was in Mendoza, Argentina, Chile, next week Chef Sache in Germany, then New York for Star Chefs, and then Gastronomika in Spain where I am cooking at Mugaritz one night besides presenting at the conference.
Do you like being away from your kitchen so much?
Actually I want to be like Ferran Adria who kept the Bulli in El Bulli and had people come in from outside besides having a shorter season that allowed the team to travel. Hopefully we will stop and stay home soon. (I don’t think that’s happening anytime soon)
When was your last vacation?
I have been super busy and haven’t had many opportunities to be away from work. Two years ago I took my then fiancée to visit my parents in Coral Springs, Florida for three days but it was a stressful trip as you can imagine.
Do you cook at home?
I don’t have much time off but I cook at home on Sundays for my wife. It’s usually very simple meals.
What is your favorite comfort food?
Simple spaghetti with Parmesan and olive oil is my all time favorite.
What will you be doing ten years from now?
Hopefully playing with my kids and still cooking.