“The Accidental Chef” Gustavo de Leon, Belmond Hotel Monasterio, Cusco, Peru

ImageI could not believe my good fortune when after waiting three decades I finally stood in the early morning sun at Machu Picchu in Peru surrounded by all the majesty of nature. The whole journey was made especially memorable by the people I met on this trip. The first leg of my trip to Machu Picchu from Lima took me to Cusco and the Belmond Hotel Monasterio, a hotel located in a 15th century abbey in the heart of Cusco. During my stay there I met Gustavo de Leon the very engaging and passionate General Manager of the property who I found to my surprise was also acting as the Executive chef for the hotel and it’s two restaurants. He also supervises the bakery/deli adjacent to the hotel.

ImageThis is a unique property that hosts people from every corner of the world including celebrities and other important visitors who stop here en route to Machu Picchu. After being welcomed at the door with coca tea to counter the effects of altitude sickness, I enjoyed a late lunch and a visit with this “accidental” chef. I always enjoy meeting individuals who enter the culinary profession out of a genuine passion. During my stay prior to and after the journey to Machu Picchu I enjoyed the very warm and gracious hospitality of the staff and their GM who can be seen walking around the hotel greeting guests and keeping an eye on everything. I had several interesting conversations with Gustavo, including one in the kitchen where I also got a chance to cook with one of the two sous chefs, Anna Marie. Juan Carlos the Food and Beverage manager and Chef Jorge seeing my interest in the cuisine and produce volunteered to take me on a fascinating visit to the San Pedro market one morning on their own time.

ImageEvery morning, breakfast was served in the sun dappled courtyard with a guitarist strumming by the fountain and staff stopped by to chat and check on the guests. Needless to say, I made a lot of friends there.

Mr. Leon is originally from Uruguay and his family moved to Argentina and then his very unusual career brought him to Peru where he lives and works along with his wife Norma who heads the housekeeping department at the Monasterio. Prior to moving to Cusco Leon was at Machu Picchu where besides his responsibilities he also managed the organic agriculture training center and in his present position he is involved in the community in many different areas and so is his hotel organization.

ImageMy questions for Gustavo de Leon at the Monasterio Hotel, Cusco, Peru

Who inspired your interest in gastronomy?

My paternal grandmother (my Abba) lived close to my house and she had an orchard, grew vegetables and raised poultry, so since the age of 5, I helped her in the orchard and in preparing meals. She was raised in a French culture since her family had lived in France for several years. My parents got divorced when I was 12 years old, my mother left home and my father took us to live in Argentina, so my siblings and I were alone in a big house, where I took the initiative to cook for everyone with what I had learned from my ‘Abba’ and of course initially there were several disasters in the kitchen. Later I went to school to be an Agricultural engineer but quit school to work in the hospitality industry where I developed an interest in gastronomy.

ImageYou have taken the unusual step of overseeing the kitchen at Monasterio along with your other duties as the GM. How did that come about?

Traditionally the Hotel Monasterio used to have a foreign chef (German, French, Italian or Argentinean). When I arrived at the hotel in June 2012 I did not have a chef in place and I decided to give the opportunity to the sous chefs Jorge and Ana Maria to run the kitchen with my experience as a support for them.

We built a new “Carte de Restaurant” to offer our guests traditional and classic recipes from France, Italy, and Spain and of course Peru with respect for the product, its origin, sourced locally with commitment to Fair trade with the local communities in the region.

How important is having a good restaurant and kitchen in a hotel to its success?

Years ago in general most famous hotels in the world used to have famous and important restaurants with very well-known chefs, so it was easier to bring enough covers in a night and be successful and profitable.

Nowadays it is more important than it was 20 years ago to have an excellent restaurant inside the hotel itself due to the enormous competition with other restaurants outside. There is a need to increase sales and revenue in food and beverage and this is one of the General Managers most difficult challenges at present.

I noticed that you are attempting to bring a lot of traditional dishes on the menu, re-imagined and in a new form. Why is that important?

I think to attract gourmands and guests in general to your restaurant you have to be authentic but at the same time creative to let them know the products and the culinary culture of Peru with tasty, colorful dishes with different textures.

Having seen you in action in the kitchen I have to ask: Where did you learn so much about the kitchen?

When I was 30 years old I had the opportunity to work in a restaurant & pub named “Clyde`s” for 5 years, it is an Uruguayan version of  “Clyde`s Restaurant ” in Washington D.C., followed by 15 years with Jean Paul Bondoux, a very well-known French chef/propietaire in South America. His first restaurant was “La Bourgogne “at Punta Del Este in Uruguay where he served a specialized French cuisine based on natural and fresh products produced on his own farm. I actually lived for several seasons next to the dairy with 7 Jersey cows. Every day I was in charge of transporting the fresh milk, homemade cheese, and recently harvested vegetables to the restaurant. Then he took me to work at the Alvear Palace Hotel in Buenos Aires, Argentina where we did the startup of “La Bourgogne” restaurant in July 1993. In all these years I have lived and worked with tens of young cooks, pastry and bakery chefs from France, all of them had been training (Stagiares) in 1 or 2 Michelin Star operations.

After an extensive time in the French kitchen I encountered a traditional Spanish cuisine while working in “Oviedo Restaurant” in Buenos Aires Argentina. The owner Emilio Garip was very smart and every year sent his two chefs to train with the best Spanish chefs like Pedro Subijama, Juan Mari Arzak, Ferran Adria, etc. In my career spanning 25 years in this industry I have learned a lot from my employers and co-workers and I can say without any shame and a lot of pride that I have worked through all the possible positions like logistics ,human resources, maintenance , service , steward ,cook ,waiter assistant, waiter, Maitre de salon , Restaurant manager, Restaurant Director, Hotel Resident Manager, and finally Hotel General Manager .

Ana-Maria and Jorge, your sous chefs, are from the Cusco area and you have spent most of your working life in this area though you are originally from Uruguay. Do you contribute anything from your heritage to this mix?

Definitely yes, in Uruguay the most popular food is the “The Barbecue” with young bull, veal, lamb, offal, and the Uruguayan kitchen is based on the cuisine of our ancestors that were Spanish and Italian  immigrants from the first and the second World War. My background in the Uruguayan kitchen has the Spanish, Italian and French influences and I bring them into our kitchen here.

Your wife Norma heads the housekeeping of the Monasterio. Do you enjoy working together and is there much interaction at work?

Norma’s background is not from the hospitality industry but when fate brought us to Peru more precisely to Machu Picchu due to my new job she had the opportunity to learn the functions of a housekeeper at the request of the owner of the hotel and she applied her background of psychology to her new career. Since 2002 she worked in this capacity in the four hotels we have worked at in Peru and Argentina.

During these 11 years we learnt to work together but we do not have a lot of daily interaction at work and I maintain a professional relationship between us at  as with all of my other departmental managers, but I must admit I feel very supported by her. To be honest I learnt from Norma the virtues of true Italian cuisine since, her grandfather and grandmother were from Milano and Sicily.

Tell me a little about the first time you actually cooked for hotel guests in Patagonia.

I worked between 2005 and 2007 as a General Manager for two different hotels that belonged to the same owner in Calafate, Santa Cruz Patagonia, Argentina. The main hotel had 120 rooms and one restaurant for 80 covers a la Carte. One night after the dinner service, the chef, two sous chefs and pastry chef quit to run their own restaurant. Suddenly all the responsibility of the kitchen and the restaurant descended on me and my ability to apply what I had learnt as a home cook.

The positive side was that I had created the menu myself and of course I had a good knowledge in the products and cooking techniques but the negative side was that I had never cooked before for more than 6 or 8 relatives and I had only one intern as an aid in the whole kitchen including the pastry area. The first day I woke up 4 am and began the mise en place for the different sauces, main dishes, salads, garnitures and desserts. Having a few covers at lunch gave me time to be prepared for dinner service and very nervous and anxious I started with a few dishes and all was going well, but in a few minutes orders started flying in. I somehow made it through the night, actually serving 62 guests a la carte without them realizing the scenario the kitchen. This situation lasted 15 days and after handling it I knew that I could handle the kitchen and I am very happy to have lived this experience.

While you were at Sanctuary Lodge in Machu Picchu you hosted Ferran Adria and Gaston Acurio. What is the most important memory from that visit?

The most important thing I value from this visit is all the strength, sacrifice and pride with which the Sanctuary Lodge brigade cooperated to honor one of the greatest chefs in the world. The most significant thing also was the positive energy that was created in the kitchen and that will remain forever in their memories.

ImageDid you create the menu for them?

Yes, since I became Hotel Manager in 2002 I usually had the opportunity to design menus in the hotels have worked in that capacity. When I heard that Ferran Adria and Gaston Acurio were to come to Machu Picchu and have lunch at the Sanctuary Lodge (another Orient Express property at the gates of Machu Picchu) I wanted to show them our gastronomic proposal. Of course I did not put any molecular options but created a very interesting menu specially designed to give a journey through Peru with ingredients from all over the country.

ImageWhat was it like living in a locale 364 days a year that most people are fortunate if they visit it once in their lifetime?

We have lived in Machu Picchu since 2002 to 2004 first working for Inkaterra hotel group and since 2008 to 2012 for the Orient Express, about 7 years in all.  My wife and I as human beings feel that we are lucky to be chosen to have the opportunity to live in one of the Seven Wonders of the World. After our routine at work  where we served up to 1000 guests per day, when the visitors left the Citadel at 5 pm we could breathe in and enjoy at times the wonder on a full moon night and feel all the energy of what the Inca’s had built, the hydraulic channels, terraces, houses, and religious sites. You cannot put a price on an experience like this.

What are your favorite products that you like to incorporate in your menus?

I prefer to choose from a variety of local products looking for their freshness, authenticity and significance in the culture of our ancestors. In Cusco, Peru I love the variety of potatoes, peppers, fava beans, corn and cereals like quinoa and kiwicha, exotic fruits from the rainforest and if I was in Lima I would undoubtedly choose fresh fish and seafood. In the Argentinean Patagonia I loved to work with black face lamb, deer, hare, trout, wild mushrooms ,cheeses, etc., while in Uruguay the meats are fantastic, young bull and veal with special taste due to the excellent pastures near  the salty sea waters, pork, poultry, cheeses, fresh vegetables, herbs and fruits.

ImageDo you help in choosing the wines for the restaurants at the hotel?

Yes, as I am enthusiastic about wines and I like and enjoy designing the wine lists for our restaurants. I had the opportunity to visit several vineyards in Argentina, Chile and Uruguay. While working at La Bourgogne and Oviedo Restaurants I learned a lot about famous regions like Bourgogne, Bordeaux, Alsace, Ribera del Duero, Rioja, Penedes, Toscana, etc. and I had the opportunity to taste a lot of good wines, champagnes, cognacs, ports and liquors of the world.

Tell me about the involvement of Monasterio in the local community.

Hotel Monasterio has a defined commitment to help different communities near Cusco especially producers of Andean potatoes and different vegetables crops , we promote the Fair Trade with them and respect the market prices for the goods but avoid dealing with intermediaries so they can earn more money than selling the products to the market.

We also help a girl’s orphanage from Lamay in the Sacred Valley by buying their handcraft pottery and textiles products. All these products are offered in our gift shop to the guests sharing with them the participation with this social responsibility project. On our menus there is a legend that asks the guests if they want to donate one dollar to different nursing homes children and elderly people that we support in Cusco under the management of the nuns. Every 3 months revenues are distributed among the different support centers.

How many small producers and artisans do you support by buying their produce and art?

At least 50 complete families (200 persons) of small producers, 100 little abandoned girls in the orphanage of Lamay, 150 children from low income families and finally 180 grandparents in different geriatric centers.

The small bakery adjacent to the hotel is apparently popular with the locals. Why did your organization decide to operate it?

We understand that we needed to be part of the community of our local people and not only with tourists. The Del Monasterio is a fantastic way to offer our excellent quality products with affordable prices and also to grow into the catering business. Local people feel proud of Hotel Monasterio due to its prestige in the hospitality industry in South America and their culture.

You have guests from all over the world at this beautiful hotel. I have seen you engaging with them all over the hotel to check on their visit. What are the most important points for maintaining this excellent service?

Our philosophy as hotel company is based on these 4 values: Delight, Discovery, Authenticity and Character. When you as a manager understand these values and you love to host guests as if the hotel were your own home, the relationship is very natural and you can help to convert a simple trip in a whole true experience.

Your staff, from the doormen, the concierges, the dining room personnel, the cooks, and your F&B manager are all very hospitable and excel at service. How do you maintain this morale?

The achievements of this morale are the result of hard work in team-building and training the staff on a daily basis, almost 30% of the Hotel Monasterio staff has been working with me since Machu Picchu from 2008, sometimes I feel like a school teacher with no secrets and I enjoy sharing all my knowledge, and if somebody grows professionally under my leadership I am very happy for them.

ImageThese days a film crew is all over the hotel and getting underfoot but you are very unflappable and calm. Are you naturally so or it is what the job demands?

During my career in this industry I have had several experiences with film crews, but the most important thing is to be prepared and to react in calmly unexpected situations. This is part of our job and fortunately there is no time for us to be bored.

 

If you travel to Cusco and enjoy a stay at this beautiful hotel don’t miss the opportunity to visit with Mr. Leon and hear his incredible stories and experience firsthand his skill as a great host  and be pampered by the hospitable staff.

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