Diego Munoz: The Culinary Force of Astrid y Gaston, Lima, Peru

International gastrotravelers to Lima tend to plan their itinerary around a reservation at Astrid y Gaston especially since the move to its re-location last year to the grand premises of Casa Moreyra. Personally I enjoy every opportunity to visit with Diego and indulge in his beautiful food and feel fortunate to know this very intelligent and down to earth regular kind of guy.

My recent conversation with him published this week.

Chef Diego Munoz
Chef Diego Munoz

Chef Diego Muñoz: Running the Show at Astrid y Gaston in Lima

by Geeta Bansal

An ideal day for Chef Diego Muñoz Velasquez begins on the beach in his hometown of Lima as he prepares to ride his surfboard over the sparkling waves of the Pacific Ocean. These days, more often than not, his surfing passion takes a backseat to his ever increasing responsibilities of running the kitchens of Astrid y Gaston, the shining star of the Lima restaurant scene. After stints at gastronomic temples such as Grand Vefour in France, El Bulli and Mugaritz in Spain, and Bilson’s and the Palazzo Versace in Australia, he came home to Peru when Chef Gaston Acurio handed over the reins of his Astrid y Gaston kitchen to new head chef Diego in 2012. Rapidly after Muñoz’s arrival, Astrid rose from the 42nd position in 2011 to #14 in 2013, and in the same year it placed at top of the first 50 Best Restaurants of Latin America list. In 2015 it is at #14 on the World’s 50 Best restaurants list and #2 in Latin America in the annual game of musical chairs played by these popular lists. The next Latin American 50 Best restaurants will be announced on September 23rd in Mexico City and Astrid is expected to be in the top ten.

Interestingly in 2011 when Bilson’s lost its third chef hat award (Australia’s top recognition for restaurants) his former boss turned to Diego, who helped reclaim it for the restaurant which has since closed. Even though Acurio has not been at the pass in the kitchen since 2012, it is only recently since he announced his retirement that Diego Muñoz, the face and name behind the food at Astrid, is beginning to emerge. It is not an easy task for Muñoz to gain the spotlight as Gaston Acurio’s rockstar status in Peru casts an immense shadow.

Muñoz’s exquisite cuisine at Astrid is flawlessly executed with a complex layering of flavors and attention to detail. In the exceptional gastronomic climate of Lima where many other chefs have emerged with all the international attention the region has received  Muñoz’s cuisine with its own unique sensibility stands alone. According to Muñoz, besides the opportunity to work in a great restaurant it was the new gastronomic impetus in his country where social gastronomy and organic ethics existent since the time of the Inca’s drew him back. He recognizes that his experience and success will inspire other culinary professionals striving to make a name in this developing region where new restaurants seem to pop up every day. Peru has a unique multi-cultural and multi ethnic identity because of migrants from Japan, South Asia, China, Italy, Spain, Mexico, Arab states, South Korea, and many other parts of the world. In this crucible a very unique food culture has taken shape which is original to Peru.

The palpable energy of the gastronomic revolution in Lima is visible during the morning rush hours in Lima when you can spot young men and women in professional whites making their way either to work or to culinary schools that abound. Lima is a busy bustling city where the old mixes in with the new and skyscrapers exist next to historic structures, even ancient adobe pyramids where the wild “Pulpo Fiction” Gelinaz event took place two years ago.

Formerly located in a rambling colonial building in the upscale Miraflores area of Lima the restaurant moved last year to Casa Moreyra, a 300 year old hacienda that now houses the restaurant, terrace, taller, and its Garden of Eden. The stunning restaurant is where the chef and his team serve a tantalizing menu that may include, charred octopus in infused broth, guinea pig folded in delicate crepes, or other exotic tastes that tend to linger on the palate.

Muñoz is seen often at international events , including being the one of the most lauded of the 300 odd chefs at Alain Ducasse’s 25th anniversary celebrations for his Louis XV in Monaco or at congresses like the San Sebastian Gastronomika, Chef Sache, Ikarus Hanger7, Identita Golose in Milan, or recently at the OzHarvest event in Australia.

Questions for Chef Diego Muñoz:

Are you still keeping up with your passion for surfing? After moving Astrid y Gaston to a larger location last year has your work load increased?

Yes I am surfing but not as much as I could earlier. It’s wonderful to get out on the water anytime. Around the opening of the new location my schedule was crazy and I had no idea how heavy this new house was going to be until we got there. We were supposed to get the new premises around Christmas of 2013 and it was delayed till March 2014. We had planned to open the doors in February 2014 but we actually got the premises two days before the opening and it was an ordeal to get it together before the opening party.

Did you have any input into the design of this new kitchen?

Everything in the kitchen and house was planned and designed by me and Garcia, the architect.

Did you install a music system like the one you admire in the Osteria Francescana kitchen in Modena?

No, unfortunately not, though I would have loved to since I love how Massimo Bottura has done that in his kitchen.

How did the kitchen handle the transition?

The staff here barely knew how to turn on the new stoves, and we had a big press party scheduled with journalists and chefs from around the world right after our move. We had Ferran Adria, Andoni Aduriz, and the Roca brothers, so you can imagine the stress.

You were in Milan in June for the Identita Golose at Expo Milano. What did you cook there?

For one intense week we did a sample of a new Peruvian restaurant serving four dishes. We started with a ceviche, then crab causa, followed by a lamb stew, a classic recipe, and then a street food dessert which was a variation of a purple corn pudding and rice pudding. People loved the food we presented and it felt good since I chose the dishes to present.

Did you run into your friend Massimo Bottura at the event?

It was funny that it happened accidentally when Massimo did a pop up in Milan during the time I was doing a press conference, and so it was really cool that we connected.

How and where did your professional career begin?

Guy Martin’s Grand Vefour was the first professional restaurant I ever worked at after I graduated from culinary school. It was a wonderful internship  at a grand and classic restaurant. Then I worked on the Relais & Chateaux cruise line Silver Sea, and right after I moved to Australia and started working at Palazzo Versace which was a beautiful thematic Versace hotel.

After that stint I landed in Chef Andoni Aduriz’s Mugaritz, and after that I returned to work on cruise ships for two years. Then it was back to Australia and I joined Tony Bilson’s restaurant Bilson’s as a sous chef, moving up to head chef.

Then it was back to Europe and El Bulli in Spain from where I came back to Lima, Peru. Things didn’t work out for me here with the project I had come to work on and back to Australia I went. I worked with Ted Hunter at his then one hotel. Following that I went back to Bilson’s in 2011 which at that time had lost one of its three hats. So I jumped in to try and get it back, which we did. At that time I got the proposition from Gaston to come back to Peru at Astrid y Gaston. Ever since 2012 we were planning Casa Moreya and in February of 2014 we finally started cooking here.

Unbeknownst to most, you have actually been running the show here at Astrid y Gaston since 2012. Does Gaston Acurio cast a long shadow, and is it challenging for you to be recognized for your work?

It is hard to erase that image and I think it is going to be pretty much impossible to change people’s perception. Even customers who come to the restaurant here believe that Gaston is still cooking. Even those who heard the news of his retirement last year still don’t believe it. The funny thing is when sometimes guests visit the kitchen they think I am Gaston!

They will notice a picture in the kitchen and ask how is your wife Astrid? So I just say, “Oh she is fine.” I think I am never going to come out of that shadow and it’s going to stick with the name of the restaurant. Gaston did a promotion of my work here but it still didn’t work. My own friends who know of my work here don’t believe it either.

When chefs become well-known, usually their egos expand, their personality changes, and sometimes even the food changes. You are always very down to earth. How do you keep that in check and maintain your stability and focus?

Last year I was very sick and took some time off and had an opportunity to think about my position and how I work. I try to lead my team by example. I am very hands on at work and work a lot, but I am always discussing things and we all listen to each other and work as a team. Naturally, I am a really shy person and not prone to focusing attention on myself.

I don’t feel very comfortable visiting every table or to walk around the tables in the restaurant and prefer to stay in the background. I love it when people come in the kitchen to say hello before the meal. We start the guest’s experience on the terrace and then they walk into the kitchen before being seated at the table. The director here at the restaurant actually takes care of the guests and I take of the kitchen. There are some chefs who like that attention and some like me who don’t. Some like to do TV shows while other don’t and that’s the way I am. I am happier busy working than showing off!

Do you think that the idea of Peruvian cuisine as a contender in the world of gastronomy is something that has already happened or is it going to happen in the future?

I think it has already started happening and it is a huge opportunity for us here in Peru to take advantage of this and develop further. It is not only beneficial personally or for the restaurant industry but for our country. Peru is a country that has suffered a lot and with this attention we can give something back and motivate people to keep growing. The fact that Peru has three restaurants in the top 50 in the world is very significant. It is an opportunity for us to show off our culture and encourage people to come and visit our country so that restaurant and hospitality industries, even the taxi drivers or shop keepers and market vendors will benefit. The common man will get a piece of that action and feel responsible to work hard and keep the momentum. This attention is not going to last forever and we have to keep that in mind.

You were at the OzHarvest event in Australia that uses surplus food to feed the less fortunate people in society. Is there a similar program in existence in Peru?

It is beginning to happen here. When OzHarvest came over in January for the United Nations event a small group here was beginning to start a similar project which is really great. It was really cool to see the amazing work they are doing in Australia sharing their time and resources with the needy. In Peru we have a lot of wastage while there are people who need food so after seeing what they were doing in Australia I connected with the project here to see if we can work together. It is hard and delicate work and difficult to keep it nonpolitical and draw boundaries so that it doesn’t lose its main idea. You need a strong energy and be resourceful to reach people as Ronni Kahn the founder of OzHarvest is doing.

The new Astrid y Gaston restaurant is much grander and more luxe. Has the food changed as a reflection of the ambiance?

We always change it anyway but it has changed here now though we just have 12 tables. We have three different rooms and as at the old location the tables are widely spaced and very private. Our menu now has thirty elaborations and takes about two and a half hours. The service is excellent and the rooms with lofty ceilings, wood floors are full of high end art contributing to the experience. Our kitchens are in view of the guests so they can see what is going on. We have worked hard to develop an amazing wine list which, according to our guests, is the best of the region. Just in the past one month we have served a thousand elaborations and our evolution has been appreciated and is beautiful.

There is always a story behind the tasting menus at Astrid, but how many of those stories are your own now?

Actually we are done with the stories. The last one was called memories of my life and influenced by memories of the lives of many people and played with those concepts. I put a compilation of these stories and memories in a menu with twenty nine elaborations. We did six stories over the years and it placed us with the same menu for six months at a time, it was also a big and expensive production for each menu with artists, books, etc. As a result I decided to stop that and start with menus that focus on regions like the one we began in April called the Lima region. Now we want to investigate regions, the farmers, and the produce and make them partners in our work. We now print our menus in house allowing us more flexibility. Our menu has thirty dishes but we have already include over 42 variations on our menus.

So there is more spontaneity in your menus now?

Exactly, we can change depending on availability or inspiration. It is more interesting creatively, more free and that was the main reason I decided to do this. Our test kitchen is where Bianca is constantly working on new ideas and energies.

You have a big garden on the premises. Is it functioning well?

It’s doing great, and this week we are launching within our garden, a little garden just for children. Every Wednesday we have school kids visit us to see how we grow things, and we give them a small cooking lesson using produce from the garden, they eat a meal, and take a plant home to plant their own garden.

According to you, is the Latin American region at a disadvantage, since with the exception of Brazil, Michelin has not considered it? And is the World’s 50 Best list filling that void?

It will be a huge plus if we get the Michelin here because it will give us a lot more exposure, credibility, and shine the spot light on our restaurants. The other day I was looking at how many Michelin starred restaurants there are in New York and it will be wonderful if we had a guide like that in our country.

The 50 Best is great but strange sometimes as how it is compiled. It has been working very well for us and I take it as a huge compliment to be a part of it. We don’t work for any lists but for our customers and ourselves. Now there are so many other lists out there and we don’t lose our heads thinking too much about them.

Among all of the major chefs like the Roca brothers, Massimo Bottura, Andoni Aduriz, or even tourists that visit your kitchens, what are they most surprised by?

Everyone knows about our great gastronomy at all levels and the way we work, even then especially tourists are amazed at our level of work which is comparable to anywhere else in the world. The other thing is how we showcase our culture, our diverse produce and they are also surprised by our multi-cultural cuisine. Since our country is built around so many varied cultures they have all contributed to our unique food culture. Of course we have a lot of techniques, flavors and all that.

There is a shift towards more classic cooking around the world. Is that happening in your own region?

What I would like to use are old technologies in use 8000 years or so ago. Our culture has a lot of history and I think instead of looking forward it is time to look back. We have a lot to learn about these ancient techniques that are still current. I want to start representing this technology in my cooking.

What is the cuisine of Diego Muñoz about these days?

I would say that like many other chefs it is about produce and flavors, but I have my own way of tweaking and adding surprise twists. It is very fresh and sometimes simple like now I am cooking with the potatoes in season and celebrating the harvest season. My cooking is evolving constantly and moving into different directions.

Is your cooking becoming more Peruvian in essence now since earlier you had all these influences from El Bulli to Australia?

Exactly, I see that happening since earlier I didn’t know as much about Peruvian cuisine as I have learned after coming back to work here. Astrid y Gaston is actually my first experience of working in a Peruvian restaurant and especially one of the most important in the country. Consequently I am changing and evolving in this learning process.

Why do chefs travel so much these days to conferences or do collaborations? Is it lobbying for place on the lists or to get recognition?

Yes of course it is a good way to showcase your work and puts you in the spotlight. It is really hard to do this though and the best way is to invite people to come and visit and experience your work. It is hard to put your work in context so far away by demonstrating or talking about it. When we do these events we try to replicate with two people what we do with twenty here in the kitchen, adapting different produce for our dishes so it’s not the same. Ferran Adria used to say it is hard to replicate your work outside your own kitchen. Speaking of collaborations, I just confirmed a dinner with Narisawa from Japan to cook here in our kitchen for two days.

What else did you take away from your time at El Bulli?

Ferran Adria made me realize that if you believe in something, no matter how impossible it seems, persist and don’t give up until you achieve it.  My time there opened my mind to possibilities and taught me the value of produce.

Any cookbook in the works?

I should since I have developed over 150 unique recipes. It will come soon for sure.

What are the least interesting questions journalists ask you?

What do you like to eat, what do you cook at home etc. They are reasonable questions and I don’t mind them, and I actually appreciate that people are taking the time to interview me.

Have you been back to Miami to visit family?

I went last year and I will be there again for two days before the Latin America’s 50 Best awards in Mexico City on September 23rd, and probably again in December.

Have noticed any changes in the Miami food scene since a lot of big names have now landed there?

I see big time changes in the last few years, especially since December of 2000. There is a big scene going on with its Art District and new restaurants emerging constantly. Gaston Acurio has La Mar in the Mandarin Oriental in Miami which is doing very well.

Do you see any performance art concepts, which are a recent trend, coming to your restaurant in the near future?

Right now we are concentrating on building our clientele more than anything. It’s hard to work logistically within our Lima region since it is quite small and you can actually cover it in two days. I try to concentrate on building relationships with small producers since we have produce coming from thirty minutes away and it not even practical sometimes to consider something coming from eight hours travel away.

Would you consider going back to Australia or another part of the world you have lived in your distant future?

If I can choose a place I will pick Australia to take my wife and family, specifically Western Australia.

What do you dream of for your future?

I don’t think I would open a big restaurant. I will probably like to open a few shops, a small place serving food or even live on a farm. Seeing how hard it is to run a restaurant with a farm as I am doing now, sounds very romantic but it is a lot of work so I don’t see that happening. I would like to have a casual place, maybe an epicerie, but definitely small.

Will pasta be on the menu, since it is one of your favorite foods?

Maybe!

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