Master Chef Flavio Solórzano inherited more than the fundamentals of traditional Peruvian cooking from his grandmother; he learned to embrace the social and economic power of a celebrated industry in a country historically in need of such a unifying force.
“My grandmother asked why they can’t use gastronomy during the hard times,” Mr. Solórzano told Global Atlanta during an interview at the height of MISTURA, one of Latin America’s largest food festivals held annually in Peru’s capital, Lima, on the shores of the Pacific at the foot of the city’s towering cliffs.
“It’s more than business,” he recalled his grandmother saying and by saying so laid the foundation for Mr. Solórzano’s restaurant and career.
Global Atlanta was invited by the Consulate General of Peru in Atlanta to witness the extent of the festival in September that highlighted this year the role played by small-scale farmers and their produce in inspiring dishes offered by Peru’s world renowned restaurants, such as Mr. Solórzano’s El Senorio de Sulco in Lima.
The culinary ties between Atlanta and Peru were forged by Kennesaw State University‘s “Year of Peru” in 2011-12 when a full academic program was held featuring experts in a wide variety of fields as well as musical and theater groups…and chefs.
Although unfamiliar with Peruvian dishes, the Kennesaw State students took to them as many have in the world’s leading cosmopolitan cities.
Ernesto Silva, who teaches Latin American and Latino Studies at Kennesaw State University, has noticed the same appreciation for Peruvian food from the students he takes to Peru annually on study-abroad trips.
“The students who go to Peru and try Peruvian food always want it again back in the states,” he told Global Atlanta on the Kennesaw campus. But they can rarely find it. There are no Peruvian restaurants in Kennesaw and only a few in Atlanta.
“That has been an inspiration and also a catalyst for us to try to find ways to bring Peruvian food to Kennesaw again,” Dr. Silva added.
Consequently, Mr. Solórzano was invited to return earlier this month to host a quioa tasting festival and cooking demonstration on the Kennesaw campus during which he partnered with the university’s chefs.
His repertoire of quinoa dishes made from the 3,000 varieties of the grain cultivated in the Andes Mountains can be found his book published in 2013 titled “Ayara: Madre Quinoa” in which he hails the grains’ virtues.
His dishes range from the quinoa burgers that were available to the Kennesaw students to those that he featured in his two-hour demonstration of a complete meal.
Mr. Solorzano was not inspired only by his grandmother,but also by his mother, who was a sociologist by profession and worked for the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization, training peasants in rural areas of the country.
Once established as a renowned chef, he helped found the famed MISTURA food and art festival, which drew in September more than 400,000 visitors during 10 days featuring hundreds of local restaurants from every corner of the country.
In the mid 1980s when Peru plunged into a period of political violence and economic crisis, his mother, Isabel Alvarez, lost her job and turned to cooking, breaking ground into a profession that not many attempted during those days.
As a far-reaching industry that traverses economic boundaries and is saturated in so much Peruvian culture, gastronomy offers the masses a vehicle for social change, Mr. Solórzano said.
“One thing that I show the people is to look within,” he added, remarking that Peruvian chefs now serve as an “example for the rest of the people. They think that they can find in the gastronomy an opportunity to be a better person, a professional.”
At the 8th annual MISTURA, organizers this year aimed to channel inspiration through the community by recognizing local artisans with exceptional work in their respective regions. The festival sees a roughly 40 percent change each year in the participating vendors that provide a snapshot of the country’s eclectic gastronomic makeup.
“The gastronomic phenomenon comes not from the top to the bottom, but from the bottom to the top,” said Mr. Roca Rey, crediting the 390 local businesses and 180 farmers who participated in the fair.
Yet inspiration between the culinary elite and the rural proprietor proves reciprocal in Peru and highlights an extensive interdependence in the industry today. Many of Lima’s prestigious restaurants seek to emulate and adapt the cultural nuances of traditional cooking to a modern or urban context.
Tucked in the coastal district of San Isidro inside a reconstructed colonial home, Astrid & Gastón conceptualizes its current menu around the geography of the Lima region.
A dining experience at the acclaimed spot, which ranks No. 14 on the coveted list of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants by San Pellegrino, may last up to three hours and include 30 tightly orchestrated courses that survey local dishes stretching from the Andes mountains to the Pacific Ocean.
Diego Muñoz, head chef at Astrid & Gastón, called gastronomy a “social weapon” that penetrates every level of society. The restaurant attempts to put that theory into action by employing former students in the Pachacutec Foundation vocational school, Mr. Munoz explained.
Situated on the sandy hills of Nuevo Pachacutec, an impoverished desert town on the northern outskirts of Lima, the foundation channels aid from private beneficiaries and foreign governments to provide less fortunate children better opportunities. The school has emerged as a philanthropic beacon for gastronomy in Peru since opening in 2013, and yields a 90 percent employment rate for graduates entering Lima’s bustling restaurant scene.
Mr. Muñoz said Peruvian cuisine thrives from the biodiversity of some 90 microclimates and the multicultural backgrounds of their inhabitants.
The country produces food year round from sections of the Amazon rainforest, Andean highlands and coastal desert, and has long felt the impact of Asian, African and European cultures.
“Everyone mixes together and blends the gastronomy to the one that already exists,” Mr. Munoz told Global Atlanta.
This quintessential mixture among culture and climate has earned Peru international attention as the cooking boom continues to swell. Harry Edmeades, owner and head chef of the Peruvian-inspired Señor Ceviche in London, called Peruvian food “the ultimate fusion food.”
“As I explored the cuisine read more about it, I unearthed what everyone is realizing now,” said Mr. Edmeades, who traveled to Peru in September during MISTURA to researching different locales.
The 28-year-old British enthusiast of Peru said that he plans to return to Lima each year to track the evolving gastronomic landscape and relay its contemporary tastes to his restaurants in London.
“For a chef or someone with a passion for food you have so many choices,” he told Global Atlanta, adding that he feels spoiled by the emergence of Peruvian cuisine.
While the cooking revolution continues to swell in Peru and expand in other countries on its borders and beyond, culinary icons like Mr. Solórzano, who believes in creating “dishes for thinking,” said the secret to Peruvian gastronomy lies in reclaiming the basics of tradition.
“With only a few ingredients you can create a very powerful flavor,” he added.