As we hurtle down the Pan-American Highway in his late-model Mercedes, Johnny Schuler is conducting an extemporaneous lecture on contemporary Peru while buzzing past tractor-trailers and rickety old Daewoo Tico cars at 110 mph. At times, I’m clutching the passenger-side grab handle so tightly that I’m half-oblivious to his words, not to mention the larger natural beauty around me, like the Andes.
My wife, who’s in the back seat, has dubbed Schuler, with only slight hyperbole, the Most Interesting Man in the World. The title is based not just on Schuler’s claim to have raced cars in his youth (pretty easy to validate), but on the wealth of his experiences, which he relates with a kind of Latin American bravado during our trip from fog-choked Lima to sun-scorched Ica, the heart of pisco country.
Among the highlights: He’s a restaurateur who also owns a catering company that has fed oil workers deep in the Amazonian jungle. He’s an author and the host of “Por Las Rutas Del Pisco,” a popular TV show dedicated largely to pisco, the spirit that he has been promoting for decades. He’s the master distiller at Porton Pisco, a new multimillion-dollar operation that may be Peru’s best shot at cracking the top-shelf U.S. spirits market. Along with chef Gaston Acurio, Johnny Schuler is to Peru as chef Jose Andres is to Spain, a tireless promoter of his country’s vast gastronomic riches.
But as we’re barreling down the highway, I’m more interested in Schuler’s skills as a tour guide than his position as a national pisco celebrity. With Schuler’s narration and guidance, this stretch of the Pan-American Highway becomes more than just a major north-south thoroughfare. It is an ever-changing landscape that illustrates a larger story about modern Peru.
Along the highway, we stop at a roadside stand that sells fresh, freakishly large Peruvian figs and another that hawks sugar cones topped with scoops of sweet, pumpkin-pie-like ice cream made from lucuma, a subtropical fruit native to the Andean valleys. We zip past fields growing asparagus and artichokes, much of it bound for overseas tables. We spot sprawling chicken farms that supply many of the pollo a la brasa restaurants throughout Peru. But mostly we pass hundreds, probably thousands, of makeshift wooden or cinder-block homes, part of large squatter communities that often dominate the scenery.
This is the Peru far removed from the tourist districts of Lima. This is the Peru laid bare for all to see: the large-scale industries that continue to move the country’s ever-growing economy forward; the native produce — lucuma predates the Incan Empire — that continues to satisfy taste buds, both foreign and domestic; and the widespread poverty that fuels the crime that scares so many tourists away from here. Yes, Peru is a place of increasingly dizzying highs and heartbreaking lows. It’s also a country changing before our eyes.
Much of what’s driving Peru’s future is its past and its indigenous bounty. Schuler tells me that Peruvian chefs, such as Pedro Miguel Schiaffino at Malabar in Lima, continue to mine the Amazon for inspiration, finding creative uses for jungle fruits and herbs and even the massive, air-breathing paiche, which has become the trendy freshwater fish in Latin America. He mentions an Amazonian variety of yucca that’s so sweet it tastes like a banana. “We haven’t discovered yet everything that comes from the valley of the jungle,” he says.
This investigation of Peru’s history and its native riches is echoed by my other tour guide for the trip: British writer and filmmaker Hugh Thomson’s “Cochineal Red: Travels Through Ancient Peru,” an engrossing volume on Incan and pre-Incan civilizations. What captured my attention most was the chapter on Peruvian archaeologist Ruth Shady’s recent excavations of the Caral site in the Supe Valley north of Lima, where she and her team unearthed houses, an amphitheater, temples and pyramids that date back as far as 2600 B.C.
“At a stroke it became clear that Peruvian civilization was by far the most ancient in the Americas and one of the most ancient in the world, comparable to India, Egypt and China,” Thomson writes.
This revelation, confirmed only in the early 2000s, has to do something to a country’s collective psyche, I thought. Peru suddenly went from a New World land, conquered and colonized by Spain, to one of the birthplaces of civilization — one that had to regularly contend with El Ninos, disastrous floods and earthquakes so violent that they would practically wipe the land clean. Peruvians could rightfully claim that they’re descendants of some of the baddest, most ingenious people to roam the earth.
Many of these thoughts were rattling through my head when we finally dined at Malabar in the San Isidro district of Lima, where I sat mesmerized by my seviche. Schiaffino’s appetizer incorporates Japanese and Incan influences while completely ignoring Spain’s central contribution to seviche, the lime. Sliced sashimi-style and shaped into flower petals, the sole in Schiaffino’s seviche is “painted” red with the fruit from the Andean airampo cactus, then flash-marinated in the juices of the tumbo, a tart, floral fruit believed to have been used by the Incans in their raw-fish preparations. The dish is equal parts art, history, nationalism and genius. It’s also delicious.
Celebrity chefdom is still a relatively new concept in Peru, a fact that’s hammered home when I ask for the chef’s name at Pescados Capitales, a sin- obsessed sevicheria that’s among the best Lima has to offer. (Look up “sin” and “seafood” in Spanish; you’ll get the joke.) Our waitress, Romina, tells me that his name is Willy Castillo, but then quickly interjects that he’s “not famous.” The restaurant is famous, she adds, he’s not.
Malabar’s Schiaffino, by contrast, doesn’t have such an identity problem. With his sophisticated takes on Amazonian fish and produce, he is one of Peru’s reigning celebrity chefs. Trained at the Culinary Institute of America, Schiaffino bends and blends ingredients to his will, creating dishes that speak of Peru but aren’t always easily identifiable as Peruvian — at least not without a guide to the flora and fauna of the country. His paiche entree is downright delicate for such a hulking fish: a small fillet perfumed with a fermented yucca broth and tapioca pearls stained black with squid ink. The flavors are unexpected and lush — lobster and sweet peppers among them.
The most senior member of Peru’s celebrity chef fraternity is Gaston Acurio, whose international empire now stretches far and wide, numbering more than 35 restaurants on three continents. Unlike Schiaffino and his haute Amazonian cooking, Acurio has ambitions that seem to have no identifiable boundaries. His restaurants attempt to poke at and play with the many cultures that have influenced Peruvian cooking, whether Incan, Chinese, Japanese, African or Italian. At times, he appears to be suffering from an acute case of free-market capitalism: His considerable talents have been stretched so thin that there is, at times, little quality control at his restaurants.
At least that was my experience at two Acurio establishments: Chicha, a pan-Peruvian restaurant in Cusco, and Madam Tusan, the chef’s homage to Chinese-Peruvian chifa cuisine in Lima. Neither place served a memorable dish and often seemed content to coast on the chef’s reputation, turning out large, plodding plates that had little of the finesse and precision of Schiaffino’s cooking. Chicha’s riff on the traditional Afro- Peruvian dish known as tacu tacu was a mound of sauteed seafood dumped onto a thick brick of the signature fried rice-and-bean mixture. The Chinese pancake rolled with roast duck at Madam Tusan looked more like a burrito, and its rocoto-hoisin sauce packed none of the heat expected from Peru’s scorching pepper. We should have dined at Astrid & Gaston, considered one of the 50 best restaurants in the world.
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I came to a sort of soft conclusion about my experiences with chef-driven Peruvian cuisine, whether fusion or not: Like the country, the cuisine is still evolving, still waiting to reach its high-water mark. For every well-executed dish — say, chef Rafael Osterling’s Frenchified interpretation of tacu tacu with seared foie gras at his namesake restaurant in Lima — I’d encounter another that aimed high and missed. Such as the admirable attempt at the Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel to transform the highland dish known as cuy chactado (think: fried guinea pig with head and legs still attached) into a crispy confit over a white corn puree. The rodent head and appendages had disappeared, but so had the dish’s essential Peruvian character, buried beneath a ton of French technique.
Many of my favorite dishes were those that didn’t mess much with tradition. I’m thinking about the rich, savory and chewy anticuchos (or beef hearts) skewered and served on a platter at Mangos Cafe Restaurant at the Larcomar Shopping Center, a bustling retail and entertainment district that affords spectacular views of the Lima coastline. I’m thinking about the pollo a la brasa at El Tablon in Cusco, where the bronzed chickens are free of the excessive herbs and spices of the Peruvian birds in the Washington area and are infused instead with the streamlined flavors of salt and smoke. I’m thinking of almost everything I sampled at El Piloto in San Vicente de Canete, whether the papa a la Huancaina (boiled yellow potatoes in a spicy cheese sauce) or the heaping spoons of scallop seviche or the classic preparation of tacu tacu con apanado, with a thinly pounded pan-fried steak and egg.
Then again, some experiences were perhaps too close to the bone. When I was wandering around Ollantaytambo, a stunning Incan mountain village, I spotted a wadded red plastic ball attached to a pole, indicating that those inside the house sell a handmade corn beer known as chicha de jora. I poked my head in and inquired about the price. The house brewer, Armandina, dipped a plastic mug into an earthenware container tucked into a corner of her dark stone room, and I handed her 10 nuevos soles, or about $4. Her unfiltered beer was bracingly sour from its natural fermentation and as cloudy as pasta water. As soon as I drank it, I knew that my stomach would protest, and it did. Still, I’d do it all over again.
But of all the places I visited, the one that my mind wanders back to, again and again, is Chez Wong, the casual 11-table restaurant carved out of chef Javier Wong’s house in the La Victoria district of Lima. Everyone will warn you that the neighborhood is dangerous, full of thieves ready to jack you for everything in your pockets, and this may be true. But don’t let that stop you from making a reservation and luxuriating in the quiet brilliance of Wong, who has repeatedly been compared to Jiro Ono, the Japanese chef who dreams of sushi. Just remember: It’s a lunch-only establishment, a nod to Peru’s long-standing, pre-refrigeration concerns about eating seviche late in the day.
When I arrived, I explained to the waiter/host that I had a 2 p.m. reservation. When he couldn’t find my name in his handwritten notebook, I started to assist him. There at the bottom, I spotted it: “gringo.” We both laughed. It was the start of a sublime afternoon in Wong’s menu-less restaurant. The chef pulled a fresh, pristine fish out of the cooler and proceeded to fillet the sole in the front of the dining room. It was part theater, part knife-skills class, and the seviche that landed at my table was unlike anything I’ve had in the States: a mixture of octopus and sole, barely touched with lime juice and sprinkled with sliced red onion, salt and (I kid you not) fresh cracked pepper. The server provides you with a little cup of diced rocoto peppers to spice the seviche to your desired heat level. The dish was masterly and egoless all at the same time, and I fell hard for Chez Wong.
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Johnny Schuler, naturally, knows all about Javier Wong. He was the one who recommended Chez Wong to me. If someone asked me to draw a comparison between the two men, between Wong’s seviche and Schuler’s Porton Pisco, I might be tempted to fall back on the usual mantra about Peruvian food and drink: It all begins with the country’s embarrassment of agricultural riches, from fish to limes to the eight varieties of pisco grapes.
But more likely I’d talk about their devotion to a Peruvian ideal, whether the perfect seviche or the perfect pisco, built from local ingredients and designed to show off the inherent individuality and terroir of Peru. I might even try, if given enough pisco, to equate them with the great architects of Peru, the ones who designed stone villages in the clouds and pyramids in the desert.