Peasant and Chef: The Limits of Peruvian Gastro-Fascism, 1994-2012

Posted on December 8, 2012

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By Javier Puente

The son of the Bourgeoisie

In 1994, in the context of privatization-based, neoliberal economic program within an increasingly authoritarian regime, a 27-year old Peruvian, son of a prominent politician, returned to the country after several years of elite education in Madrid and Paris.  There he proceeded to open a French restaurant — along with a bakery expert, his German wife — with funds raised by family and a handful of unknown investors.  Lima, the capital city of Peru, was then the core of a country on the verge of a complete meltdown.  A period of political violence that brought together state and insurgent terrorism had ravaged the entire country, particularly the rural region and the highlands, heavily affecting the non-Spanish-speaking population, and resulting in the death of approximately seventy thousand Peruvians.  On top of that, the seemingly democratic administrations that Peru had experienced in the previous decade had brought a high level of political and civil disarray, to the extent of discrediting democracy and political parties, and hence paving the way for political authoritarianism in unforeseen ways.  In sum, the city that welcomed this young Peruvian chef — Gastón Acurio — was far from being the pretentious, so-called cosmopolitan and progressive city that now Lima claims to be.

Not long after opening the restaurant, Acurio noticed that he had pursued the wrong strategy.  Peru was no longer the oligarchic and semi-feudal country in which his father — once-senator by the center-right Acción Popular, Gastón Acurio Velarde — had amassed a fortune, a country in which European flavors and sophisticated practices were appreciated at all costs.  As a child who grew up visiting foreign embassies and enjoying sushi while the rest of the country went through food shortages, and as a young man who was privileged enough to be sent to law school in Europe while the country was melting down, Acurio saw in French cuisine the logical outcome of his professional training as a chef.  Reality, however, struck him in the face.

Acurio and his wife quickly realized that in spite of the dramatic changes the country had experienced since the years of the military government, one thing had remained intact and could be exploited: Peruvians, poor and rich alike, were delighted by Peruvian flavors.  Thus, their restaurant — Astrid & Gastón — progressively abandoned its Francophilia and increasingly adopted Peruvian ingredients on the menu.  This could open the door to a new takeoff for Acurio as chef and businessman.  There were moments of uncertainty, as Acurio himself once confessed.  Why would rich Peruvians pay the same price for a Coq au Vin as for a local Estofado?  Then, Acurio realized the necessity of conjuring up an ideology that could legitimize such a comparison.  Probably familiarized with the history and nature of French cuisine, its reinvention after 1789, and its reincarnation as a source of national pride, Acurio started to undertake one of the most subtle processes of rhetorical, nationalist engineering of contemporary history: the creation of the idea of Peruvian cuisine.  By the dawn of the twenty-first century, Peruvian cuisine had become an apparatus that embraced fascist modes and practices, which created a complex system of symbols and codes, wrote down manuals of indoctrination to be worshipped as sacred, and mobilized the masses to organize them into corporate categories, placing the cult of Peruvian ingredients at the center.

Gastón Acurio

Gastón Acurio mingles with a group of campesinos

I decided to start this essay about Peruvian Gastro-Fascism — a concept that I will explain in detail in the following lines — mainly because Acurio is widely acclaimed as the founding father of the current culinary boom in Peru.  In years to come, as the recent cuisine-based nation-making process unfolds and becomes more historizable, the return of Acurio and the foundation of Astrid & Gastón will be regarded as the watershed event of this revival of potato-based Peruvian-ness.  I wish only to contextualize the foundation of this new Shangri-La of Peruvian cuisine, and others can come in after me who will do a better job of filling in any remaining holes.

What is Peruvian Gastro-Fascism?

When referring to Fascism, most people associate the term with the immediate historical examples of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy.  I must emphasize, though, that Fascism is a much larger phenomenon, one which presents a certain definite way of understanding the world.  A few lines ago, I advanced some of the fundamental aspects of Peruvian Gastro-Fascism, but let me be blatantly clear: Fascism implies political disassociation, inter-class societal organization, corporate division of the society, triumph of the will over reason, and strong nationalist sentiments.  Based on this simple outline, I can reveal the central characteristics of current Peruvian gastronomic ideology and assert its Fascistic nature.

Peruvian cuisine, as Acurio himself has constantly declared, has no political affiliation.  In an interview published in 2010, Acurio was asked whether Peruvian cuisine was an inherently leftist project, given its inclusive nature.  Acurio responded that it was neither leftist nor rightist, but rather that it was the result of an association between the “individual’s will” and the “state”.1  Although Acurio has been seen numerous times next to politicians and statesmen, he has emphasized over and over again his reluctance to involve himself directly in politics, and his confidence in leaving cuisine an apolitical subject.

In 2008, Acurio began to promote one of his greatest projects, Mistura, a culinary festival held once a year in Lima, in which — according to him — “social classes would be forgotten.”2  Acurio and other shining stars of the gastronomic boom have consistently portrayed Peruvian cuisine as a social force capable of erasing class divisions.  Upon entering this new world presented by Mistura, the citizen would “forget his social differences, his problems, and would dedicate himself to the celebration of this great event that is our Peruvian cuisine.”

Mistura

Mistura essentializes Peruvianness, packs it in a plastic bowl, and presents a harmonious representation of an otherwise conflictive country

In Acurio’s world without social classes, there is nonetheless an organic social corps, a body composed of compartments by which all the actors of the culinary boom are defined.  The sacred communion of chef, peasant, and gourmand — all attendees of Acurio’s mental banquet — best illustrates this wily body politic.  The pivotal goal of Acurio’s entire career has been to forge an alliance between the first two.3  The gourmand encompasses a category in itself, as the purchasing power of Peruvians tends to increase and the internal market continues to expand.  Other minor participants include “entrepreneurs, waiters, barmans, juice-makers”4 and several others.  Peruvian cuisine as a category occupies the very center of this schema; it is the body’s beating heart.  The cult of the nation is replaced by the cult of the pot, and no one is left aside from this compartmentalization.

In this fantastical world of corporatism without classes, concrete economic conditions mean next to nothing.  Everything depends, instead, on the will of the subject.  “Gastronomy,” Acurio has explained, “cultivates entrepreneurial hunger.”5  Peruvian entrepreneurship, or will, is able to overcome all adversities, no matter how unreasonable the environment surrounding the subject is.  However, this entrepreneurship must be strongly linked with the iron rationality of the state, and it is this close association that ultimately relegates reason to a lesser position than will.

And finally, we come to the strong nationalist sentiments.  This part deserves an essay of its own, and I think it is the most obvious one.  Anyone familiar with the Peruvian culinary boom knows (and often repeats) the claims that Peruvian cuisine is the best of the world.  Acurio and endless others have persistently called for conquering the world with a Peruvian ceviche.  Those who disagree with the enthronement of huancaína sauce are condemned to rhetorical ostracism, as well as to all sorts of verbal attacks and psychological warfare.  Some advertisements of Peruvian products have gone as far as to say that those who do not like ceviche should not hold Peruvian citizenship.  Many would actually take such an assertion seriously.  This ideology surrounding Peruvian cuisine is increasingly becoming a “state truth”, one that is able — probably for the first time — to promote a sentiment of social pax.  In a country in which the rate of malnutrition among poor children is such a prevailing problem, having the state investing in gourmet, culinary projects is simply absurd.  It, however, is probably just another aspect of Fascism.

Ultimately, Acurio wants Peruvian cuisine to be to the twenty-first century what French cuisine was to the nineteenth, and McDonalds to the twentieth.  If the last two were thesis and antithesis, the outcome — meaning Acurio’s gastronomy — as any other historical synthesis will be a hybrid of both, and just imagining the combination of nationalism and assembly lines is scary for a country struggling over social and racial equality.   A quick survey of Acurio’s mass projects reveals his failed Pasquale Hermanos, a fast-food sandwich restaurant where fries servings are weighed (a ridiculous practice in a country in which potato production is pivotal) and his newly minted Papachos.

Peasant and Chef

On November 30, 2012, upon returning from a potato festival, four people died in a car accident in the highways of Huanta, Ayacucho.  Three of them were Lima-based chefs: Jason Nanka, Ivan Kisic, and Lorena Valdivia.  One of them, an Ayacucho peasant and community leader, María Huamaní, remains often unmentioned or else addressed as “the peasant” who was traveling with the widely acclaimed chefs.  While the losses of Nanka, Kisic, and Valdivia are tragic and deeply mourned, it is important to highlight the blatant racism at stake when referring to María Huamaní.  Why is her life seemingly worth less than those of the other three chefs?

Three chefs and a campesina

Three chefs and a campesina. The life of a person from the highlands persists to be worth less than a person from Lima.

Peru is undeniably a racist country, and this racism is a historical source of tension that bloodily sprang forth during the turmoil of the period of political violence (1980-2000).  Although this period ravaged the countryside as soon as the country moved back to a democratic administration in 1980, the outcome of the violence remained largely ignored by the media and civil society in Lima.  Only very late into the process, by 1992, once the conflict was moving towards the capital and striking wealthy neighborhoods, did the conflagration reach notoriety among Lima residents.  The final body count of this civil strife, according to the Truth and Reconciliation Comission, was close to seventy thousand people.  Of them, the vast majority did not have Spanish as their mother tongue.  We thought we had healed from this social convulsion, and had exorcised our collective demons.  Peruvian culinary discourse seemed to be the flag of this new Peru.

In spite of its inclusionary posturing, we now see the limits of the encompassing nature of this culinary rhetoric.  White elites are chefs, worthy of attention, whose losses are deeply tragic.  Highland people — those who have been condemned to a social abyss where they have no legal visibility, let alone primary rights — are “cooks” at best, and often simply “campesinos”.  Acurio, the once-prophet of modern gourmet society, has had to call the masses to common sense.  He had to do so when the masses attacked a dissident of Gastro-Fascism — Peruvian novelist Iván Thays — who had declared that Peruvian food was indigestible.  Now he has to bring the hordes back to their toes and reassert the value of Huamaní.  Yet Acurio is no longer the leader.  No one is.  This Gastro-Fascism has spun out of control.  It belongs to the mass, and the mass — the racist Peruvian mass — has now added the element of pride.  If tomorrow there were slaves on sale in the malls and department stores of Lima, people would only be irritated about the price.  No other objections or reservations would be necessary.  Daunting years lie ahead for Peru.

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