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Every prosperous country has celebrity chefs. But only Peru has Gastón Acurio, who is the subject of the worshipful new documentary Finding Gaston.
Gastón, as everybody in Peru refers to him, has the trappings of the food personality and culinary entrepreneur: scores of restaurants, lines of food products that take over entire shelves in Lima supermarkets, cooking schools, and cookbooks.
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Yet he is something more to most Peruvians. He is not just the more respected and beloved chef, but also the most visible personality in the country. In Finding Gaston, he is credited not just with reinventing Peruvian cuisine but also for revitalizing the country’s economy, and after the turbulent years of the Shining Path and Fujimori, giving Peru a renewed sense of pride and purpose. When I was growing up in Peru, kids wanted to be soccer players or astronauts, now, thanks to Gastón, they want to be chefs.
In the film, we see Gastón showing the humble fishermen of the seacoast town of Paracas how to cut out the middlemen and make a better living. We watch Gaston in his state-of-the-art cooking school in the impoverished high-desert town of Pachacútec teaching the children of agricultural laborers the most refined and contemporary cooking techniques. We observe Gastón in the quinoa-harvesting area around Lake Titicaca bantering easily with the alpaca-clad women who harvest the grain.
It’s easy to think that Gastón, the gastronomical revolutionary leader who uses food as a social weapon, belongs to the South American tradition of the liberator, the emancipator of the oppressed like Bolivar or Guevara, who comes from a privileged background. Never is this more apparent than when we hear Gastón proclaim, with thunderous humility, “Soy Cocinero,” I am a cook. Of course, he is so much more than that, and a much more complex personality than this documentary would lead you to believe.
Details: Finding Gaston will be screened on Thursday, September 24, at the Sie Film Center as part of the CineLatino Festival. Ticket holders will be treated to a pre-reception of Peruvian food and drinks. A cooking demonstration and tasting of traditional Peruvian dishes from Francesca Ruiz, chef-owner of Los Cabos, will follow the screening.
Bonus: Watch the movie trailer here.