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The Peruvian invasion

From the godfather of Peruvian cuisine to the man with its newest Michelin star, meet the chefs who are powering London’s number one foodie phenomenon

The Peruvian invasion

Text by Anthea Gerrie / Photos: Tim E White

Just two years ago, you’d have been hard-pushed to find a Peruvian restaurant in London – not that many Londoners were looking too hard. Fast-forward to today, and Peruvian restaurants are winning Michelin stars, ceviche is touted as the new sashimi, and smug London diners can educate you on the intricacies of cuy, causa and aji de gallina.

This month sees the opening of Lima Floral, the second London offering from Virgilio Martínez, whose original Lima restaurant became the first Peruvian venue in Europe to win a Michelin star, and whose eatery in the actual Peruvian capital recently came in at 15th in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. Lima Floral is the seventh high-grade Peruvian restaurant to open in two years in London, and it puts Martínez at the head of a food trend that has replaced New Nordic as the world’s most talked about.

“What’s happened has really taken us by surprise,” says the boyishly handsome but diffident Martínez. “London is a city with very few Peruvians, and we didn’t expect it to be quite so ready. I certainly didn’t expect a Michelin star. But something about it has just caught the imagination of diners around the world at the right time.”

Lima the restaurant is, as Martínez puts it with a shrug, “the best of what’s happening in Lima right now.” And people have loved it, even before the Michelin inspectors came. In just one of many fawning reviews, restaurant critic Matthew Norman wrote in the UK’s Daily Telegraph after Lima’s opening: “Once every three or four years I come across a restaurant so sensational that the urge to bore people to death about it trumps all sympathy for the stupefied victims.”

Lima is the tip of a small but growing group of restaurants serving up this exotic but accessible food, fired by chillies, 4,000 varieties of potato and a whole lexicon of what’s-that ingredients, like annatto, the seeds of the tropical achiote tree. The appeal is partly down to Peru’s natural advantages – the seafood-rich Pacific, the exotic fruits and herbs of the Amazon, and potatoes, corn and quinoa from the Andes – but it’s also due to the way the country has swallowed up outside influences, such as Japanese.

The recent Peruvian craze, though, really started in 2012 with a restaurant named after the country’s most famous dish. Self-taught chef Martin Morales had been a successful DJ and Apple executive, and for 20 years had dreamed of bringing Peruvian food to Britain, where most people would struggle to locate Peru on a map, let alone name its key dish. “I had many rejections from restaurant investors,” he says of his plan for Ceviche, the restaurant. “In the end I had to sell my house to make it happen.”

It wasn’t a total stab in the dark, though. Back in 2010, his first tweet was: “Does anyone care about Peruvian food?” The answer, perhaps surprisingly, was yes, so he set up a supper club at home in the south-west London suburb of East Sheen, an unlikely venture that nevertheless drew noted Spanish chef José Pizarro and influential food blogger Dino Joannides, as well as a stream of curious local foodies.
Two sold-out pop-ups the following year convinced Morales the city was crying out for a proper Peruvian restaurant. “People hadn’t realised how fresh and beautiful the food would be until I served them sea bass marinated with Amarillo chillies and garnished with choclo – big, crispy kernels of corn. They didn’t know cold, mashed » potato could taste so delicious till they tried my causa – mash topped with avocado and other fresh ingredients. They thought it would all be llama meat.”

When Morales finally found enough investment, Ceviche opened in Soho and was virtually an overnight smash. Forsaking guinea pig, grains and, yes, llama, it focused on pisco cocktails and crisp, tangy ceviche – that meaty sea bass with a raw Amarillo chilli “tiger’s milk” centre. With an authentic but hip space and a staff dominated by passionate Peruvians, the whole package was as fresh as its citrus-infused fish. The PR-friendly Morales, who also runs a record label showcasing Peruvian musicians, became the smiling face of a new foodie fad.

Whether 2012 or 2013 was the Year of Peruvian Cuisine, the trend has accelerated like a cherimoya apple rolling down an Andean mountainside. Coya in Mayfair followed in late 2012 and is still one of the best in town, despite having an Indian executive chef in Sanjay Dwivedi. “People in London are always looking for something new, and you can’t find anything more different than Peruvian food,” says Dwivedi, who also serves up Chifa dishes, essentially Cantonese via Peru. “It’s really fresh and just wows you with flavour.”   
Ceviche and Coya were followed by Lima – the most heralded of the lot – as well as Uni in Belgravia and Chotto Matte in the City, both of which serve mostly Nikkei food. Then Morales opened a second restaurant, Shoreditch’s Andina, which focuses on dishes from the Andes, with lots of corn and quinoa to go with the ceviche.

But perhaps the biggest sign Peruvian is here to stay comes from Gastón Acurio, the godfather of Peruvian cuisine, who plans to open two restaurants in London this year. If London’s Peruvian scene started with Ceviche, modern Peruvian arguably began when Acurio returned to Lima from a stint at Paris’s Tour d’Argent in 1994. “Returning to open our own restaurant in Peru made us realise we were Peruvian, not French,” says the portly, charismatic Acurio, who is the lead singer of a heavy metal band when he’s not cooking. “We vowed to bring fishermen, farmers, chefs and customers together to send the message out to the world that we had our own great native cuisine.”

The first step was Lima’s Astrid y Gastón, which has been voted the best restaurant in Latin America (his wife, Astrid, is the pastry chef) and was 18th in this year’s 50 Best list – but it’s arguably away from the kitchen the couple have done most to promote Peruvian cuisine around the world.

And now the big man is coming to London. Though the details are a little vague, his Mayfair cevicheria, due to open in 2015, will field a long pisco bar showcasing Peru’s potent native spirit, and a separate anticucho bar serving grilled ox hearts and other skewered snacks.  Once that’s done, he will open a Shoreditch restaurant with Virgilio Martínez, serving regional cuisine from the Amazon and the Andes. It’s the Peruvian equivalent of René Redzepi and Magnus Nilsson opening a restaurant, and it’s a big deal.   

All of which means Peruvian cuisine is here to stay. According to Italian-Japanese-Brazilian food blogger and supperclub host Luiz Hara, aka The London Foodie: “Londoners are increasingly educated about the nuances of Peruvian food. They like the freshness, tastiness and sheer novelty of it. It’s a trend that will run and run.”
 
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