DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Maybe you've noticed a dish that keeps popping up in more restaurants across the U.S. - ceviche. Well, Peru is one of the countries that lays claim to the dish, which is made of raw fish and chilies cured in lime juice. So how do you know you're tasting a perfect ceviche?
GASTON ACURIO: In the first bite, you want to find a strong citrus flavor balanced with the fish and a little bit spicy but a fresh spicy - give bite a fresh chili.
GREENE: He should know. That is Chef Gaston Acurio. He is basically the godfather of Peruvian cuisine. And he has just written a cookbook with hundreds of recipes, including more than 20 varieties of ceviche. Acurio says that dish embodies how Peru is a melting pot of cultures.
ACURIO: The old Peruvians, they ate raw fish with salt and chilies and that was it. Then suddenly, see arriving limes and red onions that came from Spain 400 years ago. So in every dish, sometimes you will find a smile of Africa and China and Spain at the same time. But when you taste it, oh, you will recognize that this something different. This Peruvian. The main ingredient that reveals you the secret is Peruvian chilies, though, we call them aji. These ingredients, the aji, the chilies of Peru, gives the flavor, the color, the essence of Peruvian food. It's like wasabi and soy sauce for Japanese or tomato and basil and garlic for Italian, or parmesan or - for Peru, it's Peruvian chilies.
GREENE: Acurio is 47. He owns some of Peru's finest restaurants as well as restaurants around the world. But growing up, good food wasn't a priority in his household, until he decided to take matters into his own hands.
So I talk to a lot of chefs, and many of them will describe to me how they developed a love of cooking from their parents when they were young. This was not the case for you.
ACURIO: Not at all. My mother, she didn't like cooking. I have four sisters. None of them didn't like cooking, too. My father, for him, food was not his life. Since I was a little, little kid, I loved to eat, and that was a terrible problem in my house. One day, I decided to start cooking my own food. I was 9, 10 years old when I decided that. I went with my bicycle to the markets, and I bought calamari and roasted them in my house. Of course, that food at that time was terrible because there was a young, little kid of 10 years old reading recipes that nobody teached him to read it before.
GREENE: (Laughter). You didn't know what you were doing?
ACURIO: Yes, of course. So when you read in a recipe, please put a lot of oil, what is a lot of oil for you, no? For me, it was one spoon. And fry the calamari in a very hot oil. What was hot oil? For me was maybe that you can touch it and it was hot, no? And of course the result of the crispy calamari was a mess. And nobody want to eat my food. But I discovered the good part of the story is that since I was very young, I discovered that I wanted to be a chef.
GREENE: Did you eat the calamari that you were making? I mean, were you willing to...
ACURIO: Of course...
ACURIO: ...Because I kept a little bit of pride, no? And of course I ate them and I thought it was amazing. I've always been a rebel in my own house, you know. And my house - and my family looking at me as a little, weird kid cooking instead of playing football outside, no?
GREENE: Or instead of studying for the career his dad envisioned for him. His father was a politician. He dreamed that maybe one day his son would be Peru's president. So he gave Gaston money and sent him to Madrid to pursue a law degree. One night, he spent a month's worth of his allowance on a single meal at a famous Spanish restaurant.
ACURIO: I sat there with - 19 years old in the middle of the dining room of the three-Michelin-starred restaurant alone in a table. I remember the waiters thought I was not going to pay the bill. What is this kid doing here?
GREENE: So you used their money that was supposed to be for a law degree to pay the bill at one of the finest restaurants in Madrid?
ACURIO: Yes. The money that I needed to live for that month, I spent it in that restaurant, but was the most important investment that I did in my life, actually - the cheaper one - because with this $200 or $300 that I spend on the dinner that night changed my life - no? - forever.
GREENE: That's because Gaston Acurio decided right there in that restaurant that he would drop out of law school and enroll in cooking school the very next day.
ACURIO: But there was a problem - my family. So I didn't say anything to my family.
GREENE: You didn't tell them about this change of heart?
ACURIO: No, not at all. I didn't tell them anything. And I - after three years of cheating my family, that were thinking that I was becoming a lawyer, I came back to Peru. And when everybody thought, finally the lawyer is coming back, then I had to tell them that I wasn't a lawyer, I was a chef.
GREENE: Surprise. How did they react?
ACURIO: Disappointment, absolutely disappointment, no? Absolutely disappointment. They were really worried of my future, of what is he doing? There's no future in food and cooking.
GREENE: Is your father still alive today?
ACURIO: Yes. Yes, he is. He is.
GREENE: And was there a moment that you remember when your father said, Gaston, OK, I see that this was the right thing for you?
ACURIO: Yes. He was used to, for all his life, to be stopped on the streets - oh, Sen. Acurio, Sen. Acurio, how are you, Sen. Acurio? - because he was very popular. And one day, he was at the line on the bank. He told me this story actually, no. And somebody touched his back, and a guy said, are you the father of the chef? And (laughter)...
GREENE: My son must be kind of cool.
ACURIO: Yeah, so - oh, if he's being known, maybe he's doing right, good things and the right thing, and the right - he's going the right ways.
GREENE: So I'm just wondering - many people in Peru have suggested that you should run for president as a chef.
ACURIO: Yes (laughter).
GREENE: Thinking about what your father thought originally, that how dare you become a chef because I want you to become a politician.
ACURIO: Exactly. At the end, finally, in sort of a way, his dream came true.
GREENE: Well, Gaston, it has been a real pleasure talking to you. And if you become president, you'll come on again - right? - and give us an interview talking about politics?
ACURIO: That will never happen.
GREENE: OK (laughter). Well, thank you again.
ACURIO: Thank you very much.
GREENE: That was Chef Gaston Acurio, the godfather of Peruvian cooking. His book, "Peru: The Cookbook," is out now.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.