I'm under strict instructions to be on time for dinner. Reservations for Chicha, the restaurant owned by Peruvian celebrity chef Gaston Acurio in the Andean city of Cusco, are tightly held. If I'm just five minutes late, I'm told, I'll lose my table.
Acurio is credited with bringing Peruvian cuisine to the world's attention after his flagship restaurant, Astrid y Gaston, in the capital Lima, made it onto the World's 50 Best Restaurants list in 2011. But the restaurant's inclusion only came after Acurio discarded French cooking in favour of more traditional Peruvian dishes and ingredients. The result? He now owns a string of restaurants in the US, Europe and Asia, and his name is often bandied about when talk of presidential candidates surfaces in his home country.
Chicha can be found upstairs in a colonial-era building overlooking the Plaza Regocijo, two blocks west of the former Inca capital's historical showpiece, the Plaza de Armas. After passing a neighbouring chocolate museum, I arrive a few minutes early for my 8pm booking. Inside, beneath a vaulted ceiling, strings of garlic bulbs and corncobs hang as art installations opposite monochromatic still-life photographs of potatoes and bell peppers. The presence of corncobs is no surprise, since chicha is the name of an Andean drink made from corn – alcoholic or otherwise.
The restaurant's convivial atmosphere matches a dress code that's surprisingly informal for an establishment of such renown. Although Acurio is Peru's most celebrated chef, a disproportionate number of patrons wear hiking footwear, no doubt for walking through Cusco's many cobbled streets and exploring the Inca ruins scattered throughout the Sacred Valley.
A waiter escorts me to my table then hands me a hardcover menu that's several pages thick. Lamb's leg soup, grilled octopus and breaded tenderloin are itemised as mains on the chef's menu, while the a la carte listings include Peruvian specialties such as guinea pig and tiradito – slivers of raw white fish marinated in lime and chilli. An alpaca curry is served with quinoa and seasoned fruits instead of rice. Italians would recognise ravioli and osso buco dishes. And there's pork super adobo – a dish popular with Filipino diners.
If the menus at Chicha are any indication then it's plain to see that foreign influences have helped shape Peru's contemporary cuisine, a fact that wouldn't surprise anyone once they'd delved into its history. Chinese and Japanese labourers, Italian settlers and African slaves all arrived in Peru during the 19th century, long after the Spanish conquistadors had come to the Andes in search of gold and jewels, bringing garlic and onions with them and introducing meat from cows, pigs and goats into Peruvian diets.
Just how heavily Peru's cultural influx had affected its kitchens, however, wasn't properly understood, or appreciated, outside the borders of this developing South American nation until Astrid y Gaston's elevation onto the Best Restaurants list.
Peru's varied terrain, encompassing the mountainous Andes, the rainforests of the Amazon jungle and the marine riches of the Pacific Ocean, has also been an influencing factor. With such a huge climatic variety, the diversity of ingredients available is truly astounding.
Most of the world's attention until now has been focused on Lima, the Peruvian capital nudging up against the Pacific Ocean, for it is here where two other restaurants – Central (ranked No. 6) and Maido (No. 7) – now occupy places at the top of the table alongside Astrid y Gaston (39). Lima is also where Nobu Matsuhisa, the co-owner of Nobu restaurants worldwide, spent four years learning his trade as a young man.
The number one dish along this coastal region is ceviche – similar to tiradito, but with the raw fish cut into chunkier cubes and with sliced onions added. In recent years, however, the spotlight has started to shine on Cusco, where the signature dish is roast guinea pig, followed by lomo saltado – soy-marinated beef or alpaca stir-fried with onions, tomatoes and chillies then served with rice or French fries.
Of the restaurants gaining accolades, Chicha is one of a growing list to fuse Peruvian cooking and ingredients with foreign influences. LIMO, Inka Grill, Cicciolina and Morena Peruvian Kitchen are others.
"If I was to pick one restaurant to eat at in Cusco, it would be Pachapapa. The atmosphere is different from the rest and the food is incredible; the slow-cooked guinea pig is amazing," says David Yabar, who began offering cooking classes in 2013 from the top floor of a residential building in the eastern district of Wanchaq.
A morning cooking class at Yabar's Rooftop Kitchen is a much appreciated change of pace after evenings spent sampling Cusco's gastronomic delights and days filled running around the city and the Sacred Valley on a World Expeditions tour that culminated with a visit to Machu Picchu.
I'd started the day haggling for potatoes, corn and yellow peppers with my cooking tutor, Rivka Benites, at Cusco's colourful San Pedro Market before we were driven to Wanchaq. It's just gone 11am when I'm led up a stairway to a room where a fully-stocked bar and two clean, modern kitchens – one capable of fitting 24 budding chefs – adjoin a balcony overlooking the Cusco Valley. The balcony, I'm pleased to see, also doubles as a herb garden.
Despite the early hour, it's considered late enough to mix a Pisco Sour, a distinctly Peruvian cocktail made using distilled grape juice, lime, sugar syrup and egg white.
"You will enjoy the cooking a little bit more with one of these," jokes Benites who, for the next two hours, guides me step-by-step through measuring, chopping, peeling, frying, simmering, sauteing and presenting two very filling, starchy and entirely Instagrammable dishes called Papas a la Huancaina (potatoes in a spicy cheese sauce, topped with a quail's egg) and Chicharrones (deep fried pork belly).
"What do you think?" I ask Benites. "Could I be the next Gaston Acurio?"
"Maybe you should taste them first," she replies.
I thought she'd never ask.
Looking to eat out in Cusco? These restaurants come highly recommended by locals.
Acclaimed chef Gaston Acurio has brought his distinctive Peruvian cooking style to Cusco, next door to the Chocolate Museum. See chicha.com.pe/en/cusco
You can order pizzas and calzones in this restaurant on Plaza de San Blas, but why would you when its roasted guinea pig is considered by locals to be the best in town? See cuscorestaurants.com/en/restaurant/pachapapa/
Blends Nikkei cuisine with regional ingredients to great effect from its coveted position overlooking the Plaza de Armas. See cuscorestaurants.com/en/restaurant/limo/
Serves the best Peruvian Criollo comfort food around, a few doors down from LIMO, with window views across the Plaza de Armas to Cusco Cathedral. See cuscorestaurants.com/en/restaurant/inka-grill/
Cusco's best Indian food and the menu includes a mean tandoori guinea pig. Tucked away down a back alley on Theatre Street. See the-curry-house-korma-sutra.business.site
MORENA PERUVIAN KITCHEN
Offers a contemporary twist to Peruvian classics from its spot on Silversmiths Street. Owned by an Australian, Luke Edwards, and his Cusquenan wife. See morenaperuviankitchen.com
Home to the finest Mediterranean-inspired food in town, in the Bohemian neighbourhood of San Blas. Owned by Melburnian Tammy Gordon. See cicciolinacuzco.com
Mark Daffey travelled to Peru courtesy of LATAM and World Expeditions.
LATAM operates five non-stop flights a week from Melbourne and seven one-stop flights from Sydney to Santiago, Chile, with onward connections to Cusco in Peru. See latam.com
World Expeditions' 13-day Food Lovers Peru tour costs $4690, visiting Lima, Arequipa, Cusco, the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu. Included are market tours, reservations at top restaurants and cooking classes in Arequipa and Cusco. See worldexpeditions.com