Reviewed by Les Hutchinson
Buscando a Gastón (2014). Peru, 80 minutes. Directed by Patricia Pérez. Starring: Gastón Acurio.
Peruvian filmmaker Patricia Pérez’s Buscando a Gastón follows her previous documentary, Mistura: The Power of Food, by telling the story of Peru’s most famous gastronomic icon, Gastón Acurio. From Gastón’s description of playing in the kitchen at age seven to his owning several restaurants across the world, as well as the Pachacutec cooking school for young adults and nationwide food programs for impoverished children, Pérez shows us the emblematic journey of a chef “with an emotion to convey.” We can successfully learn for ourselves what that emotion is simply by following along, letting Pérez mesmerize us with this story.
Buscando a Gastón is visually rich. Pérez highlights the chef by showcasing his food, and—in bringing these together—she illuminates Peru. As viewers, we see this in the way the documentary comes alive right from the beginning. The first shot captures Gastón’s face, lit in black and white. His eyes are closed, and he speaks, encouraging us to remember with him the story about how his legacy—the legacy of Peruvian cuisine—came together. This entrance into the story captivates our emotions until a slight pause. The screen goes dark and then: the blue-orange flame of the stove appears, music breaks the silence, and Gastón speaks again:
“It is clear that for Peruvians, cooking is no longer just something pleasant, enjoyable. Our cuisine is perhaps our new national emblem that fills us with pride, gives us hope, peace, security, and the capacity for dreaming.”
Pérez’s film showcases Gastón’s vision of Peruvian cuisine as this dream. The entire documentary fills the senses with his love for cooking and his country. There is a magic there, and Pérez’s Buscando a Gastón wants us to feel it.
Indeed, viewers are brought into the story by Pérez’s warmth as a hostess. While the story is about Gastón, it is Pérez who makes us feel welcome. She pairs lively sounds like the piano with a juenquero aesthetic (what Gastón defines as a festive atmosphere) to focus on these vibrant, colorful dishes that say everything about the people who eat them. The Huaucaina sauce, the freshly caught fish, the yellow and red chiles, the potatoes, and the quinoa all begin to encapsulate the vast diversity of food ingredients native to the Andes.
Pérez emphasizes the importance the Peruvian people place on their dishes in several significant scenes. The mother in me was touched by the gentle, sentimental moment when Gastón fulfills the wish of the mother of a child who attends his Pachacutec school. Gastón makes her wish come true by trying her yellow pepper and black mint sauce. She cries tears of pride and dreams come true. The feminist in me feels especially touched by those Gastón calls the “Quinoa ladies” of the Batalla Community in Puno, who harvest all the quinoa he uses in his restaurants and schools. Pérez shows several evocative images of these women working the land, never taking a day off from their harvesting labor. Pérez’s shots of the women praying, moving the earth, planting seeds, and gently touching the grains in their bags let us realize that the love the Quinoa ladies have for their work comes from a place deeper than pride.
Gastón honors this labor by making a dish that speaks to us of its tradition and history. Chupe, a dish he says comes “straight from an Andean mother’s kitchen,” has all the basic food elements of an everyday Peruvian home: cheese, purple potatoes, bread, algae from the local lake, huacatay, quinoa, and the ají pepper. Pérez shoots Gastón preparing this dish while narrating its history of providing sustenance, the completed dish filling the final shot of the scene.
By the end of the documentary, I realize that Pérez has taken me all over the gastronomic world while hardly leaving Peru. With interviews from superstar chefs, gastronomic researchers and critics, and even semiologist Eduardo Zapata, Pérez proves Gastón has made a home in high society. However, she also purposely brings him back to his roots and the Peruvian people. The scenes in his restaurants help frame the scenes where he meets with young chefs at his Pachacutec school, the fishermen by the sea, the Quinoa ladies, and the potato suppliers. We see that the Peruvian peoples’ sense of community and support has built the foundations of Gastón’s spirit, and we see this because of Pérez’s filmmaking esprit.
It is through Pérez’s own Peruvian lens that we are able to see Gastón’s relationship with Peru. She captures the essence of her country by looking at a man who lives in service to his nationality. We learn that Peruvian food is a language, and that the symbolism of Chef Gastón’s dream turns words into hope. As Brazilian restauranteur Alex Atala said, Gastón turns “cuisine into a social weapon.” Pérez’s documentary expresses that food can be a revolution where no lives are lost and everyone eats well. Pérez mesmerizes us with Gastón’s dream of a beautiful, vibrant world where a “land rich in mercury” brings true love to all.
For more information about the film, check out Buscando a Gastón’s website here.