Danny Kou, the executive chef at La Mar, an upscale Peruvian restaurant in San Francisco, says it’s a good time to be him.
Kou moved from Lima to the United States when he was 21. It was 2001, and back then, Peruvian cuisine was still unfamiliar in North America.
But in the last few years, there ‘s been an explosion of Peruvian restaurants in major cities all over the U.S. Last year, the American Restaurant Association named the cuisine a top food trend.
“I’ll tell you, nowadays, every week or two, people come to me. They want to give me money to start another Peruvian restaurant,” Kou says, with a chuckle. “I keep having to tell them, ‘No, thank you, I am very happy where I am.’ ”
Kou says there’s a simple explanation for why Peruvian cuisine has become so trendy: “It’s just very, very good.”
True, but it’s also more complicated than that. Over the past decade, the Peruvian government has been making a very deliberate effort to popularize its cuisine worldwide. It’s a strategy that a growing number of middle-income countries are adopting as they look to flex their muscles on the international stage.
“Think – if you’re Peru, Mexico or Korea, you are not going to be major nuclear proliferators,” says Johanna Mendelson-Forman, a policy expert on international conflict. “But maybe you can hope to become the world’s No. 1 culinary destination.”
Peru’s dive into culinary diplomacy includes partnerships with the country’s top culinary minds, such as international superstar chef Gaston Acurio, and food producers to promote Peruvian products like quinoa and pisco – a type of South American brandy.
In 2006, the country’s Export and Tourism Promotion Board launched a campaign called “Peru Mucho Gusto” — a play on words that can mean “Peru, nice to meet you” and “Peru, full of flavor.” The campaign has funded cookbooks, staged high-profile food festivals at home and abroad, and recognized exemplary Peruvian restaurants around the world.
And in 2011, the Organization of American States officially designated Peruvian food as part of the “cultural heritage of the Americas. Now the government is lobbying to win similar recognition from UNESCO as well.
Other countries are trying different approaches to gaining gastro-prestige. You might remember that last year, Thailand built a robot to help critique and quality-control Thai food overseas.
South Korea has sometimes gotten a little too eager with its food messaging – which has included campaigns suggesting that eating Korean food increases sperm count and a series of bizarre advertisements.
Mexico and Taiwan have recently made efforts to raise their gastronomic profiles as well – promoting their cuisines at international food fairs, and launching campaigns to educate the world about their culinary traditions. Mexican cuisine won UNESCO recognition in 2010.
The strategy — which academics like to call “culinary nation branding” — was a topic of discussion this week during a conference on gastrodiplomacy at American University.
And it seems the approach really does work. According to the Peruvian embassy, 40 percent of all tourism to Peru in 2013 was motivated primarily by food. Gastronomic tourism generated about $700 million that year, the embassy says.
“The promotion of our cuisine is one way to promote our country,” says Adriana Velarde, the head of public diplomacy at the Peruvian embassy in Washington, D.C.
It is also a way to change the conversation about a nation with a troubled past.
“Before, when people talked about Peru, they talked about terrorism,” Velarde says – referencing the Shining Path, or Sendero Luminoso. For nearly 20 years, the Maoist group led a campaign of bombings, assassinations and beheadings across the country — including a dramatic hostage standoff at the Japanese embassy in Lima that was televised around the world.
But as the Shining Path’s influence waned by the early 2000s, Peru turned to its cuisine to tempt tourists to visit, and to redefine how the rest of the world sees it.
“We want our country to have a place in the international spotlight,” Velarde says. “And one thing that sets us apart is our delicious food.”