By Patrick HiegerYou may not have yet heard of Mauricio Acuña or the growing offer of Ecuadorian cuisine. If Acuña has anything to say about it, though, you’ll be hearing from him soon. Trained in Spain and France and now back home working with his family, Acuña is responsible for Ecuador’s national gastronomy festival, Latitud Cero. Last year, chefs from all over the world, including Rodolfo Guzmá, Virgilio Martínez, and even Joan Roca headed to the festival to talk about their kitchens, and to give Ecuador a reason to keep pushing ahead. I had the chance to talk with Acuña a little more about his past, his present, and his strong-looking future. Read up, and get inspired.
So, to start, tell me a little bit more about your history. I know that you lived for a while in Spain and that now you’re back living in Ecuador. How did you end up in Spain, and why did you move back home?
Well, after working in the family business with my mom from the time I was 12, I went to university to study hotel administration because in [Ecuador] there were no cooking schools. I continued working with my mother in her traditional kitchen. She taught me everything about classic cooking in my country and, above all, love for your raw products. Afterwards, I had the chance to head to hotel and hospitality school in Seville, Spain. Over the course of four years I became a cook, just as Spanish cooking was evolving, and so I stayed. I started at the Cenador de Salvador en Madrid, which had one Michelin Star, and high-end cuisine where refined French technique was the menu’s common denominator. Salvador Gallego is technically one of the greats from Spain, and he gave me the opportunity to work with Martín Berasategui, which was a complete change to the evolution of the new Basque cuisine and a marvelous region that changed my perspective on being a cook. San Sebastián gets in your skin. It was a hard season but, with a lot of effort, I entered the game.
Martín got in touch with various restaurants in France so I could continue my apprenticeship, and I landed in Paris at L’Regalade together with Ives Candeborde, the creator of the ‘Gastrobistro’ movement, which is a brutal discipline and market. 12 intense hours per day of scratch cooking with modern techniques turn you into a perfect machine. Damn, the French are tough. I spent my vacation at L’Asperge, which is on another level. When I returned to Spain with a girlfriend (now my wife Cristina Ceresuela), I was offered the chance to become part of the head team of the El Bullí hotel together with Marc Cuspinera and other similar talents, and without thinking about it I joined. It was crazy. Unheard of plates. It was great, the best moment inside of a kitchen, and even though we were different from el Bullí we were a group with the same plates.
At the same time I came to Ecuador to visit family and on one of those trips we decided to join my parents’ business and start a small hotel with a restaurant called Tourblanche. In 2006, along with my friend Francisco Bononato, we came up with the idea to start a business specialized in culinary services, and so Espai-Epicur was born. We’ve been developing products for private companies in Spain and Ecuador. Our projects in Madrid include El Escaparate, a tapas bar with that abides by the km 0 philosophy, using denomination of origin products, our teaching, with a simple but refined cuisine.
So now you have the hotel and restaurant with your family.
Yes, Tourblanche and Casa Alta (our next opening), which are our projects in Ecuador. They’re two small hotels with a focus on quality. Both have restaurants. The restaurant Salnes has been open for seven years. More than a restaurant it’s a ‘house of food,’ which, even though it’s in a hotel, maintains its own vibe. We focus on my mother’s cooking and a goof life.
Tell me a little bit more about the food you serve at Salnes. Is it modern Ecuadorian?
They’re the best recipes from my mother’s repertoire. We don’t have a menu. We make four dishes per day, and there are always soups. In our workshop we cook updated cuisine where, with private groups, we do live cooking events which are previews of the upcoming restaurant.
When we spoke at Tambo you said you were working on a new restaurant. So that’s happening?
Right now we’re in the phase of looking for the right location. We have the concept and the funding. The name is secret.
Let’s talk about Ecuador. What’s the food like? What are some of the classic dishes?
Our food is worth trying. We’re a country of the spoon–in every part of this small kingdon you’ll find soups of all kinds and for everyone. They’re our common denominator. Fusion with our roots is latent throughout the country. We have coconut stews in Esmeraldas in the North. We have stews in the center of the country. One of the best is Yaguar Locro (with sheep’s blood). On the coast in the south we have ‘encebollado’, a tuna soup that we eat for breakfast or for a hangover. We have a lot in common with the region, as you know, but the big differences have to be tasted by coming to Ecuador.
Do you think Ecuador can rise and become a force in South American gastronomy, or in the world?
Without a doubt. And to do that, you have to work, but I think we’re in the right moment for it.
What are some of the challenges you find in promoting Ecuador and its food?
One of the problems is the identity of the cooks who have been heavily influenced by the outside. We have to work on self esteem and the knowledge of what’s ours and our products. We’ve been undermined by a profession full of egocentrics that have done a lot of harm to young cooks and continue to do so. They haven’t had a real concept and have created projects that fail because of their lack of seriousness. We have a lot more culinary schools than medical schools but that hasn’t improved the problem. Graduates don’t have the right skills and at the schools they’re focused on creating managers and not cooks. Our indigenous products remain in the country because there’s no demand for them; our cities are plagued with fast food and other ‘foreign’ offers and, as I mentioned before, cooks haven’t put value on our national products. In Ecuador we write more cookbooks than anywhere else in the world, but for nothing. Those are the immediate challenges.
Latitud Cero. How many years have you been holding the conference? How and why did it start?
This is our national project. This will be our third edition. We’re young, but we’re focused on making sure that Ecuador has a high-quality academic offering. We have a lot fewer guests than the other festivals / conferences, so one of our motivations is that they share as much with people here as they can. Over the course of three days, we have three forums, in which we ask guests to talk about their past, their evolution, and their future. I’ve never liked congresses where you see a cook or chef making a plate and that’s it. Joan Roca encouraged us to continue with this more inclusive model. Our festival is more for sharing, and otherwise we have a market with growers from all regions talking about their challenges and presenting products that a lot of people didn’t even know existed. We work with a group of growers and La Pacha Mama.
When’s the next edition and what can we expect this year?
We’ll do it this year like we have in the past, from October 1 to 5. This year we’ve aligned with a fair offering high quality products that are leaving for export, like our chocolates, coffee, avocado oil, jellies, liquors, and so on. This year our focus will be on the product and the producer–100% Ecuadorian products. We’re still confirming the guest, but I’ll tell you that with the union of all the Latin American events the focus will be regional. We’re part of the group SALSA, which brings together the South American culinary world. We’re planning to reinforce this.
When you go out to eat, what are some of your favorite restaurants?
I always look for holes in the wall serving national dishes. Our restaurant market is still developing. I love eating at Patria in Quito, run by Enrique Sampere. Las Tanuzas Manabi by Rodrigo Pacheco. Ivan Grain at Marrecife in Guayaquil. But always our national flavors.
And, just curious–do you miss Spain?
Yes, a lot. 20 years is a long time, but we go back as often as we can to see friends and family, and because their food is amazing.