May 28, 2024

Not long after the Miami episode of Netflix’s hit show “’Street Food: USA” dropped, its Emmy-nominated director Mariano Carranza received an Instagram message. It was from Gastón Acurio, Peru’s preeminent chef-restaurateur of Astrid & Gastón fame, but Carranza thought it was a prank. It turned out to be the man himself. His request: “Could Carranza tell the story of his culinary school Pachacútec?” Thus began a collaboration that resulted in a moving documentary, “Pachacútec, the Improbable School,” that traces three former alumni and their journeys.   

Its trailer, unveiled exclusively in Variety, opens with a group of select students walking up a sandy path to what celebrated Catalan Chef Joan Roca of three-Michelin-Star El Celler de Can Roca describes as “an oasis of culinary knowledge in the middle of a desert.”

And the school is literally in the middle of a desert, on the outskirts of Lima. Founded by Acurio some 15 years ago to give underprivileged kids a chance to realize their dreams of becoming chefs, some 400 students have graduated from the school to date, many of them going on to become prominent figures in the culinary scenes of Peru and beyond. Some have worked at the current number one restaurant in the world, Lima-based Central, as well as at Astrid & Gastón and El Celler De Can Roca in Girona, Spain.

Screening as part of San Sebastian’s Culinary Zinema showcase on Sept. 27, “Pachacútec, the Improbable school” profiles and follows three alumni from the school — one based in Lima, one in San Francisco, California, and another in Luxembourg. 

It also features Chef Albert Adrià, brother of Ferrán Adrià (of the sadly shuttered El Bulli) who owns the fabulous Enigma in Barcelona, food writer Ignacio Medina, Karina Montes Bravo, head of the culinary school, and Roca, who voice their opinions on the school. “[These students] are convinced that their lives don’t have to be the same as the ones they have had so far,” noted Adrià.

“We interviewed around 30 former students and settled on these three who represented a good cross-section of the school’s alumni,” said Carranza, who has directed and produced original content focusing on food, travel, identity and culture for Vice, CNN’s A Great Big Story and Lonely Planet, among others.  

Jhosmery Caceres, a pastry chef at La Mar in San Francisco, speaks of the grinding poverty she experienced in the Lima district of San Martin de Porres where her family lived on $6 a day. Gerson Atalaya is the chef de cuisine at the prize-winning Luxembourg-based Kay Restaurant where his El Bulli and Central-inspired dishes have been rocking the rather staid food scene in Luxembourg. He loves to rap and was the black sheep of the family. Cooking saved his life, he admits.   

“I would not have been able to do this if someone had not extended a hand,” Caceres says of her culinary education. The same goes for Alan Larrea who runs his thriving Ceviche restaurant in Lima and had to borrow from his grandmother to pay the nominal tuition of some $30 a month. Even before enrolling, he had been devouring books and watching shows on gastronomy.  

“What started as an experiment has truly flourished,” said Carranza of the school. Asked what makes Peruvian cuisine so extraordinary that people flock from all over the world to savor it, Carranza mused: “Aside from the Spanish, African, Chinese and Japanese influences on its Indigenous cuisine, Peru has outstanding ingredients, the best seafood in the world,” he opined. “Peru is so geographically diverse that the variety of its ingredients makes its cuisine so special.”  

The mid-length doc was produced by Carranza’s Amigo Studio, Acurio Restaurantes and Pachacútec itself.

Pachacutec, the Improbable School
Courtesy of Mariano Carranza

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