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The Accidental Chef, Gustavo de Leon of Cusco, Peru

Gustavo de Leon, G.M/Executive Chef of the Monasterio Hotel in Cusco, Peru
Geeta Bansal

Evidently many disparate paths lead to the professional kitchen. Case in point, Gustavo de Leon, the G.M of the Monasterio Hotel in Cusco, Peru who also acts as the Executive Chef of the Orient Express property, its two restaurants, and the adjacent bakery/deli. This luxurious retreat situated in a 15th century abbey in the heart of the ancient city hosts numerous guests, including many celebrities en route to the wonder of Machu Pichu.

Leon is originally from Uruguay and moved with his family to Argentina. His career brought him to Peru where he lives now. Prior to moving to Cusco, Leon was at Machu Pichu where besides his managers responsibilities at the 'Sanctuary Lodge' he also managed the local organic agricultural training center. Leon's very unusual life journey and his genuine passion for food, wine and people has placed him in a very unique position where he wears a chef hat over his GM's attire. The hotel is undoubtedly a high end operation, but Leon has connected it to the local community through outreach programs.

During several conversations Leon answered some questions:

You have taken the unusual step of overseeing the kitchen at Monasterio along with your other duties as the GM. How did that come about?

Traditionally the Hotel Monasterio had a German, French, or Argentinean chef. When I arrived in June 2012 I did not have a chef in place and I decided to give the opportunity to the sous chefs Jorge and Ana Maria to run the kitchen with me overseeing them. Our menu offers our guests classic recipes from France, Italy, Spain, and of course Peru with respect for the product, its origin, sourcing locally with commitment to Fair Trade.

How did you learn so much about the kitchen?

Initially in Uruguay I worked in an American restaurant, followed by 15 years with French chef Jean Paul Bondoux. His restaurant "La Bourgogne" in Punta del Este in Uruguay served a specialized French cuisine based on natural and fresh products from his own farm. I lived for several seasons next to the dairy with seven Jersey cows and every day I carried the fresh milk, homemade cheese, and fresh vegetables to the restaurant. I then accompanied him to Buenos Aires, Argentina for the start up of “La Bourgogne" restaurant in 1993. I have lived and worked and learnt from numerous cooks, pastry, and bakery chefs from France, many from Michelin-starred operations.

After an extensive time in the French kitchen I encountered the traditional Spanish cuisine while working in "Oviedo Restaurant" in Buenos Aires. The owner Emilio Garip sent his chefs every year to train with the best Spanish Chefs like Pedro Subijama, Juan Mari Arzak, Ferran Adria, etc. In my 25 years in this industry I have learned a lot from my employers and co-workers and can take pride in having worked through all the possible positions like logistics, human resources, maintenance, service, steward, cook, waiter assistant, waiter, Maitre de salon, Restaurant Manager, Restaurant Director, Hotel Resident Manager and finally Hotel General Manager.

When did you first cook for hotel guests?

I was General Manager for two hotels in Santa Cruz Patagonia, Argentina between 2005 and 2007. With 120 rooms, the restaurant served 80 covers daily. One night after service, the chef, two sous chefs and pastry chef quit without notice. Suddenly all the responsibility of the kitchen and the restaurant depended on solely my abilities.

The saving grace was that having created the menu, I knew the ingredients and the preparation of dishes but I had never cooked for more than a few people. The first day I woke up 4 am and began the mise en place for the service with only one intern beside me. Very nervous and anxious, I cooked for 62 covers that night without guests realizing the problem I faced in the kitchen. This situation lasted 15 days and in retrospect I am very glad to have lived this experience.

What are your most important memories from the day you hosted celebrated chefs Ferran Adria and Gaston Acurio at Sanctuary Lodge in Machu Pichu?

What I value most from that visit is the camaraderie and pride with which the Lodge brigade co operated to honor one of the greatest chefs in the world. The most important thing was the positive energy that was created in the kitchen and that will remain forever in all our memories.

When I heard that Ferran Adria and Gaston Acurio were to visit Machu Pichu and have lunch at the Sanctuary Lodge (an Orient Express property at the gates of Machu Pichu) I wanted to show them our best gastronomic proposal. Of course I did not put any molecular options but created a very interesting menu.

What was it like living in a locale 364 days a year that most people are fortunate if they visit it once in their lifetime?

My wife and I having lived for seven years at Machu Pichu feel we are blessed to have had the opportunity to live in one of the Seven Wonders of the World. There were full moon nights when after the exodus of guests at 5pm we experienced the wonder in a full moon night and felt the energy of the wonder that the Incas built. You cannot put a price on an experience like this.

What are your favorite products that you like to incorporate in your menus?

In Cusco I love the variety of potatoes, peppers, fava beans, corn and cereals like quinoa and kiwicha, exotic fruits from the rainforest. In the Argentinean Patagonia I loved to work with black face lamb, deer, hare, trout, wild mushrooms, cheeses, etc, while in Uruguay the meats are fantastic.

How is the Monasterio Hotel involved in the local community?

We have a defined commitment to help communities near Cusco especially producers of Andean potatoes. We promote the Fair Trade and respect the market prices for the goods but avoid dealing with intermediaries.

We work with a girl’s orphanage in Lamay in the Sacred Valley by buying their handmade pottery and textiles for sale to our guests. There is a legend on our menus that allows our guests to donate one dollar to different nursing, children's and senior homes that we support in Cusco under the management of nuns. Every 3 months revenues are distributed among the different support centers.

What are the most important aspects to maintaining your excellent service?

My philosophy is to host guests as if the hotel were your own home, the relationship is very natural and you can help to convert a simple trip into a memorable experience.

I believe in morale and team building with daily training. Fortunately 30% of the staff has been working with me since 2008 and sometimes I feel like a school teacher with no secrets. I enjoy sharing my knowledge and if somebody grows professionally under my leadership I am happy for them.

The most important thing in my job is to be prepared and to react in calmly in unexpected situations, and fortunately there is no time to be bored.