The culinary force on respectfully tapping our natural world
Chef Pedro Miguel Schiaffino is animated as he talks about the unconditional link between the quality of his ingredients, many from the Amazon, and the sustainable way they are produced. “We have to change the agricultural model. The Amazon fits into that perfectly because it is not intensive farming,” he says as staff rush around him, readying lunch at Malabar, his flagship restaurant in Lima, Peru. “It is an enormous space, the size of Australia, and the agriculture there can be small-scale and with incredible diversity. The Amazon’s natural pantry is the future.”
One of the handful of chefs who have spearheaded his country’s culinary boom of the last decade, Schiaffino has established a reputation for forging haute cuisine out of rainforest staples, often in staggeringly creative ways. He personally scours Peru’s most remote corners for new ideas and frequently visits the Amazon, where he has established long-term relationships with his suppliers. They range from artisanal fishermen to indigenous communities that grow everything from cassava to ají negro, a black chili pepper found only in the jungle.
“It’s not just environmentally sustainable, but also socially sustainable,” says Schiaffino. “You are giving a new value to a culture that is under pressure, and by doing that you are helping to preserve standing forest and water resources.” For his customers, this has meant unique gastronomic experiences like tiradito, the Peruvian fish carpaccio influenced by Japanese immigrants, dressed with masato, a fermented cassava juice beloved by Amazonian natives.
Another dish on the menu is paiche, one of the world’s largest freshwater fish, prized for its mild, white meat, with some specimens weighing in at well over 400 pounds. But overfishing has depleted its population, making paiche increasingly difficult to find. After initially dropping it from his repertoire over concerns for the species’ survival, Schiaffino found a responsible way to serve it. “When we cut it, it cost us. We lost customers,” he says. “But if a product is at risk, or we don’t know the value chain or the production chain or where it’s from, we don’t use it. It’s that simple.” Now, he sources his paiche from community-based producers who carefully calibrate how many will be harvested each year.
After Malabar’s success—it’s regularly ranked in the Latin American division of the prestigious San Pellegrino’s annual 50 best restaurants—he opened a second eatery, Ámaz, focused solely on Amazonian cuisine. He also runs a catering company, Schiaffino Gastronómica, and lends his expertise and influence on the practice of responsible sourcing to others within Peru’s culinary industry. On the day I visit him in Malabar, he has spent the morning conducting a master class for the winners of the Ministry of Production’s annual award for artisanal fishermen-chefs in the Amazon.
For Schiaffino, the narrative that connects his diners with his suppliers, often some of Peru’s most far-flung and impoverished communities, is fundamental. It revolves around a shared interest in sustaining the natural systems that produce the ingredients he uses in his kitchen and in a commitment to living a good life. “Happiness, having a good time, eating well, but also generating well-being, that’s the whole point,” he says. “Everything we do has an impact, and you simply need to be aware of how what you do in your kitchen affects your city, your community, your country.”