The word ‘icon’ can be bandied around freely for men and women at the top of an industry, but rarely has it been more appropriate than when applied to Pedro Miguel Schiaffino, the winner of the American Express Icon Award 2019. Part chef, part humanitarian, part conservationist and part anthropological researcher, Schiaffino has devoted a lifetime to maintaining and promoting the historic ecosystems of the Amazon.
While Peruvian and Nikkei cuisines have enjoyed a recent global boom, the food of the Amazon rainforest, which makes up two-thirds of the country, is still largely undiscovered. Pedro Miguel Schiaffino is trying to change that. Through more than a decade of work with indigenous communities, the chef has developed projects to help re-value the region’s much-overlooked gastronomic culture, making an icon of himself in the process.
Growing up in the 80s when it wasn’t considered safe to travel to Peru’s interior, Schiaffino’s plan was to travel abroad before returning to Lima to open a restaurant. He studied at the Culinary Institute of America in New York and the Italian Culinary Institute for Foreigners and worked at Italian restaurants including Dal Pescatore. But his plans changed in his late 20s when he first travelled to the Amazon, discovering ingredients he’d never eaten before like ají dulce, cupuazú fruit and paiche fish. He fell in love with the region and never looked back.
Schiaffino made his name with his fine dining restaurant Malabar, which he opened in 2004, serving elegant Peruvian cuisine from rare products sourced from the Amazon to the Andes. But it is Ámaz, which opened in 2012 and now has two locations, that really reflects his dedication to jungle cuisine, serving up large Amazonian river snails and staples like juane, a package of chicken and rice wrapped in bijao leaves.
Now, through his not-for-profit, Despensa Amazónica, Schiaffino helps conserve the rainforest by introducing Amazonian produce and techniques to the Peruvian capital via his restaurants and catering company. His projects have helped reverse the effects of overfishing and allowed indigenous communities to make a living from their native produce. In the village of Pucaurquillo, local women turn poisonous yucca into umami-rich black sauce, which the chef then sells through Schiaffino Gastronómica, creating a valuable income source for the village.
As he develops more and more ambitious projects across the Amazon, like recovering a forgotten probiotic food called bichak, Schiaffino is inviting more young Peruvian chefs to join the cause. He hopes that by connecting Lima’s cooks with communities, he can help save centuries of ancestral gastronomic knowledge that might otherwise disappear. While Gastón Acurio helped put Peruvian cuisine on the world map, Schiaffino is an ambassador for the Amazon, a vital resource for South America’s future.
Get to know Schiaffino and learn more about the historic Amazonian communities he strives to protect: