Social Difference and Culinary Education in Peru


A review of The Taste of Distinction: Culinary Education and the Production of Social Difference in Lima, Peru, by Amy Lasater-Wille

The thesis illustrates how everyday culinary practices have both maintained and transformed social hierarchies in the wake of a period of massive internal migration to Lima, Peru. It argues that Peru’s gastronomy boom and culinary industries are at the center of social and political transformations that since the mid-1990s have shaped ideas about progress, citizenship and modernity through neoliberal reforms and narratives of multiculturalism that work to shape experiences of race and class. Drawing on participant observation in two culinary schools, semi-structured interviews with culinary students and instructors, and life history interviews of chefs, this thesis examines “the boom’s effect both on the landscape of economic opportunities for working-class internal migrants and on the embodied practices that these migrants are encouraged to adopt” (p. XVIII). The author shows how culinary schools are placed at “the center of several intertwining processes that have altered embodied practices and perceptions in Peru” and argues that “as these newly educated chefs and consumers interact in the marketplace, they subtly change ideas of cleanliness, citizenship, order, and leadership, values that in Peru have always been linked to race and embodied difference. In other words, the gastronomy boom has indeed coincided with a shift in how inequality is expressed and experienced in Peru” (p. 9-10).

Chapter one describes the historical context that informs current debates around social mobility, capitalism, and multiculturalism. It describes attitudes regarding race and migration and argues that concerns about informal vending in Lima and internal migration are deeply linked to those regarding Peru’s place in the global economy. Worries about Peru’s social and economic development seem to depend upon the eradication of informality and its association with a lower class-vivo behavior; that is, a form of craftiness associated with the use of semi legal and informal tactics in pursuit of one’s own self-interest. For Lasater-Wille, culinary practices and culinary industries work to articulate Limeños’s hope for a future that would celebrate Peruvian ingenuity and multiculturalism while restoring to new forms of social distinction, including taste, comportment, ideas of formality, and cleanliness. The author traces post-independence discourses of mestizaje and whiteness that were deeply connected to consumption practices and modes of being. For Laster-Wille, such discourses are deeply linked to current concerns about internal migration to Lima as immigrants are often defined as Indians and associated with the informal economy, such as street vendors and domestic service. For the author, the present-day gastronomy boom is partly a response to questions about the role of food preparation and preparers in Peru and how these questions are deeply entangled with the way people are categorized and subjugated.

Chapter two and three look at how the gastronomy boom addresses the anxieties of balancing standardization against pride in Peruvian ingenuity. Chapter two demonstrates that the gastronomy boom was not merely the results of the actions of a few celebrity chefs but instead was enabled by two major factors: the international emergence of the idea of culinary celebrity and the increasing value placed on entrepreneurship in Peru. For the author, these two factors promoted the notion that anyone in Peru could benefit from the formal economy. Through the description of the life and work of Peru’s most renowned chefs, Laster-Wille explores how celebrity chefs have profited from ideas that link the gastronomy boom with Peru’s social and economic change and future. The author shows how, since the 1990’s, chefs and restaurants have become emblematic of broader social processes that attempt to depart from the despair left by years of dictatorship and terrorism to flourish again through economic growth and neoliberalism.

Chapter three, “From Region to Nation,” offers a view into the role of celebrity chefs as political figures and gatekeepers to the promises of the gastronomy boom for Peru. The author explores the influence that member chefs of Apega, the Peruvian Gastronomy Society, have in determining which foods and restaurants deserve recognition in and outside Peru. Through a rich analysis of foods and dishes from different regions, the author problematizes the formation of Peruvian’s national cuisine and argues that some chefs have established an exclusive patronage system where a narrative of Peruvian food as inherently multicultural and as a ‘unifying force’ contrasts with a neglect of the role of migrants, everyday cooks, and foods and dishes from regions outside Peru’s capital.

The second part of the thesis illuminates the way in which narratives around the gastronomy boom in Peruvian society are deeply linked to notions of citizenship. In chapter four, the author looks at the way in which formal education articulates with particular behaviors and habits defined as requirements for success, social mobility, and membership within the community itself. Using Lave and Weger’s (1991) notion of “communities of practice” the author argues that gastronomy schools seem to work as a force to transform students from untrained migrants into cosmopolitan citizens. In the context of food preparation, even though individualized experience seems to be highly valued in the media, expertise and formal education have worked to reinforce old social hierarchies of race and class where only certain kinds of knowledge are legitimized.

Chapter 5, “The Presentation of the Chef in Everyday Life,” looks into the skills and behaviors that culinary school instructors promote. Shaped by the fear of informality and vivo demeanor, migrant students seem to go through a process of sanitation as they are transformed into potential entrepreneurs. A blend of ambition and restraint seem to allow the deployment of a “creative” personality that in discourse celebrates individuality and uniqueness while, ironically, working to make standardized foods and people for global acceptability. The author problematizes chefs’ perceptions of their own role as potential saviors through philanthropy and the promotion of certain national values and argues that a combination of Euro-American standards and Peruvian assumed character have become part of the social and embodied practices of culinary students through formal education. As instructors determine what vivo behaviors are to be allowed or even encouraged, marketable traits of leadership are constantly configured and renegotiated.

Chapters 6 and 7 illustrate how the ideals of hygiene and creativity are “mapped onto the body of the cook” (p. 48). Chapter 6, “Forming the Hygienic Chef,” looks into ideas about hygiene, notions of scientific objectivity and contamination and illustrates how these are deployed in the specific expert culture of culinary education. Ideas about hygiene converge with a desire to classify people into different categories and assumptions about both producers and consumers converge with “ideas of social hygiene and contamination in Peru [that] have long linked the concept of racial purity to cleanliness, a connection that casts supposedly hybrid people—market vendors, maids, migrants, and other people outside their native sensory milieus—as automatically worthy of suspicion” (p. 302-303). Thus, by internalizing hygienic habits, students themselves are transforming into different kinds of people and worthy Peruvian citizens.

Chapter 7, “Creating Tastes and Tasting Creatively,” explores the transformation of an individual sense of taste that draws on cook’s racial and biographical background to a “creative” sense of taste that accommodates to western standards and culinary styles. The author demonstrates the way in which students are expected to engage in performances of race and class that signal Peruvianness to the world and, simultaneously, display their professionalization through the standardized French culinary style.

This thesis is a theoretically-sound and insightful account of the construction of Peruvian national cuisine and the articulations between the gastronomy boom and broader social processes that seem to be resignifying social markers of race and class in Peru. The author takes the reader through the history of food in Peru and skillfully sets the social, political, and economic context that has enabled some chefs to be placed at the center of Peru’s gastronomy boom. At the same time, the thesis vividly illustrates the way formal education, through culinary schools, works to maintain social hierarchies in the country, albeit through new displays of power embodied by students and teachers.

Abril Saldaña-Tejeda
Departamento de Filosofía
Universidad de Guanajuato, Campus Guanajuato

Primary sources
Participant observation in two culinary schools
Semi-structured interviews with culinary students and instructors
Life history interviews of chefs

Dissertation Information
New York University. 2015. 410 pp. Primary Advisor: Thomas A. Abercrombie.

Image: photo by author.

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