Interview with Tony Custer
By Isabel Custer
Tony Custer is a Peruvian businessman and philanthropist, who currently heads the Corporación Custer as chairman and CEO, as well as The Fundación Aprendamos Juntos, and is author of the best-seller The Art of Peruvian Cuisine, volumes I and II. Custer is also Chair of the Advisory Council of the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies at Harvard, a director of the Youth Orchestra of the Americas in Washington DC., president of Peru′s Heritage-oriented Patronato Cultural del Perú.
“Risotto” is to Italy as “Causa” is to Peru.
Causa is a typical lunchtime dish in Peru. The base is a mashed potato puree that that can be filled like a casserole with any number of options, which were traditionally seafood.
There are dishes that are vehicles. Risotto is vehicle for vegetables, saffron or whatever you have in the fridge, whereas causa can just be a vehicle for huancaina sauce. Causa takes on whatever you want to put in it. For example, I imagined causa with pulpo al olivo for the first cookbook, and I saw it in a restaurant the other day, so it has made its way into popular culture.
Because of quarantine, people may be getting bored and imagining lots of new ways to eat. So what could be better than causa, a dish that has 1000 faces?
When I was a kid, causa always had sliced avocado and fish in mayo. In fact, we only realized how versatile it was in the late '90s. That’s when they invented causa with shrimp, which became the most popular one. The other two recipes in the first cookbook—with crab meat and octopus—I invented simply to make a point. Nowadays, they are using ingredients that are even more out there like purple potatoes and pallares, making maki out of causa. The possibilities are endless.
So how is your confinement going?
When I was a child, I had various periods, due to illnesses, where I spent huge amounts of time entertaining myself. Many of my creative projects are linked to some period where I couldn’t leave the house. The designing of boats is a direct result of being locked in.
I wrote my first children’s books when I was stuck in bed with salmonella. When I was finally able to sit, I thought that I should write a story for children who were stuck in bed like I was. I would write a few pages and then give them to my wife to read when she came home. She would laugh so I felt encouraged to go on. That is kind of my background to being comfortable with confinement.
Tell me about the genesis of the cookbook The Art of Peruvian Cuisine.
I moved to Paris when I was 22, and I had never cooked a single meal for myself until then. I went to a mini market down the street - Felix Potin - and bought a big can of cassoulet, which I love. I took it home and burnt it! I was very unhappy but I wasn’t going to go back into the street. So I thought: ‘This is ridiculous! I need to be able to feed myself.’ As I discovered cooking, I realized that it was the most interesting of all the arts because it covered all five senses.
As years went by, when people would say to me, “You’re from Peru!” and then they would say, “Cuzco!” and “Macchu Picchu!” I thought to myself, if I were French and people would only say “Eiffel Tower!” I would be annoyed too! I thought we need to talk more about other things. For years, I had the idea of making a book on Peru. In fact, I was torn between a book on Afro-Peruvian music and Peruvian food. Looking back, it seems obvious that the food was so much more important but at the time, both things were equally unknown.
The decisive moment came in September of 1999, when I visiting my daughter at her first year at NYU. I went to the cookbook section Barnes and Noble in Union Square and there wasn’t a single book on Peruvian cuisine! So, I went home to Peru to write the cookbook with the hope that it would interest people from abroad to come to visit Peru. The results were beyond my wildest imagination.
In what way did the impact of the book exceed expectations or surprise you?
The reactions from Peruvian people who tell me, even now: “Your book is the bible!” It really became the reference for people here as well as abroad. Beyond that, there are two things that I really never expected.
First, was that it became the tool for Peruvian chefs to get the word out about Peruvian cuisine before they started making their own cookbooks. Second, was that just instead of inciting people from abroad to discover Peruvian cuisine, it became the reference for Peruvians to cook their national dishes. I always thought that everyone knows how to make them, but no one did.
For me, design was always an integral part of whatever I was writing, and I worked very hard to make the pictures of the book catchy and unusual to attract people’s attention. Many people bought the book out of curiosity for the pictures.
In the 20 years since its first edition, there has been a great evolution of people’s perception of Peru and its cuisine.
When I was in college, you couldn’t find Japanese ingredients in a supermarket. Now you can find a whole aisle of ingredients from different countries. That’s one reason why I put the names of the dishes, because everyone’s learned “sushi” and “sashimi” but I wanted people to learn the names of dishes in the language of origin. When I was a kid in Lima, the Chinese dishes were in Cantonese. No one ever said, “chicken with this and that on top.” That’s why I want people to learn the names but also the story behind them.
One more result that I hoped for but wasn’t sure would happen was that the book became the mainstay for our foundation “Aprendamos Juntos.” We sold almost 108,000 books which financed our educational program in the most vulnerable areas of Lima for 20 years.
Yet, at the time, I was told that you can’t print more than 1,500 coffee table books because in Peru you would never sell them, even over a period of several years. I spent over $100K on the project and I thought I need to give that back to the foundation, so I paid for printing of 3,000 books.
Everyone said, “You’ll never get that money back,” but we did, and more than any other coffee table or art book in the history of Peru.
Graduated from NYU, La Sorbonne and Miami Ad School, Isabel Custer is a writer, director and musician currently living in Miami. Her debut album Girl with No Country is available on most streaming platforms. The music video she directed for her song Sau Sau, filmed on location in Easter Island, was selected at Santa Fe Film Festival 2020 and Los Angeles International Femme Film Festival 2019. Her sketch comedy series 100 Days of Barbie Bla Bla is available on Youtube on Saturday Morning Cartoons Channel. Her children’s book Mommy is Not an Octopus is forthcoming on iBookstore. @isabelisamused