Celebrity Chefs See Local Solutions to Hunger on CARE Learning Tour of Peru

Celebrity Chefs See Local Solutions to Hunger on CARE Learning Tour of Peru

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Spike Mendelsohn, Asha Gomez, Mike Isabella, and Victor Albisu get a taste of lives transformed  

AYACUCHO, Peru — Renowned chefs Spike Mendelsohn, Asha Gomez, Mike Isabella and Victor Albisu joined the global poverty-fighting organization CARE on a Learning Tour of Peru last week to see CARE’s successful efforts to reduce hunger and malnutrition. The chefs witnessed how investments in sustainable agriculture, women’s empowerment and better nutrition are paying off with higher incomes and improved family health. The hands-on tour also gave them a chance to feel, hear and taste the progress too.

Highlights included:

  • Top Chef and Iron Chef alum Spike Mendelsohn spent a day on a native potato farm — with hoe in hand — to learn how CARE is empowering local farmers.
  • Rural women who started businesses through a CARE microfinance program taught Top Chef alum Mike Isabella how to prepare guinea pig, a traditional dish and high-protein meat used to fight anemia and malnutrition in Peru.
  • Atlanta chef Asha Gomez said chefs can be global ambassadors on critical issues such as hunger and malnutrition; “Chefs can have an incredible impact,” she said. “We don’t just change menus. We change minds.”
  • Chef Victor Albisu, whose mother is from the Peruvian capital Lima, chatted with quinoa farmers in their fields to learn how they’re reenergizing cultivation of this native, protein-rich grain, improving nutrition and incomes in the process.
  • Facts: 842 million people don’t have enough food to eat and nearly 2 million people are malnourished. Hunger and malnutrition remain the number one risk to global health, killing more than AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined.

The chefs started by travelling high into the Andes around the city of Ayacucho to learn about a budding alliance between native potato farmers and restaurateurs in Lima. After receiving seeds and agricultural training from CARE, farmers banded together to provide a steady supply of the long-ignored native potatoes to the country’s finest restaurants. The result: incomes have soared and malnutrition has waned in a region whose farming traditions were left to rot during the conflict between the government and Shining Path terrorists.

The chefs got their hands dirty during the visit, mounding dirt onto the base of the potato plants. Mendelsohn, a Top Chef and Iron Chef competitor who owns Good Stuff Eatery, We, The Pizza and Béarnaise in Washington, D.C., furiously pounded a hoe into the rich soil, trying to keep up with one of the field hands as the others cheered. “I could never be a farmer,” Mendelsohn said, out of breath and admiring the wide expanse of potato farms in the valley. “They work so much harder that we do. What they’ve done here is really impressive.”

The group joined local farmers in a traditional offering to Pacha Mama, or Mother Earth, and sampled the native potatoes, which come in a variety of colors and sizes and carry names such as “Sangre Toro,” of “Bull’s Blood.” Asha Gomez, owner of Cardamom Hill in Atlanta, marveled at the role legendary Peruvian chef Gastón Acurio and others in the country’s culinary community have played in Peru’s native potato revival. They’ve created reliable demand for native potatoes in restaurants and used their influence to make the yellow, red and purple potatoes coveted in the kitchens of everyday Peruvians. “Chefs can have an incredible impact,” Gomez said. “We don’t just change menus. We change minds.”

The chefs also met farmers who have re-embraced native quinoa grains that are soaring in popularity around the world. With CARE’s help, the farmers have tapped into local and international markets. And now that families in the mountain communities are eating far more nutrient-rich quinoa, their health is improving too.

Hunger and malnutrition remain the number one risk to global health, killing more people than AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined. Globally, 842 million people don’t have enough food to eat and nearly 2 million people are malnourished.

Malnutrition in the Peruvian highlands, like many places around the world, is typically the result of not having the right mix of nutritious foods. Iron, for instance, is often lacking in the diets of young children. The chefs saw how people in the village of Guayacondo teamed up with groups like CARE to identify which children are struggling. Community leaders worked with families to improve children’s nutrition before the age of two — a period critical for overall, lifetime development. Malnutrition rates in that age group plummeted from more than 80 percent in 2010 to less than 25 percent now.

The chefs also met inspirational women who have helped reduce malnutrition by raising guinea pigs that provide a stable source of protein and income for their families. Marciana Canchari Enciso, 56, has lived in dire poverty much of her life. She tried to save money, but her efforts were dashed time after time, by an abusive husband or a sudden sickness in the family. The chefs learned how Marciana joined a CARE program that organized women into small groups, gave them loans of $100 and taught them how to raise guinea pigs, a local delicacy. It was the turning point for Mariciana, who grew the guinea pig business and, along with other women in the groups, started selling wholesale to local restaurants. “It’s incredible what she’s done with just $100,” said Isabella, also a Top Chef competitor. “It makes you think about how far just a little bit of help can go.”

Marciana showed the group how to fry guinea pig, or cuy, at her home, whose yard is now a beautiful oasis of flowers and fruit trees. Isabella learned how to use a giant rock to grind mint-like huacatay into a paste in the back yard. “This is like old-world cooking,” said Isabella, owner of Graffiato, Kapnos and G restaurants in Washington, D.C. “It’s a lost art.”

To see the food, where it comes from, where it grows and how it makes a trajectory to your plate has been intense.

- Victor Albisu 

The chefs inhaled the sights and smells at meat and produce markets in Ayacucho and Lima, buying up native spices, fruits and vegetables with the help of Jimbo Echeverria, winner of Master Chef Peru. They used some of the ingredients at Le Cordon Bleu Institute in Lima, where the group cooked and traded tips with some of Peru’s top chefs and culinary students. A feast and panel discussion followed. The experience was a return of sorts for Albisu, who studied at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and whose mother is originally from Peru. Albisu, owner of Del Campo and Taco Bamba restaurants in the Washington, D.C. area, said he was struck by how different living standards are in Lima and the remote Andes.

“The experience in totality has been incredible for us,” said Albisu. “To see the food, where it comes from, where it grows and how it makes a trajectory to your plate has been intense.”


Founded in 1945 with the creation of the CARE Package®, CARE is a leading humanitarian organization fighting global poverty. CARE places special focus on working alongside poor girls and women because, equipped with the proper resources, they have the power to lift whole families and entire communities out of poverty. Our six decades of experience show that when you empower a girl or woman, she becomes a catalyst, creating ripples of positive change that lift up everyone around her. Last year CARE worked in 84 countries and reached more than 83 million people around the world. To learn more, visit www.care.org.


Nicole Harris, 404-735-0871, nharris@care.org; Stephanie Chen, 404-819-6638, schen@care.org.


Chefs visit a market and work with Le Cordon Bleu culinary instructors to prepare Peruvian dishes at the school in Lima during a food and nutrition focused tour with CARE on January 30, 2014. Chefs on the tour include Asha Gomez of Atlanta, Mike Isabella of Washington DC, Spike Mendelsohn of Washington DC, Victor Albisu of Washington DC, and Jimbo Echevarria of Arequipa, Peru. 
CARE Photo by Erin Lubin