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PACHACUTEC, Peru (Reuters Life!) - In a tucked away neighborhood in a dirt poor part north of Lima, Peru's capital, a school started by an elite chef is training students from humble backgrounds in the skilled art of Peruvian cuisine.
Like its economy, Peru's culinary community is exploding, and chef Gaston Acurio says people from all walks of life should have a chance to take part.
"On the one hand, we have a booming food culture ... and on the other hand, we have youth without opportunity. The school is meant to bring the two hands together," said Acurio, who runs the school and dozens of successful restaurants all over the world.
Though trained in Spain and France, Acurio is best known inside Peru for combining classic European techniques with typical ingredients in the Andean country, and for telling Peruvians their cuisine is world-class. Plates in his restaurants reflect the country's desert coast, frigid mountains and sweltering jungle, while appealing to people with different size wallets.
Students at the cooking school in Pachacutec are encouraged to experiment while being taught to make the classics.
"For us, it is the best school in Peru. The cooks that will graduate from here already have contracts with the best restaurants. They are fighting over students," Acurio told Reuters at a food festival in Lima this week.
His top-end flagship restaurant is Astrid y Gaston, now with branches in Lima, Santiago, Caracas, Bogota, Quito and Madrid. Acurio has two middle-range chains, Tanta, an urban classic, and La Mar, a ceviche restaurant with kitchens in Lima, Mexico City, Santiago and soon, in San Francisco. And he has a fast-food chain called Pasquale Hermanos, which serves criollo dishes like fried pork skin on bread.
Students at the school pay roughly 60 soles ($20.20) a month to attend classes taught by some of the country's most prominent chefs. Private companies also make contributions and students, like Cesar Raul Toribio, help clean to cut costs.
Toribio lives near the school and pays for his classes by hopping on public buses to play music and ask for donations.
He spoke as his teacher poured over the texture of his causa -- a typical Peruvian dish made from mashed potatoes, aji pepper, lime, vegetables and fish.
"My idea is to work five years at a good restaurant where I can learn and gain enough experience to be able to open my own place," Toribio said.
Writing by Dana Ford; Editing by Terry Wade and Patricia Reaney