Co-founder Leiti Hsu recently caught up with Peru's top chef Virgilio Martinez at the 2017 World's 50 Best Awards in Melbourne, where his restaurant Central was named fifth best in the world. They talked everything from rediscovering Peru's forgotten ingredients to what Martinez ate for school lunch as a kid.
Chef Virgilio Martinez's restaurant Central might be located in Lima's Miraflores district, but its heart is in the Andes. "What does it mean to live in the Amazon in connection with Mother Earth? That's the new message of Peruvian gastronomy, which is not actually a new message. They're themes that have been there for years and we haven't noticed until now."
Martinez is at the forefront of championing these themes. He helped found Mater initiative, which travels around Peru to rediscover forgotten indigenous ingredients and reincorporate them into contemporary Peruvian cuisine. Each weekend, you can find him and his team tramping through the Amazon or climbing in Cuzco to unearth these ingredients. Soon, he hopes to pen a workshop in Urubamba, near Cuzco, to make Mater a full-time endeavor.
"Ten years ago there was a boom of Peruvian gastronomy and people were opening Peruvian restaurants all over the world. It's now stopped, which is good because we get to work in a very internal way and try to understand what is Peru again."
Martinez himself has helped to push forward the global discussion on Peruvian cuisine. After training at Le Cordon Bleu in Ottawa and London, he worked at restaurants such as New York's Lutece. He moved back to Lima to open Central in 2008. Since then, the modern Peruvian restaurant has garnered accolades such as Best Restaurant in Latin America and number 5 Best Restaurant in the World, both from the World's 50 Best Restaurant awards. This success prompted Martinez to open Peruvian restaurants abroad, first with Michelin-starred Lima in London and then with an outpost in Dubai.
Despite his global ambitions, Martinez isn't concerned about his food losing its connection to Peru. It's ingrained into his style of cooking. At Central, he arranges the menu according to the growing altitude of ingredients. In a country where you have both arid plains and mountainous cities, the movement from low to high is crucial to the cuisine.
Because Peruvian cooking is so much more than ceviche. Although Martinez frequently ate it for dinner as a child (usually made with sole), he was just as likely to have the same tuna fish sandwiches with carrot sticks in his lunch box as American kids do. He's moved on from this, however, and prefers to start his day with an espresso shared with his wife and sous chef Pia.
While some chefs are obsessed with a sense of place, Martinez wants diners to experience a range of place. During dinner diners enjoy a tasting menu featuring dishes ranging from scallops and algae from southern Peru to suckling pig with high-altitude grass. Out of the roughly 180 ingredients used in the kitchen, Martinez estimates 50 percent of them are unknown. "These indigenous plants and seeds have a gastronomic use. They're known in the communities in the high altitudes of Peru, but cities are not familiar with them. They're our rediscoveries."
Martinez's eagerness to rediscover his homeland might stem from growing up in a bubble in Lima during the '70s and '80s. As he told Chef's Table, "we had no idea about the Andes, we had no idea about the Amazonia. I was actually forbidden to go there because of the terrorism, the economic situation. There was a lack of hope and I felt trapped."
Now, Martinez is breaking free. He's gearing up to relocate Central. The new space will be spread out over a single floor, allowing him to survey diners, cooks and a new garden from one spot. A range of altitudes might be essential on the plate, but wants the restaurant experiences to be even.