A Michelin star to his name and a restaurant ranked fourth in the world (World’s 50 Best), young chef Virgilio Martinez of Central and LIMA is spearheading the movement that is pushing Peruvian cuisine further into the culinary space. After 7 successful years perched in Lima, Peru, Central will be moving to Cusco. Discover the essence of Peruvian cuisine, what goes on beyond the kitchen at Central, and why the move for the restaurant from Lima to Cusco is a must for Virgilio.
Located in Lima, Peru, restaurant Central offers up a 17-course menu – each course highlighting a unique altitude of Peru. Dedicated to showcasing the diversity of the landscape, Virgilio reaches far beyond the confines of his restaurant, its kitchen, and the tables at which patrons are served. He is reaching into the depths of Peru – whether it be the Pacific, the Amazon, or the Andes – and bringing it all back to the table.
Through the help of Mater Iniciativa – a cultural and biological diversity research project he set up with his sister – Virgilio and his team venture into the expansive (and often dangerous) scape, building relationships with and learning ancient techniques from the natives and bring back new ingredients and knowledge to the restaurant. Join us now as we dive into the complexity of Virgilio’s homeland and learn more about his philosophy.
Please, tell us about your childhood and growing up.
My childhood was normal. I think I was a bit disorganized and more related to sports and arts. I was skateboarding and surfing every time I could. I enjoyed the vacations at the beach. I have one brother and two sisters. We are very attached and used to travel a lot when we were very little. I had the chance to know different cultures that helped me to know and understand. Helped me a lot to cook. This is what I do now, so I am still doing what I used to do. I’m very attached to my mother. She is an architect – that’s why I probably wanted to be an architect all of my life.
I got into the kitchen, because the idea of traveling was important and cooking gives you the opportunity of traveling.
What are some of your fondest or earliest memories involving food?
In my childhood, ceviche was important. We used to eat ceviche 4 times a week – we lived by the sea, so this was very normal. When I was little, I used to speak to fishermen. I loved to be involved in all of the process – going to the market to get the fish and all the preparation. To get in touch with the people is important.
What is important to know or understand about Peruvian cuisine and culture? What is the essence of Peruvian cuisine to you?
Peruvian cuisine is all about diversity and how many things we don’t know. All the unknown things we have to discover; what’s in our territory. Second thing is the melting pot. We had years of fusion in a natural way since the Inca civilization, Spanish conquest, and the Italian immigrants, the Japanese, Chinese, and also African immigrants. They stay together, and we are the mix of these cultures. Peruvian cuisine is the blend of these. We are very diverse in the proposal. We have Nikkei (Japanese-Peruvian cuisine), Chifa (Chinese-Peruvian cuisine), Cevicheria, Amazonic, and Andean Cuisine. These are also related to diversity.
When I was talking about [the first point] – we have the coast, the Andes, and the Amazonia. Here, we have the variety of ecosystems and regions. Here, we are not so far – you can be in the coast surfing one morning in the afternoon in the Andes and cross to the Amazonia and be in the jungle. Experiencing all of these ecosystems are just amazing and are some of the things we have to look after.
Get the recipe for Mussels and Lettuce here.
I think that a third element is that we have a sense of pride in terms of gastronomy. It’s not a trend. These have been [true] for years. I see in some places this is a trend. This is real for us. We preserve our products and it is important – the way we see food. Food has always been important for us…The world is looking for new things, and Peru has a lot to offer. What’s more than its food is the culture. You can experience that and see it easily. Raw ingredients and producers have been part of the experience and our life.
The essence of Peruvian cuisine is flavor, taste, and biodiversity.
What is your philosophy when it comes to your plating and cuisine?
What we do is try to explore our country – the regions, the altitudes, and the ecosystems. The specific altitude was created so, and there we have to communicate what we have experienced in terms of ethic, aesthetic, landscape, people, and many other things to inspire us to create a new cuisine for us. This is new for us, because we are using new ingredients that are new for us. We are rediscovering. These products have been there in the Andes and the Amazon. That’s why we need to have some time to go and explore, get the knowledge, and bring it to the kitchen.
When is the big move to Cusco?
That’s taking a while for us, as the project is becoming more complex. I’m expecting it to happen in two years. We have the place already. What we are doing in Central…it’s about the experience of the ecosystems and the altitudes. We want the customers to have the whole experience on the way to the restaurant – to see the oca producers, where we get the corn, the cacao, and the coffee. It’s the whole idea of cooking from scratch. Experiencing the harvest.
It’s a complex project, because we need more people to be part of this – not only to cook – but to get more disciplines involved. It takes some time to do all of this. We want to transmit what is happening in the soil, the Andean and Amazonian vision – this is very difficult to achieve.
We were working on this for more than 4 years and are very committed to transmit that. Now, the time and place will be Cusco. This is good, because it will give us time to keep working.
What do you have planned for the new Central?
Central has evolved a lot in these past 7 years – years of hard work and craziness, no holidays, no time to think about what’s next. We need time to reflect and stop to understand why we are evolving so much. That’s why it’s important to move physically. The space has to change, because we are evolving, we are meeting new places, new people, and ingredients from our own regions. That’s the best way to experience what we want to achieve.
We are making changes in the restaurant, the kitchen – everything is part of the evolution, not only in being creative. New spaces have to come soon. We have Mater Iniciativa working with Central. We need a place that allows communication. Mater Iniciativa provides all the knowledge, and we have to go straight to the kitchen to share day by day, not just on random occasions.
What are some of the most unique and fascinating ingredients you’ve discovered – what is it meant for, and how did you incorporate it into your menu?
Lately, I’m amazed with vegetable roots – but not just the ones we know. The ones unique in taste, aroma, textures, and shapes. The herbs that we see in the way to get to the ingredients. They are also new for us and give color. It’s fascinating to us to see what an herb can do to a plate. Also, the seeds, the grains, the quinoa, and kañiwas – these are nothing new for Peruvian cuisine, but if we see everything that we can do with these ingredients…it’s amazing.
We have a system in our menu. We use ingredients that are coming from one ecosystem or one altitude. We cannot use or share different ingredients from different altitudes in one plate. We focus on one ecosystem, and we focus on the elements we can find in it. We try to go from the bottom of the sea ecosystem, to the coast, the deserts, go across the valley in the Andes, up to the mountains in extreme altitude, as well as the Amazon. It’s a lot to discover in techniques, in ways to cook.
That’s why we have to travel to see new things from the source, build relationships of trust, hear stories, and see the landscape.
Out of all your many journeys into the depths of Peru’s landscape, tell us your most memorable experience.
The altitude of Chahuay (close to Cusco). where we go frequently, is great, because we built relationships with some families over there. They have this knowledge that came from their grandparents and [have] ancient techniques that are great for us as part of the education of a chef. Doing things and going foraging with the communities, listening and seeing the connection with the nature is something we don’t have in Lima.
Please tell us about one of your favorite dishes – the inspiration, the process, etc.
It’s difficult to say only one – I have many. The inspiration doesn’t come from one place. You have to be awake, move, and be positive. Be creative and understand you are very little. That energy – it’s just great. Things are coming by it. As long as you are good, the inspiration comes. It’s not easy. In terms of products, we are amazed by cooking with the soil, the huatia style.
Who do you admire in and outside of the culinary space?
All of my admiration goes to the families I was talking about. All that they do. Most of the things we are doing comes from the vision they have.
What do you enjoy cooking for yourself and your family?
I don’t have too much time to cook with Pia. We like to go to eat outside – Japanese food, cevicherias…I love fish. All kinds of food. When I cook, I roast some vegetables, protein of course could be meat or fish, very simple. We are getting a lot of ingredients and don’t try to make [the preparation complex]. We like to feel the taste.
And finally, one tip you have for plating?
When I think of plating, I like to go back and see my notes from the last trip. I have to try to get connected to the place where I was, since I want to communicate what happened in the ecosystem. In the plating, we have to see this nature, the landscape – but not in a cliche way. We have to see the energy. Also, the ingredients of place taking care of the aesthetics – a simple way to see it. Plating is not difficult. It’s planning the trip. When you start the trip, you start the plating.