Virgilio Martínez may be a long way from home but food is providing familiar comfort. The 40-year-old Peruvian super-chef is in Europe on a profile-raising trip of sorts, and the spoils of his craft are never far away. Before arriving in London, he cooked in Bilbao for the twentieth anniversary of the Guggenheim Museum. The following day, this suave culinary star hosted an event at Lima Floral, one of his two London restaurants. All year, Martínez likes to travel and meet likeminded people, collaborating and sharing as he goes. The event at Lima Floral was a seven-course cook-off with Basque chef Josean Alija, from Nerua. In sporting terms it was Peru versus Spain with all the flavours of the world acting as reinforcement.
“We take a lot from Spanish cuisine in Peru,” he says, playing with his coffee cup, “and we look to places like San Sebastián as an inspiration for what a gastronomic destination can be. But we also look to France, and to Italy and Japan. Everywhere I go I take something.”
We’re sitting in London’s Hoxton Hotel, where scores of people fill the vast lobby with anonymous urban babble. In his low-key fleece and casual stance, Martínez, a slight, handsome chap despite the jet-lagged eyes, might be a tourist taking shelter from the rain, not owner of the world’s fifth best restaurant. When he talks about ‘taking from everywhere’, he reveals an instinctive, global mindset that’s much more than the sum of its parts. Martínez is a great collector. He wants to give you something you’ve never had before. “There is always something to discover,” he says in that nonchalant South American way, “and I’m always eager to explore”.
Central, his main restaurant in the Peruvian capital of Lima, is the stuff of legend. Sourcing hundreds of highly unusual ingredients from all over the country, his concepts and execution have elevated the idea of what food can be. No longer mere complementary flavours artfully directed on a plate, there is integrity, imagination and, in line with Peruvian tradition, a sense of the unknown at every serving. Ranked the number one restaurant in Latin America, ultimately Martínez has proven there is more to this sometimes overlooked location than ceviche and lomo saltado. “People are mostly ignorant,” he says, “there’s much more to us than that. At Central we do dishes that show seventy different ecosystems that are all totally different, and show how all these varying disciplines—geography, gastronomy and culture—are involved.”
Ah yes, the science and nature bit. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Central is how he and his team (amongst them sister, Melena, the research scientist, and wife, Pia León, who takes charge in the kitchen) have devised such an intricate presentation. To call it a mere menu would do it a disservice. Primarily based on altitude and bio-diversity, there are 180 rare and foraged ingredients at work at any one time, fifty percent of them unknown, all collected from a country brimming with geographic possibility. Putting the ecosystem on the menu is Martínez flying the flag, not only for innovation, but for the regions he supports through trading initiatives and ingenious community projects.
“Peru is a country equally divided by coast, mountains and Amazon jungle,” he explains. “It’s like a piece of wrinkled paper, and all the wrinkles are the micro climates we have. When I worked in Europe the idea of seasonal food was strong, but when I returned to Peru I didn’t find any seasonality because we were getting the ingredients all year round. We went with the theme of bio-diversity because seasonality didn’t mean much here. We just wanted our own message, our own thing.”
That ‘thing’ has earned him Michelin stars, but at no point do you suspect Martínez of the histrionics so prevalent in his peers. “I don’t want ego to get in the way,” he says firmly. “My country used to be known as a poor place with nothing, but there is richness here, and at Central we are focused on these beautiful things. I’m not expecting to obtain stars or awards. Maybe people want to listen to you if you have these things, but we are focused on the landscape and culture. It’s not just about us, it’s about our suppliers and producers. We are just observers.”
Trying new ventures and taking risks comes naturally. As a child he would eat things raw from the sea (“which probably isn’t the best idea, things like sea urchins just to be naughty”), while teenage years were spent pursuing life as a fledgling professional skateboarder. “Both those parts of my life are good memories,” he says, grinning, “because that’s what I do, I constantly try new things”. Skateboarding was neither safe or sustainable, but it remains an important link to his chosen path. “I had this idea of moving to California and becoming a pro,” he remembers, “but injury put a stop to that. It’s like what I do now—there are definitely parallels—because when you cook you want to achieve the best technique. I think I’ve been following that same obsessive pattern all of my life. It’s the same level of dedication and curiosity.”
With a new restaurant imminent (the ambitious Mil, set by the Inca ruins of Cuzco), and Mater Iniciativa, his second food laboratory on its way, there is much to ponder on. The lab and dining room lie deep in the Andes, on the edge of a plateau of circular garden terraces called Moray, which date back over 500 years. At 11,500 feet above sea level, the place is what one might describe as remote. Fans of Martínez’s food need to be patient, and prepared. “It’s a forty-five minute drive into the mountains, and that’s after you’ve taken a one-hour flight from Lima to Cuzco,” he explains. “So it’s a place you really have to want to go to. It’s my job to make the trip worthwhile and hopefully people won’t be disappointed. There’s a lot of history in a structure like this, but I see the future, too.”
Martínez plans on serving up to fifty covers at a time in this ambitious space. Only food found in the surrounding areas and at that high altitude will be served, and everything will be prepared using ancient cooking techniques. “We plan on roasting of some the 4,200 varieties of potatoes found here, under the earth, using quinoa barks, wild plants and plenty of amazing multi-hued corn. It will be more than authentic,” he says, “it’s the reality of the nature here, which is endless”.
This is fine dining, Andean style, and the idea is completely captivating. Martínez has said he can imagine guests sitting around the fire pit, eating potatoes, “and swimming in a sea of corn”. Within this most sensory of environments it seems anything could be possible. “If you are there, eating in that area, you will feel the magic,” he says. “I have an incredible vision of how this will all look, sound, taste and smell.”
But what of the environment? On paper the venture sounds dangerously invasive, although Martínez, an ardent fan of nature, claims no harm will come to the surroundings. “To be clear, the restaurant is not changing the landscape of the area,” he reassures. “We need to protect that landscape, so we won’t interfere with the view. The restaurant will be very close, but won’t have access. There’ll be no interruption of the beauty.”
This most ambitious of chefs has a lot on his mind. As well as his rural plans there is the relocation of his flagship restaurant to consider. Central is moving on. International recognition has upped the stakes and Martínez and his wife want to showcase their talents in a more suitable environment. A spot in the suitably upmarket Barranco barrio is home to Central stage two, and there is also room for Kjolle, a neighbouring, more casual restaurant that will be launched with León at the helm. “I’ll be walking between the two places, but Kjolle is a place where my wife can flex her muscles.”
As we’ve been talking the sky has darkened and a car waits outside to take him to the airport. It’s a long way from London’s polluted streets to the rich Arcadia of Peru and Martínez looks like a man who misses his indigenous culture. “Food is very emotional,” he offers as a parting thought. “Not many restaurants serve emotions but we are focused on this at Central—food that makes you think, that makes you feel something. For me it’s about making a connection to people. The most important thing, beyond all the concepts and peripheral stuff, is to feel emotionally connected. That is what I do.”
For more visit centralrestaurante.com