Chef Virgilio Martinez: My Time is Here and Now

Chef Virgilio Martínez
Chef Virgilio Martínez

Peruvian chef Virgilio Martinez has been riding an immense wave of success and rapidly expanding his restaurant empire over the last few years. Though skateboarding is more his style, his operations have expanded beyond his flagship Central in Lima to include Lima and Lima Floral in London, and opening soon is NOS, a casual eatery in Lima just a few doors away from his home base. There are also other changes and expansions of another kind in his life as the 38 year old and his wife chef Pia Leon, who is at the pass every night, are expecting an addition to their family in early January. Understandably the jet-setting young chef and his wife are super excited to welcome their first child while preparing for this new phase in their lives and possibly easing their hectic schedules.

Much has changed in his life in the last two years. A few days after his restaurant moved into the 50th place on Restaurant Magazine’s World’s 50 Best Restaurant list in 2013, the young couple celebrated their wedding in Lima. The guest list included Chef Gaston Acurio, in whose organization Martinez held the Executive Chef position in Bogota and Madrid. Since then Central moved to the 15th spot on the 50 Best List as the “Highest Climber” in 2014 and this year to the coveted 4th position. Central was also declared the top restaurant in the 50 Best Restaurants of Latin America last September, overtaking Brazilian chef Alex Atala’s D.O.M. Martinez, with his stylish, beautiful plates and his original concept and take on Peruvian cuisine is now the familiar face of contemporary Peruvian cuisine around the world.

The young Martinez, after having studied law, found his passion for cuisine while traveling around the world and subsequently enrolled at the Cordon Bleu in Ottawa and London. After putting in stints at various restaurants including Lutece in New York, Can Fabes in Spain, and then the Acurio restaurants in Bogota and Madrid, he returned home to Peru. After opening Central in the upscale Miraflores area of Lima in 2012, Martinez then ventured briefly into the tourist centric Cusco with his restaurant Senzo. He then set his sights on London where he now has two restaurants, with his Lima being the first Peruvian restaurant in the world to hold a Michelin star. The very personable Martinez is seen frequently at culinary events and congresses all over the world, enabling him to build an immense international fan following over a very brief period of time.

In 2013 he established his Mater Iniciativa Project at Central in Lima to uncover, discover, and register the bounty of bio diversity that exists in the Andes, the Amazon, and the coastal Pacific region. The Central team regularly forays into the various microclimatic zones to bring back products like the cushuro, a cyanobacteria that might dress up plates at Central, which utilizes only 100% Peruvian products. The menus are conceptualized based on products, an example being the “Altitude” menu that explores the products grown and harvested at different heights in the Andes. Martinez’s food is modern, innovative, and creative, utilizing Peruvian flora and fauna like the potatoes, corn, quinoa, amaranth, cacao, coffee, and obscure herbs that feature prominently on his menus. He is working towards creating a market for niche products in order to assist small local producers in the remote areas of Peru and enable social and economic change in the indigenous communities. The Mater office on the second floor at Central is flooded everyday with packages containing samples of products that they test and sometimes incorporate in their menus. During our conversation he excitedly opened a package of cacao beans to share what they would be testing later in the adjacent food lab.

As part of an elite clique, Martinez will soon be setting off to a yet undisclosed location for the Gelinaz shuffle on July 9th when 37 international culinary stars are swapping restaurants, identities, and lives for a day. Sworn to secrecy and unable to share the details, he promised to dish about his experience after the event.

Two years ago you were concentrating on Central and then you went on to open two restaurants in London and now a new one in Lima as well. Is your focus or approach to cuisine changing or shifting?

The soul of Central is now Mater and now that has become very important for me, and if I didn’t have the two restaurants in London and my upcoming casual restaurant here in Lima it would be impossible to maintain and support the work of my foundation. Central is an expensive restaurant in Lima but by international standards it is very reasonable but these other businesses are important to fund and support our work here. I see myself as a cook but with a different viewpoint before anything else and definitely not as an entrepreneur. Yes the life I am leading now is completely different from two years ago, and we are profitable and pay for our foundations work. Big brands have offered to take over Mater but we will not sell out and lose our heart. It’s like being offered to open Central in Dubai which I turned down because Central can only be maintained in Lima. I don’t allow myself to be distracted by all these things; it is amazing how much is changing here in Peru as 80,000 people have endeavored to become chefs and cooks which is a phenomenal number.

So no new upcoming projects in Asia or Australia?

I don’t think so right now, though the Lima London concept can travel anywhere without me having to be there all the time. The head chef at Lima is the executive chef now and handles everything very well. It is also a casual restaurant and does not need us to bring in ingredients from Peru like Central or ensure sustainability as we do here so it can operate anywhere. Of course we need to adapt our cuisine to local products and be creative every day in our concepts.

You now have a Michelin star at Lima, London, you are ranked at #4 on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list internationally and #1 for Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants according to Restaurant Magazine’s lists at present. With all the controversy surrounding these lists, according to you is the Michelin star more prestigious?

I have to be very positive about these things because at the end of the day they do bring in people into the restaurants. I think we spoke about this before that at one time we had zero customers in Central but after we were on the list the reservations were piling in. So I have to say 50 Best has been great for us; it’s how we went from zero to what we have now. I am not saying we are number four in the world and I am not going to believe that but it does make us feel that we are doing something right. I am not saying that there is anything wrong with the list since that list is creating a new way to view gastronomy; it’s creating expectations and bringing in guests to places like Lima they would not have traveled to earlier.

We don’t have Michelin in Peru, and if it was not for this list we would not have so much recognition of our Peruvian gastronomy. When I got the news that I had received a Michelin star in London I was taken aback. But later it sank in that they felt we were doing positive work at Lima, London and it is great to be recognized for that. As chefs I feel we don’t have to reflect about that but it has more meaning for the customers who have certain expectations. It is encouraging for us that our customers feel that we deserve our number four rank in the world and that they are thrilled for us.

So now has the pressure increased this year?

Yes, especially in terms of reservations and expectations. I am not going to change anything just keep working as I did prior to this. I feel we don’t have to push or be more creative or anything but just do our thing as we have for the last four years. You have seen me in many different parts of the world and I have been talking about my work here in Peru and about our food. Interestingly these days the situation has changed from what it was 40 years ago. Now people know more about Peru and now we are on the map so to speak and they are coming and we are waiting for their arrival.

In a recent interview with Grant Achatz regarding the perception that Peruvian cuisine is the next cuisine to be popular, he suggested that it was uncertain if it would be in the same position as Nordic or Spanish. What do you feel? Is Peruvian cuisine the next thing and has it already arrived?

I don’t think Peruvian cuisine is going to play that role or its influence is going to be that drastic. Peruvian cuisine is going to take its time to become familiar just like the potato and tomato traveled unobtrusively over time from Peru to different parts of the world. This is a delicate way to express how Peruvian cuisine can conquer the world unlike what a lot of journalists are prone to suggesting. Through our potatoes, quinoas, ceviches, and tiger’s milk our concepts are slowly becoming known and we have an opportunity now to show our creativity and our traditions. We are going to be a part of worldwide gastronomy but just one part like French or Italian while being different like for example Japanese cuisine that is so pervasive. I do feel that our cuisine is having a definite impact in the world.

Does Peruvian cuisine translate well when it travels?

There is a constant push for something new all the time and Peruvian cuisine is a part of that new thing. It does not translate in the right way every time and it’s becoming more of a business. People without any Peruvian background are delving into it and not doing it right and it risks becoming a fusion or a trend, but as we know trends sell as people are pushing for the new to feed the demand for it. Our cuisine though is more delicate and evolving though we are growing too fast. This cuisine is based on our diversity and we have been exploring it slowly at Central. We have also been exploring our vast territory and that is the key to our cuisine which is not possible to take abroad.

What is the basis of or key elements of Peruvian cuisine?

The authenticity of our people; we are not very pretentious people, we are very real. There are no special effects involved and when we invite you to our home we show you our reality. Our bio diversity is another important element with hundreds of varieties of corn and thousands of varieties of potatoes, herbs, and everything else that comes from the Amazonia and Andes and Pacific coast. We have all these micro climates which are the key to our bounty of products. Then there is our mix of Japanese, Chinese, Spanish, Italian, Inca, and other people who make up our population. All these are unique and are the important elements of our cuisine. We have diversity in our people, our products and the other important thing is tolerance. In other cultures this tolerance is not as visible, but in Peru in gastronomy there is a lot of it though in politics it is another situation.

Has the tourism board helped in spreading the world about Peruvian Gastronomy?

We are a country usually connected with anthropology and archaeology because of sites like Machu Picchu and other ancient sites. So PROMPERU is focused more on these things and earlier they were supporting artisans in other fields. We the cooks started to ask why not us because we are artisans too and gastronomy should be getting that support too. So now the tourism board is supporting visits to local markets, encouraging tourists to visit restaurants serving this produce, to visit fishermen, but that help is not enough and the restaurant industry definitely needs more exposure. People are visiting all these historic sites like the Sacred Valley, Machu Picchu etc. and we need to encourage them to discover our cuisine and in this area we need to work together. If they can travel to Machu Picchu, why not for a good meal at our restaurants in Cusco or Lima?

How do you stay motivated to achieve the perfect progression in the tasting experience of 18 courses?

We try not to lose the curiosity and the anticipation in the customer’s experience, the emotion has to be maintained. You can go to the most amazing place but if you are not curious or motivated you can lose interest. To maintain this state is the most difficult part of our work. We can put everything on our agenda and travel a lot for dining experiences, but there is risk of tiring. For us at Central the love of what we do is very important to maintain and we are constantly working to stay motivated, involved and enjoying our work. The explorations we go on help us keep our story and motivation so we can tell these stories in our food. Every time we travel we develop a level of sensitivity and it is a progression to see the beauty of our people, product, and landscapes and we translate that in our cuisine, creativity and techniques apart.

You and your wife Pia work together in the kitchen, but who has the last word?

Always Pia! Even though now she is expecting she is at the pass every night and will be working as long as she can. We are very thrilled of course and can’t wait. We live close to the restaurant so it will be convenient even though it will be a big change in our lives. Pia really maintains the standards in the kitchen and I don’t think she will be away from her work as she likes to look after every single detail.

Are you traveling a lot like last year?

I have to be choosier with the many invitations we get now but I am going to Tokyo, Hong Kong, Italy, and New York, and that is about it for now.

Are you going to cook with Massimo Bottura for his project in Italy?

Yes, on his project of cooking with the leftovers at the Milan Expo to feed the homeless. Massimo has invited chefs from all over the world and I am one of the participating chefs. Originally I was to go with Pia but now I will be going on my own in October as she won’t be able to travel. October will be a busy month as I am going to be at StarChefs in New York and on that visit I will be cooking a dinner at the Park Lane Hotel, and we are not far from New York as it is only six hour flight from Lima.

Any crazy stories about your cooking adventures far away from home?

When I traveled to Cologne to cook at Vendome last year my bags went missing and I had to struggle to find ingredients at the market. It was worse when I went to Italy to Identità Golose and I had to do a demo on stage and all the stuff I needed was missing from my luggage and I had to change my plans on the spot. I was supposed to cook after Daniel Humm so I exchanged places with Vladimir Muhin, the Russian chef, and people thought I was him when I cooked in his place the next day. Every time we travel we have some story and at this point we divide our products between the baggage of our team so as not to lose everything. When we go through customs we are unsure of what will pass through and nervous because if they take some of our stuff we can lose 50% of our soul.

You are surrounded by women in your operation at Central with Pia, your sister, mother, and Karime. Why do you think women get short shrift on the “Best Of” lists?

I always ask that question of myself, not only on the list but everywhere else in our industry. Interestingly now that I am working with the university I see that the culinary program has more women than men. All these women just need to stay on course and not get distracted and not be so discreet and own their talents. In my personal opinion the best decision I made was to choose to work with women at Central. They are amazing and so quick sometimes when I suggest something I find it has already been taken care of. They do the best work and push me to be the protagonist for it.

You think Peru will be the breakthrough country to have a female chef at the forefront?

I hope so, and in my personal opinion they can work as well and sometimes better than men. Even at Central you don’t hear much about Pia, Karime, and Malena because they stay on the sidelines by their own choice and don’t ask for this attention. Pia works on the execution, Karime on the menus, Malena on the research, and my mother on the design of the restaurant. Now I want to push them to be part of the picture since they are probably better at their work than me!

Chefs such as yourself in Peru are reintroducing or introducing products from the Amazon or Andes in your restaurants. While you are compiling information and discovering these products and ancient cooking techniques with your Mater Iniciativa, are you also looking at possible health benefits of these ingredients?

Yes sure, since now we are working with people who care about what was once important and its health benefits. Mostly we focus on the impact of the ingredient in a particular ecosystem, so I am making these trips into different regions and their ecosystems and truly it is still a work in progress. These days we are working with the university in Peru so I have access to their lab in order to do research but it is going to be a process. We just started as a restaurant collecting ingredients for our use and now we have found that our discovery of that ingredient has an impact on that region. These local communities and producers in the remote areas have now become our suppliers. Since we have accumulated so much information we needed another structure for our work because we are very responsible about what we use.

Are other chefs involved in your Mater Iniciativa?

Mater Iniciativa is a foundation based in our Central restaurant and our office is here in the second floor of the restaurant. In reality Mater is the heart of Central since it is from here that we do exploration trips and all our investigative work. We are not working with anthropologists or sociologists but directly with people but of course we share and discuss with others. We invite other chefs to join us or even specialists from other fields to speak about issues. What I was doing earlier with Gaston Acurio and Mitsuharu Tsumura was working on Leche de Tigre and traveling to cook and talk about ceviches and it was very useful and fun to promote our cuisine but now my focus with Mater is entirely different we work to register new products and their related social issues.

We work to find the best products, for example here is some cacao [he opened a parcel from a huge pile of packages that had arrived that day]. Every single day I get products from all over to test and taste so this afternoon we will test it and possibly use it in our menu here at Central. First we will find out who is growing it and where and how we can help the growers of this cacao.

You are building your Mater Iniciativa complex in the Sacred Valley near Cusco. When will it be ready, and will it have a restaurant as well?

In about two years it will be complete and will have a small restaurant which will be the focus of the laboratory on the complex. We are going to call it the Registration for Mater and it will focus on acquisition of knowledge and information about products and inspiration to use these. Some of this information needs to be utilized in situ as it does not travel very well even as far as Lima from the original source.

For your upcoming casual restaurant NOS in Lima, your cuisine is described as global cuisine with elements from outside, but is it still concentrating on Peruvian flavors?

It is a little bit of everything since it will be a very informal place compared to Central. I say it’s global because it will not have this obsession with local products. It does have a Peruvian taste and many things you don’t find in other parts of the world or regions in Peru. The menu will have ceviches and sandwiches etc.

Your new cookbook is coming out this fall for the home cook. What kind of recipes will be featured, and will they require Peruvian ingredients?

Yes in October, and truthfully it was a big challenge to put this together. We had to be very creative and not include complex recipes using ingredients people cannot source in other countries. We worked extensively on the recipes over four months and tried to use ingredients that can be found anywhere or we suggest alternatives for certain ingredients. The recipes look easy but it was a very difficult task, and I should add it has the spirit of my Lima, London restaurant.

Next year we are doing a book with Phaidon and it focuses on Central. It is a very special project as we are writing based on our travels and expeditions and it is about the attitudes and altitudes of Peru. Essentially we are writing the book in a style similar to the way we do our menus. It is simple yet very complex at the same time, but we enjoying the process.

How many hours a day are you working, since you are doing so many different things?

From eight in the morning to one the next morning, but I have no complaints. I am enjoying every moment of my work. I have a lot of gratitude for what I have now and I don’t worry too much about me or my time at work. Working as a couple together with Pia I feel blessed and I also believe that my time is here and NOW!

Do you feel you have changed personally through your journey in the last two years?

Yeah I do, and though good and bad things happened, I am now working with a large group of people and since people are following our work I feel more responsible about what I do.  I am probably more mature in the way I see life and I have learned when to be calm and when to enjoy the moment and be happy.


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