Virgilio Martínez’s omnipresence on the global dining circuit seems logistically impossible – in Istanbul for a week, followed by New York, then Mexico, but always crash-landing back to Lima for weekend service at Central, currently number two on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. He is as innovative and influential as he is well travelled, and, if you give heed to industry buzz, then his restaurant Central tops the totem for inquisitive epicurean eating.
He once had a restaurant in London, in conjunction with chef brothers Gabriel and Jose Luis Gonzalez. It was awarded a Michelin star but Virgilio departed the operation in 2018, with a growing focus on home. Soon after, he relocated Central from Lima’s Miraflores neighbourhood to Barranco and opened a non-profit research arm called Mater Iniciativa, run by his sister Malena Martínez. They hired an army of nature bods, including forest engineers, anthropologists and a wealth of grubby soil-diggers, and created the T’uru Maki pottery workshop, working with women from the Millaka’s-Mismanay Indigenous community.
Virgilio quite literally cooks Peru. He does not import or imitate. He creates
Then came perhaps his most ambitious project, a restaurant-cum-research lab called MIL in the foothills of the Andes just outside of Cusco, whose altitudinous chacra (farm) is shared with two local indigenous communities located at 3,600 metres above sea level. It was here that Virgilio and his wife Pía León (of restaurant Kjolle fame), along with the entire team could learn from and implement the Incan ways. The Incas had developed the most sophisticated food supply chain in pre-Colombian history, feeding millions of subjects across steep, mountainous terrain and adapting to a multitude of extreme conditions. One of Mater’s on-going projects is an effort to improve native tuber varieties such as puca musca and quepe, often shunned for more financially profitable and recognisable supermarket spuds. It is fair to say that Virgilio and Pia are part of the new breed of nomadic gastro nerds, chefs who push the thought process beyond how to make and serve food and who question the nature of consumption.
Central remains the beating heart of it all, Virgilio’s flagship restaurant and the centre of his gastronomic philosophy. Since it opened in 2008, the restaurant has been a cultural and geographical examination of Peruvian influences, and speechlessly brilliant flavour combinations between ingredients I have never heard of, let alone able to pronounce: the likes of uchucuta and kañihua only scratch the surface. Such ingredients were new and unusual to me, a litany of Peruvian heritage. There is no guinea pig, sadly, however, this is Peru and there are plenty of other places for delicious cuy – which really is rather tasty; in fact, I cannot think of a better use for guinea pig.
“We cook ecosystems,” Virgilio tells me during a visit to Lima last month. The process and understanding of this took me some time to appreciate. “In exploring ecosystems, altitudes and social dynamics,” he continued, “we found that the ingredients and recipes that we documented have their own origins and histories that predate us – many recipes have not stopped evolving since the day they were created.” Menus, as such, are odes to Peru, from the heady, nose-bleeding heights of Huascarán and the Andes to the low sweaty tropics of Peruvian Amazonia. Virgilio quite literally cooks Peru. He does not import or imitate. He creates.
After years of exploration, guided by Mater, plates have grown to reflect the incredible biodiversity of the country while celebrating ancient traditions in harvesting and agriculture, along with the practices of indigenous Peruvian peoples. But what is the food at Central actually like? It is a restaurant, first and foremost, however, it is not a straightforward explanation and as such, this essay cannot follow a conventional format or restaurant review structure. My dinner menu consisted of 14 courses, all built around ingredient altitudes, meaning obsessive study, and an in-depth understanding of the complexity and possibilities of a malleable ingredient and the variables of Peru’s ecosystems. A squid is not simply a squid, but a Peruvian squid chosen specifically from 10 Metres Below Sea Level (MBSL) and paired with other similar ocean bottom-dwelling products such as Peruvian clams and Yuyo seaweed. Likewise, pacu fish from Amazonian waters, corn from high Andean altitudes and chirimoya (custard apple) and Muña leaf (indigenous Peruvian herb) from the Sacred Valley are all plated with other kindred products.
A lot of European cooking focuses singularly on a power product, a central ingredient around which everything else rotates. Often it means that a restaurant can overcharge for the starring facet, something puffed up by kitchen wizardry and plated to be photographed, not eaten – lobster, venison, tuna, porcini, scallop. South American cooking, on the other hand, seems more wildly varying, styled around an entire dish, with no single ingredient prized more than another – chimichurri, picadillo, ceviche, tacos, salsa criolla. All work because of the synergy of ingredients, more than the sum of their parts. The jumbled insides of Aristotle’s favoured empanadas, coxinhas and tamales, too. The most difficult part is locating these ingredients and then experimenting in the hope that you can harmonise an avocado with a limpet or quinoa powder with sweet tomatoes because Virgilio cannot and will not import products.
Too many chefs nowadays seem driven to impress over innovate. Many of the young ones tell me that they want the stars and the books and the podcast, to climb the whichever-is-the-most-popular-list-of-the-moment and to have a documentary on Netflix. These chefs are multiplying, passing me by on a conveyor belt of competing popularity vagary. Perhaps the pressure to succeed is too great or the diner (yes, you and me) is to blame, the freakish fervency of fine dining bucket list warriors creating greater demand and in turn, challenging the chef to go further, to do more, and to impress over and over. While Virgilio has achieved much of this already, his is a singular vision, drilled into the minutia of Peru, of home.
As the idea of French culinary superiority fades, new international chefs like Virgilio and Pia have emerged who shine a light on geography and empirical data and research. Most of the Latin chefs I know never had ambitions of becoming a chef. All will admit that while growing up, they dreamed of leaving their respective countries. Now they are rooted in their homelands and bound by their native environs and an understanding of the biosphere. The likes of Lima, Bogotá, São Paulo and Mexico City are the current hip ascendant, looked upon with a sort of lulling furore by foodie restaurant box-tickers and none more so than Peru’s Central. I don’t think there is another restaurant anywhere doing anything remotely this brave and this academic, this important for Peruvian recipes and research documentation, for regional agricultures and in promoting and supporting indigenous communities.
More than a mere restaurant, Central, and likewise MIL, have become fundamental for the research and documentation of past and present farming and sustainability practices, findings that will live long after we are gone. Recycling, composting and closing the loop on waste ingredients all come second nature here. Tables at the restaurant are from Artesanos Dos Bosco, a non-profit that supports self-employed, skilled artisans in Peru, the woods and fibres sourced from the jungle and the Andes. Presentationally, courses arrive served in a crab shell or on pebbles and rocks; at one stage, a pirarucu fish skin mat is presented in front of me. In fact, there are no plates or any commercially-designed crockery at all. Rather, everything is handmade in clay and stone by local ceramist Sergio Murga Rossel at Null Lab in Barranco, who also provides ceramics for Kjolle, Mayo bar, Virgilio’s Moscow and Tokyo restaurants, Olluco and MAZ, and his and Pia’s boutique hotel in Playa del Carmen in Mexico.
Plated upon these rocks and ceramics, ingredients rise and fall with the topography of Peru: “High Rainforest” (1,350 MASL), “Extreme Altitude” (4,200 MASL), “Blue-Green Ocean” (0 MASL), “Sacred Valley” (2,800 MASL)” and on and on, the peaks and troughs of a country, the many ebbs and flows of the campestral, georgic jungle and a nation’s brittle desert ranges. My favourite of all was a warm grouper dish titled “Warm Sea Current” (15 MBSL) in which Murike grouper and razor clams swish and merge in a complex ‘vongole’ broth, thickened by Moraya, a technique of naturally freeze-drying potatoes. There’s pork from the Andean Forest, the course titled as such (2,700 MASL), where strips of succulent, suety belly have been brined for 19 hours with charred chillies, olluco (Andean tubers) and callampa (wild mushroom) – just brilliant! And there are more than a few things done with quinoa and citrus fruits, all earthy and sharp. You want typical, denizen Peruvian cacao? Okay, Virgilio will give you cacao, cacao you didn’t expect, cacao you don’t recognise, cacao in its many forms: fermented and beaten, crushed and grated, shaved, melted, frozen and jellied. Notes of this and that, fruity and bitter, berries here, nutty there. Mind-blowing stuff.
A non-alcoholic pairing is as nomadic and sweeping of the country’s fruits, roots and veg as you would expect. There is a cucumber, melon and loche mix to kick off dinner followed by huampo and cacao to accompany a dish of yacou root and papa voladora, each juice oscillating without ever overpowering as I move through an index of ingredients completely lost on me: araza, sachaculantro, matico, etc. Wines likewise follow a dedicated sourcing procedure. There’s Albilla + Italia Vino 2020 from Bodega Murga and a glass of Bodegas Carrau J. Carrau Pujol Gran Tradicion 1997 from Uruguay around the midway point. Wines and juices, juices and wines, squid and clams, grouper, pork, seaweed, corn, chillies, tubers and an eccentric cogitation into the complexities and culinary versatilities of cacao. This is a restaurant experience with an academic slant, about peoples, cultures, practices and the planet, as much about the past as the future. But with so much to muse on, I think I’ll soak up the now, for now. C
Central, Av. Pedro de Osma 301, Barranco 15063, Lima, Peru