Leaning back in his chair—in his office above the dining room of his world-renowned Peruvian restaurant, Central, in Lima—chef Virgilio Martínez couldn’t look more relaxed. But with nearly a half-dozen projects in the horizon, it’s a wonder how.
In February, Martinez, 40, opened research center and restaurant MIL in Peru's Sacred Valley, about an hour outside of Cusco. In June, he will open Ichu Peru, a collaboration with chef Sang Jong, in Hong Kong. A few weeks later, Central will move to a new location in Lima's Barranco neighborhood. And, this fall, he intends to host a three-day event in Peru that focuses on the intersection of people and food, and how this relates to the Amazon. This is all in addition to keeping things running as usual at his restaurants in Peru and London.
Still, Central—which Martinez helms with his wife, Pia León—is the chef's crowning achievement. Since it opened 10 years ago, the restaurant has regularly landed on The World's 50 Best Restaurants list. And, in 2017, Martinez earned the Chefs' Choice Award, a designation granted by fellow chefs on the list. In short, Central is the equivalent of a culinary tour of Peru; Martínez views each dish in his 17-course tasting menu as an intimate introduction to the vastly diverse landscapes of the country.
When I sat down with Martínez in his office, he had just returned from a brief trip to London, visiting with the staff of his other restaurant, Lima. Though he's always on the move, he took the time to share his upcoming plans with DEPARTURES readers.
What lead you to want to become a chef?
“I was a skateboarder and wanted to go pro, but I injured my shoulder so that was the end of my career. I tried to go to law school, that was the beginning of me being serious. I couldn’t stand it, so I left school to travel the world. That’s when I realized that working in a kitchen could be a career. The first time I stepped into a kitchen I realized, 'Yeah, I want to be a chef now.' I wanted to work with people and to express myself, my creativity.”
What do you think people a missing when it comes to understanding traditional Peruvian cuisine?
“People are just scratching the surface about Peruvian cuisine in terms of Pisco Sours, ceviches, or seafood, but that’s everything that’s happened in the last 500 years. People aren’t thinking about what came before that. People don’t know the depth of Peruvian cuisine. It’s not just ceviche.”
How is working in Peru different from the other cities you’ve cooked in?
“When I came back to Peru for the first time to cook, I wondered why you could get certain ingredients all year long. It’s because people are growing these things in all different altitudes, so I realized that Peru has everything. It changed my whole perspective because I’ve always worked off of seasonality, but that doesn’t necessarily exist in Peru because the seasons aren’t that strong. The way we think here, in the Andes, is in a vertical way. Everything is about the altitudes.”
I’ve read in other interviews that you believe that it’s important for food to tell a story. Why is that?
“Everything has to have a narrative. What you do, what you say, what you eat—everything has to make sense. Focusing on what we do here at Central, we have 70 people working for 40 guests. That’s a restaurant that has to bring a story. I have people in the Amazon, in the Andes, and lots of information. What can we do with all of this information? Let’s have our own message. I don’t want to use other people’s recipes anymore; I want to make my own noise.
We have to create stories because the emotion behind these dishes is huge. We do a vertical menu where we start from the bottom of the sea and then you go up, then down, and it’s a journey. You start to encounter this biodiversity, which is funny because there are flavors that you’ve never encountered before, so your memory can’t work. You’re not in your comfort zone, so we need a story. If you don’t have a story, then you end up with something that the guest doesn’t recognize and they don’t like it. If you’re just focusing on the taste and everything has to be tasty, that’s easy. To create a story is to make you feel like you are on this journey. You get to experience all of this diversity and that can be powerful. It creates a lot of emotion.”
What sets Central apart from other restaurants?
“Some people are very conservative when it comes to their dining experience. They want their champagne and fois gras, and if that’s the case, this isn’t your place. Some people say that we should have this or that, but what we have here is better because it represents something. You have to be sensitive to appreciate what we do.”
What is the most unique ingredient that you cook with?
“I use edible clay. Once we were in the south of the Andes and we saw people were eating very sour potatoes. They were covering it with clay to add some balance to the sourness, they were using it as a seasoning. Now we’re using the clay on desserts and a bunch of other dishes.”
Where would you like to open your next restaurant?
“Before opening in London, we were supposed to open in New York but it didn’t work out. We’re still thinking about next year, but we know that New York will take time. I’ll have to take a few months to go and stay there. It’s a tough place and we have to do it right. We plan on checking out places right by Eataly [in Flatiron] or in Union Square. It won’t happen this year, but I think next year for sure.”