Virgilio Martinez

Virgilio Martinez: A Meal and a Conversation with the Best Chef in Latin America

June 19, 2016

How important is the culinary heritage and history of Peru to your menu? It is actually very important, since we do expeditions to tribes to experience new ingredients and the history of these ingredients. We meet so many different kinds of people. And once we meet people we enter into another world, their world, and different worlds like the Andes, the Amazonians, the fishermen. Because of this, we have so much respect for the pre-Incan and Incan civilizations. It is really important for us because we have a standard. When people say that Peruvian food is everywhere, I prefer to understand that Peruvian produce is everywhere. Like potatoes. So it is important to our menu in this way.

What originated from Peru? Many years ago they travelled to our land, right? And there were quinoas, chia seeds, and all the superfood, yam, amaranth. All these ingredients started travelling, and I think that’s the way Peruvian food is really flying, and it’s just communicating with people in the world.

Virgilio Martinez

You talked about the expeditions to find new ingredients, but what about the preservation of all the things you’ve discovered on your trips? Is there a way that you actively pursue this so that these lost ingredients don’t remain lost? Yeah, that’s a very difficult task for us, and I have to mention this is an issue for us all the time.

Okay, how exactly? Because once we discover something, there is a story behind that. And we need lots of information, so that’s why we go to anthropologists and historians, and people that can give us the information: are we really doing something good, can we really use that, or if we are not using it properly. Because sometimes we can not tell if we are truly respecting a community, a family, or whatever experience as they are all unique. So it’s not just a matter of feeding 50 people in the restaurant, and giving them something unique. What is important, what is behind that, is the whole story. So we really get into the stories, and I think that’s important. And of course we need to understand what’s behind the ingredients, and what’s the future of these ingredients.

How do you go about these discoveries? How do you meet these communities and find these people? Is it the work of the anthropologists you work with? We have this one place in the mountain range of Lima, and we have another one in Cuzco. We exchange information. So we have 5-7 people sometimes doing 4-5 trips per month.

All over Peru? Yeah, and they become our suppliers, they conceptualize the trips. Sometimes I go with them, and that’s the whole thing about matricity. I think Central aids in the execution of matricity.

Virgilio Martinez

What’s the most you’ve done to procure an ingredient, then? Is there something or a journey that you’d never thought you’d do just to get something? I mean going to the Andes in the mountains for us is quite—I wouldn’t say comfortable—nice. The environment is beautiful. Food is everywhere, people are free, and connected to the soil. Actually, they believe on their Patcha Mama, their Mother Earth as a god. They adore their soil so there’s a whole commitment of nature. But in the Amazon it’s quite different. There’s another perspective of life, people have a connection with the trees. And when we turn to the jungle, we meet different communities there, and their way of thinking is very different. There are no welcomes, and we have to respect that. Sometimes we’re not welcomed by people, sometimes we’re not welcomed by nature. Up in the mountains in the jungle, there is so much that we cannot beat in the resilient Amazon, like floods.

The Peruvian Amazon is mountainous, with lots of microclimates so there are some places that you cannot even walk. You know, there’s so much, you know, green and trees and things going on there. You have to be there and just bring a machete. And ants! You want to sleep and you open your sleeping bag and you have many ants everywhere. They don’t want you to be there.

How did this, movement or philosophy of yours come about? When did you decide like “Okay, I want to go all over Peru and like look for historical things and discover a culture this way”? Well what we really wanted to do at the beginning was to communicate what was happening in our territory. And then we found out that it actually goes beyond that. We are trying to achieve an authentic and real message of Peruvian cuisine. Like, without any…let’s say…ingredients from abroad. I think it’s our own thing, and we feel so comfortable doing something with our nature. 

Virgilio Martinez

Does that mean that all of your menu is local? Is that really possible? We do seventy courses this year’s menu; one dish is one altitude.

A vertical menu, right? It’s a vertical vision, yeah. That’s the way the Andean people used to write on the wall. Not in a horizontal way but in a vertical way because they have to control all these crops like quinoa, like potatoes.

How interesting. So we’re doing that thing to the menu. So when you have an experience in Central , you’re like going up and down, up and down the climates and environments of Peru. That was the idea, sense of place, commitment with the producers, and that’s part of what I’ve been saying about matricity. That’s actually the soul of Central.

Virgilio Martinez

So what are some of the most impressive ingredients you found on your trips that even locals wouldn’t know about but are endemic to Peru? Natural herbs. The seeds of the coca leaves.

Doesn’t cocaine come from coca? See, there! Sometimes we come across places where they grow coca to do cocaine, but it is essentially a part of the Andean people. To chew coca is normal even today, so I think it is a part of our heritage, and we are looking for these stuff, and these are growing now in areas which are probably dangerous and difficult.

How do you know, while on a trip, that this is not going to poison somebody? Oh yeah. We send these to a lab. We work with a university. We send out things all the time, and they say “This is good.” “This is poison.” 

Okay, so that means when you find something you’re not going to try it already? You need to study it first. Yeah, because at the beginning I was like trying everything. Once, I tried something, and it nearly closed my throat. I was just about to die with a few guys in the Andean mountains. After that experience, we needed a biologist to try them before we did.

What’s your thinking process then when the produce comes into Central? Do you think of the ingredients first, or do you think of technique first? Ingredients first. Always. Where is it coming from, from who.

You have to respect it? If we cannot do it, it cannot enter the restaurant.

Okay. Yeah, we need trustability. I mean, I need to know who made these or who brought this. Or who just harvested the fruit, so I can honor them, their produce.

So is there a clash though sometimes? You use more modern techniques, but then you were saying you need to respect these ingredients. How do you marry them both? I think the best way to treat ingredients is to be very wise and use whatever technique is suitable. So I’m very open to every single technique, global techniques, or whatever is important, as long as I am going to respect the ingredients.

Virgilio Martinez

How do you translate this local philosophy to your global audience in London, in your restaurant abroad? We do something totally different. What we cook in London is like a brewing kusina to Europe. Yeah. It’s not like Central. In Central’s tasting menu we try like 295 ingredients all coming from Peru. Hundred percent. And in London we do a la carte, and we use local ingredients from UK, from Portugal, from Spain but Peruvian flavors.

What do you think is next for Peruvian cuisine then? You are essentially an ambassador. Do you think that it will become extremely global and find itself in the mainstream consciousness of the people? I think because of the products that are very very unique and healthy, and important for our diet, concepts of Peruvian food will be travelling a lot, and will be widespread. In terms of innovation, and I think that’s our commitment in Central, we have to take it very seriously, but I cannot say what’s going to happen in five years. The world changes so much that you never know what will happen terms of produce and ingredients. I mean we are growing amazing stuff, amazing quinoas, different quinoas, different potatoes. You know we’re supposed to have 4,000 varieties of potatoes? And I’ve seen only in my life 400.

Okay. I don’t know if I’ve even seen ten, maybe. Yeah, I know! Can you imagine if we can deliver like 2,000 varieties of potatoes to the world? So, I think now the key is to keep the seeds. That’s how the generation’s like ‘going backwards’: the vision is going crazy with techniques now, but we are saving our seeds for the future.

Virgilio Martinez

Unrelated but how has life changed for you since you became a father? A lot. A lot. Because now, whenever I feel very angry when something wrong happens in the kitchen, I just run to see my kid and then everything is calm because I live just next to the restaurant. So my little Cristobal makes me happy every single day.

You know what changed too? My wife, she used to always be in the kitchen, but now she has to take care of Cristobal. And at night she’s working, so we are training ourselves to understand how family is now. Because I used to be very obsessed with the kitchen. So now it’s not 18 hours. It’s 16. [laughs]

Pamela Cortez Pamela Cortez

Pamela Cortez writes about food full-time, and has honed her craft while writing for publications such as Rogue, Town and Country, and The Philippine Star. She once rode on a mule for a mile just to eat mint tea and lamb in Morocco, and has eaten a block of Quickmelt in one sitting. Her attempt at food photography can be viewed online @meyarrr.

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