To eat at Virgilio Martinez’s Central restaurant is to taste Peru. His menus are a journey through the country’s elevations and ecosystems, built from ingredients found from below the sea to the extreme altitudes of Cusco.
Listed next to each dish description is its core ingredient’s elevation of origin. A dish of lamb, wild mustard and black quinoa, called Falling in Fields of Wild Muña, is listed at a dizzying 3900-metres above sea level.
It’s no exaggeration to say Martinez regularly risks his life in the pursuit of his craft. It’s one of the reasons why his Lima-based restaurant is ranked number four in the world (according to The World’s 50 Best Restaurants Awards), and the best restaurant in Latin America. But more than that, it’s his creative interpretation and promotion of Peruvian food.
Peruvian cuisine has looked to become a trend here in Melbourne for a while, although not much is really known about it beyond ceviche. So we spoke to Martinez all about it.
Broadsheet: How did you get into cooking?
Virgilio Martinez: All I ever wanted to be was a pro-skateboarder. I was semi-pro – I had a few sponsors, nothing major – but wanted to turn pro, so I spent a lot of time travelling, and the best way for me to find a job while I was travelling was cooking in kitchens. I had an accident while skating in California (a fractured clavicle) so returned to Peru, and then had another accident (broken shoulder) which put an end to my skateboarding career. After that, I didn’t know what to do. I ended up going to law school for a year but for me it was all nonsense.
I’m surrounded by artists in my family. My mother and grandfather are both painters, and I wanted to do something like that, although I was worried about how I’d pay my bills. Being a chef was something that was close to being an artist, cooking is a craft, yet it allowed me to fund my trips and my life.
BS: Who did you learn from?
VM: I did most of my training abroad (formally at Le Cordon Bleu) and so I didn’t really know much about Peruvian cuisine beyond ceviche until I started working for [Peruvian chef] Gastón Acurio at Astrid y Gastón (also on the World’s 50 Best list). He gave me the opportunity to learn what Peruvian cuisine is all about.
BS: What is Peruvian cuisine, beyond ceviche?
VM: It’s a very diverse cuisine. It’s influenced by the regions (the coast, the Andes and the Amazon), the native Incas, and also immigration, in particular from Spain, Italy, Germany, China and Japan (Chinese-Peruvian fusion is known as Chifa, and Japanese-Peruvian fusion as Nikkei). We use lots of potatoes, corn, quinoa and rice, and legumes, and peppers like aji amarillo which is a yellow chilli pepper. Because of the fusion of different cuisines, Peruvian food is very familiar to a lot of people, I think.
BS: What about your food?
VM: Labels are very difficult for me. I would say nature is my inspiration, but here in Peru it’s pretty obvious that nature has to be your inspiration. Wherever you go you see different landscapes. Peru is also one of the most biodiverse places in the world, so I like to explore different regions and ecosystems and nature. I don’t use anything that doesn’t come from Peru.
I use a lot of plants in my dishes – plants, herbs, roots, anything I can find in the Andean forest. We use one ingredient called cushuro which is a type of cyanobacteria or blue-green algae. It’s one of the only ones that can be eaten. In Peru, it grows at altitudes above 3600 metres above sea level, after the rain. The local people tell us when it appears. It’s like little bitter pearls.
BS: How do you know the ingredients you find are safe to eat?
VM: I go out with a lot of specialists, and we do a lot of testing and study the properties of everything we find. I don’t want to put anyone in danger! We formed a research group called Mater Iniciativa (a sort of gastronomical research society, made up of chefs, physicians, researchers, engineers, and the like) and we collect information and study all the new ingredients we find. We also talk to the local people about the ingredients, it’s very important to understand new cultures and territories. A lot of the plants we find in the jungle and the Andes are very powerful, and having knowledge of them increases the ingredients we can use. I have poisoned myself a few times, although nothing has ever gone really wrong.
BS: Did you take the film crew out foraging with you when you were filming your episode of Chef’s Table (series four)?
VM: Yes – we made them walk a lot, it was actually a lot of work, we were all very tired by the end. But we wanted to show our work and what we do, and we spend a lot of time in the Andes and the jungle. We also wanted to show how diverse our culture is. But I hope it’s going to be great.
BS: Your restaurant in Lima, Central, is the number-one ranked restaurant in Latin America on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, and number four in the world. How does that feel?
VM: Weird! It’s an achievement of course, but we have to make sure it doesn’t go to our heads. We take it as a sign that we are doing something great. But we only celebrated for one or two nights, and then it was back to work. The expectations from our guests are very high. It’s pushed us to want to achieve more, but also, it’s better not to think too much about it. But the exposure has meant I’ve been able to travel to different places, and learn but also share my concepts and ideas.
BS: You’re in Melbourne this week for Good Food Month. What can we expect from your events?
VM: Cooking at them will be challenging for me, because it’s very difficult to bring my ingredients from Peru into Australia. I’ll have to bend my cuisine to your local ingredients, and talk to people and find out what’s best to cook. I’ve been in touch with Ben [Shewry] and also Alejandro Saravia (from Pastuso). But I am excited – I love it.