Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

The future of food lies in your grandma's cuisine: Virgilio Martinez of Central

The Peruvian chef, whose restaurant has been voted one of the world's best for two consecutive years, on capturing biodiversity on the plate, his foraging experiences and why it's important to reconnect with food from the soil

Kathakali Chanda
Published: May 27, 2024 01:13:07 PM IST
Updated: Jun 6, 2024 12:32:54 PM IST

The future of food lies in your grandma's cuisine: Virgilio Martinez of CentralVirgilio Martínez Véliz, a Peruvian chef and restaurateur Image: Gustavo Vivanco

When he isn’t wearing his chef’s hat, Virgilio Martinez says he likes to paint. Most diners at Central—his fine-dining restaurant located in the Peruvian capital of Lima—would contend that, even in the kitchen, Martinez remains no less of an artist. His 14-course menu (which will set you back by PEN 1,590, a little over Rs35,000) represents the ecological diversities of the 14 altitudes housed within the Latin American nation—from the Pacific coast to the Andean peaks via the jungles of the Amazon. Perhaps no surprises that the restaurant, which opened its doors in 2008, has been voted as one of the world’s best for two consecutive years—Rank 2 in 2022 and Rank 1 in 2023—by the prestigious World’s 50 Best list.

Martinez’s inquiries into Peruvian ingredients, though, go far beyond his restaurant. Along with wife Pia Leon, an acclaimed culinary exponent who has previously been voted as the world’s best female chef, and sister Malena, who leads Mater Iniciativa, the research arm of Central, he is often out foraging across the country and devising ways to capture the uniqueness of the local produce on the menu at Central.  

Last week, the 46-year-old boarded a 36-hour flight from Lima for his first ever visit to India for two exclusive pop-ups at Koishii at Mumbai’s St Regis. The dinner, organised by Masters of Marriott Bonvoy and Culinary Culture in partnership with American Express and priced at Rs50,000 per person, sold out within a few hours. On offer was an eight-course menu that showcased ingredients as eclectic as sea lettuce (an algae from the ocean), chulpi (corn from the mountains), and yacon (tubers grown in the Amazon).

Before he headed off to prep for the event, Martinez sat down for a chat with Forbes India to discuss why he loves to dig deep into ancient cultures, how the future of food can be sustainable and what being No 1 means to him (or doesn’t). Edited excerpts:   
Q. Your restaurant, Central, has been voted the best restaurant in the world in 2023. What does it take to be world No 1?
If being world No 1 is your obsession, you are going in the wrong direction. Your obsession should be cooking and serving people and having a great sense of hospitality, understanding about food, ingredients, culture etc. You have to have a bit of talent, but you need to train the talent with discipline. You have to train every single day and perform well every single day.

Q. What was your goal when you started Central?
I just wanted to cook for people, execute my techniques, and do my interpretation of ingredients. I was having fun in the kitchen, with a hint of being naïve about cooking, about life. But it’s normal—it’s a process. And then you make a few mistakes, and you decide to learn. You realise you need a solid team… you realise you have to worry about service, about hospitality. It’s not only about being a chef or working obsessively for perfection in the kitchen. You need a message that is yours—and then you start creating your own narratives. That’s when the restaurant becomes a transformative place.

Q. The menu at Central has 14 courses representing 14 ecosystems found in different altitudes in Peru. How did you bring the menu together?
We do this menu because we want to represent different elevations with different ecosystems. Peru is among the top five biodiverse places in the world. But we also do a South American ecosystem, which is an expansion of the Peruvian territory, and of different landscapes. That's why we travel to different places to learn how’s life there, what are the ingredients. In Peru, you have about 55 ethnic groups; that’s why we have created this menu where we represent one local place but in a very global experience.

Our menu goes from the ocean to the mountains to the Amazon. We start in the ocean with the black rocks—it's a dish we create based on the idea of being 10 metres below the sea level. You’ll get to try only seaweed, algae, and seafood like razor clams, scallops etc, everything that comes from the ocean. And when you go to extreme altitudes, the mountains of Peru, you get harvests of vegetable roots and potatoes and quinoa and corn. The idea is that what you find together in nature, we put them together on the plate.

Q. Talk us through one of the most unique ingredients you’ve found from your foraging trips?

The glue we’ve used from the bark of the huampo tree in the Amazon. We use this glue as a thickener for an Amazonian dish. In a way, we are proving that we don’t need magic powders or thickening agents which we normally see in the kitchens and which we don’t know where they are coming from. In modern kitchens, you have a brand made by the industrialisation of everything. Using the glue from huampo is a good way to prove that we can do things ourselves.

Also read: A woman's place, in the kitchen

Q. You studied in Canada and London, and worked in restaurants in Europe and the US. What made you return to Peru?
I left Peru because I wanted to study gastronomy and there were no culinary schools back then. Peruvian cuisine wasn’t as powerful as it is now, and we weren’t proud about our gastronomy. Even though we were eating Peruvian food in our homes, whenever someone wanted to go to a restaurant, they were going to the French and Italian restaurants. That’s why I left to learn cooking and work in professional kitchens. I spent around 10 years abroad and by the time I came back there was a revolution in gastronomy. We started to see fine-dining restaurants serving Peruvian food. It was a message to me from my country to ask me to return and work here. And this is what I am doing now—working with ingredients and dishes that are changing the paradigm of gastronomy. In the fine-dining scene you always get to see the same stuff, like caviar, wagyu etc. We are not doing this. We're using what are supposed to be humble ingredients, and taking them to the luxury level.

Q. You grew up in Lima during times of political unrest, and had a siloed life when you didn’t know anything about Peru’s ecological diversity. How did you discover it later?

When I started to see that Peruvians started to cook their own cuisine in a serious way. I realised that if you wanted to do something professional, you need to travel. For one year, I travelled into different Peruvian regions to see new ingredients, new stories, different cultures, different methods of cooking. For modern cuisine, this was something like a revolution because I was getting to see traditions that were so avant-garde. These traditions were the answers for our programmes now. It’s probably the same in India, where the industry is taking over your food, but you have the answers in your grandma’s cuisine. You have your answers in the markets, but you are losing your markets because of malls and big stores—in all these we start to lose our real food.

Q. Do you see similarities between Indian and Peruvian cuisines?
A lot of similarities because of the uses of spices, the way you do stews, or the ways you use rice, vegetables, fish. Garlic and ginger are also some of the common things. The thing is that Peru and India are so far away, and I think that through history, we had probably very little connections. So, this [travelling] is important because I am getting to understand the power of food through it. And I can see that we have lots of things in common. You are proud of your cuisine, you have a strong food culture, you have markets with lots of colour—these are quite similar to Peru. I'm amazed with the way you use your spices. While it’s too soon and I haven’t had the time to reflect what I will be doing [from my travel here], it will happen for sure. Your dishes have strong flavours and come with a lot of attitude and identity—it’s not a mild cuisine, it’s something that goes in your face, and I love it.  

Q. Who have been your key culinary influences?
Nowadays, it’s most of the people that I get to see in Peru while I travel to different regions. These are the people who work on agriculture, they have the knowledge for me to cook. When we go back to the city, we lose a bit of the connection to our food—and by that I mean the food from the soil and not what we’re getting from our suppliers. The people outside of the cities are the ones with knowledge about how the climate is changing, how the traditions are etc; they are my main inspiration now. I learn from them the way they farm, the way they put seeds to protect the soil, how they build communities. It shows you how people are depending on each other and not on institutions like the government. And it’s something we need to do in restaurants too—build communities with your colleagues, your guests. And you get to see this only when you go out and see the past, because these originate in places that are “natural”, where people have been living for years without depending on institutions and with different rules or methods.

Q. A lot of globally acclaimed fine-dining restaurants, like El Bulli, have had to fold up. Even Rene Redzepi will shut down Noma this year, and there is buzz about the death of fine-dining. Do you think fine-dining makes good business sense?
Once you have the opportunity to do fine-dining, you have different ways to see your fine-dining. We are in a different era, from the time El Bulli decided to close 10 to 15 years ago, when things were moving in one direction. Nowadays, fine-dining is one of the best ways to express how a restaurant could survive in an era of huge competition where restaurants are not doing well. I’ve seen in many cities that fine-dining restaurants are not working—the competition is huge, the salaries are going up, the prices are going up, and diners aren’t coming.

But fine-dining restaurants are very good places to reflect about food, about ideas and work on creativity. My method is not to think that fine-dining has to close or that it isn’t working anymore—I’ve got to be very optimistic and I’ve got to put all my efforts to make a new fine-dining. Fine-dining is important because we get to express art, design, culture, traditions; these are good places for reflection. What is happening, and I probably agree with this, is there's not much room for too many fine-dining restaurants. It’s a pity, but that’s the way it is. And the ones that there are, we need to do our best. 

Also read: Why restaurateurs are betting big on India's new penchant for luxe dining experiences

Q. Your menu at Central, while being Peruvian, isn’t traditional Peruvian food. You added an innovation, inventive touch. How did the traditionalists and local diners react to it?
They hated it, and I understand that because people were coming for food they knew already and I was coming with a new idea. I took a risk. For me, it was a great idea to not have an expression of Peruvian cuisine through tradition, but through landscapes, geography, our culture. It took me around five years to see some success, and the first two to three years of struggle because the guests that I used to have left.

Q. These days a lot of conversation about food is sustainability, environment. What should the culinary ecosystem do for a sustainable future?
Very simple. It’s something we know already—going to our roots and going back to nature. We have things in front of us, we just don't want to see it. We’re privileged that we have so many natural spaces to see. I have the privilege that in Peru I still get to see my agriculture and my people that live out of it. We need to take these practices as the best—once you see that, you see the future already. These practices have behind them thousands of years of proving that they work. In Peru, you see natural terraces where people grow crops—this is good for climate change, for preservation of water, natural ecosystems, seeds. And you know what they were avoiding—plastic. If you just mimic this, you will see the future.