Journal

Virgilio Martinez: The Wanderer Chef

14th March 2017

Interview: James Hansen
Photographs: Ernesto Benavides & Jimena Agois

When I meet Virgilio Martinez at King’s Cross in November, the wind has its tail up and frost has settled on the ground. A lusty gale is blowing across the station piazza, leading Virgilio – fresh off the plane from Spain for a demo at Le Cordon Bleu – to take refuge in the nearby Great Northern Hotel. A black coffee in hand and pitchers of sparkling water on the table, he reclines gratefully into a tall-backed chair, savouring the warmth of the coffee and the welcoming bustle of the bar. The delayed flight and arctic conditions have failed to dull his spirit: he is a lively, considered presence, generous with details and gestures alike.

Virgilio is no stranger to travel: it is the backbone of his restaurant, Central, opened in 2008 with his wife, Pía, and sister, Malena, in the Miraflores area of Lima, Peru. Fast forward to 2017, and it has been named best restaurant in Peru for three consecutive years, holding down #4 in The World’s 50 Best for two. Having opened the restaurant with a cosmopolitan approach – a decision that he looks back on with wry scepticism – Virgilio left kitchen life behind to travel the length and breadth of the country with a raft of cooks, anthropologists, botanists and agronomists. Years of investigation formed Mater Iniciativa, a diverse research collective with a simple motto: afuera hay más – “Outside, there’s more.”

Virgilio’s inquisitiveness has transformed Central into a constantly evolving representation of Peruvian biodiversity. Venturing around the country, where seasons change as you move up into mountains or down into valleys, has led Virgilio to cultivate a vertical understanding of Peru’s geographies and products – he is careful to use “product” ahead of “ingredient”, giving primacy to place ahead of utility. This humility marks Virgilio’s approach to food; when it’s married with his creativity, it’s no wonder the following conversation is packed with perceptive insight, knowing provocation, and a good deal of laughter along the way.

To begin at the beginning, was food important in your house when you were growing up?

Yeah. We used to spend most of our time by the beach, and since I was very very little, I used to interact with the fishermen a lot. They would make ceviches in their boats, get the fish from the sea, do the ceviche à-la-minute. My first interaction with gastronomy was that: me, on a boat, talking with small independent fishermen. I was in Peru during very difficult times – terrorism, crime – so I left the country to explore the world. I found that being a cook was an easy way to get a job without speaking a language, so I moved to Singapore, Bangkok, London… I realised once I was in the kitchen that I wanted to stay.

Did you do anything before becoming a chef?

I tried to be a pro-skateboarder, but I quit because I got injured. And then I tried law school. In Peru, if you don’t go to university you are a punk. And I was a punk, I was a skater. After the injury my family said “Ey, you have to focus on something.” I did law school for one year – I couldn’t do it – so I decided to explore the world.

Did your parents cook at home?

My mother was the cook. She’s an artist and a painter, so she wasn’t that pissed when I decided to be a chef. It was difficult in Lima, in a small society where you had to be somebody, you had to study. I did the opposite [laughs].

I was a punk, I was a skater. I couldn’t do law school so I decided to explore the world

And now your family work at Central.

We have this way of working together: we understand what our roles are. Pía [Virgilio’s partner] runs the entire kitchen. I’m supposed to be the chef, but now she’s taking over that position, always pushing me away. I mostly explore Peru and work on the creative process; Pía has to execute it. Malena, my sister, is the researcher – the one who works with all these botanists, anthropologist and artists. I can have an idea, but we need the content, the knowledge: she’s the one working on that. My freedom to go to the jungle for two days comes from my wife running the kitchen. And she’s very passionate about doing that. We are quite lucky.

The freedom, the travel, the meetings – they must influence your creative process.

I learned that everything is important, and you have to respect everybody: not just people, but trees, or plants. The territory. We saw that Peru is like a wrinkled paper.

Virgilio picks up a napkin, scrunches it together, and lets it pop out on to the table, peaks and valleys having formed.

Places like this, this and this [Virgilio indicates peaks, valleys, spots in between] at different altitudes. So people tell me that if we want things we have to go up, or we have to go down – all the time this duality of up and down. We decided to do a menu based on altitudes, because it was the best approach to Peruvian nature, the way that people think about nature.

The closest representation of Peru.

Yes, yes. I was very confused – I trained as a chef abroad for 10 years, then I had 10 years in Peru. I started to love seasonal cuisine, you know, seasonality. But when I talk about this wrinkled paper – you see different seasonalities everywhere. You get asparagus all year, because if you don’t get asparagus from the Andes, you get asparagus from the coast. If you don’t have a product from the south, you get it from the north. So we have to have our own approach.

Orilla - Ernesto Benavides

Orilla. Photography by Ernesto Benavides

How would you define your approach at Central and Mater?

“Let’s use microclimates.” Why are we not using them as part of the story? And from there, let’s respect the ecosystem within one microclimate: whatever is growing in one microclimate, we put together on one plate. At the beginning, we were just thinking of the main ingredients, the protagonists. Nowadays, there is no protagonist. That’s why our dishes look pretty different, because there is no one ingredient; there are multiple things happening. It is a picture of a landscape. A picture of our culture. Our food cannot just be related to what we’ve been learning in the last hundred years. We have to go…

Further back.

Exactly. Further back.

So the philosophy of Mater Iniciativa is directed by that perspective.

Yes. I enjoy talking to an anthropologist or a botanist more than I enjoy talking to a chef. I’ll tell you one thing: I used to live spending like 16, 18 hours in the kitchen, I was so proud of doing that. But when I came back to Peru, I realised that staying in the kitchen was wrong. I’m seeing that I don’t have to be in the kitchen. You have a counterbalance. We travel to the Andes, to the jungle, we travel with anthropologists, sociologists, botanists, who can give us information. That is Mater. We were thinking it was all about the chefs, but now we can inspire different disciplines, and get inspiration from them. People are doing amazing jobs saving our natural ecosystems in Peru, and they always have a position, an argument. Now, Mater is a complete communication of Peruvian biodiversity, which we have to show the world.

I travelled for a year, all over Peru. I didn’t know our culture was so vast and huge, that there was so much knowledge about agriculture

What made you want to move out of the kitchen and look at Peruvian food in this way?

It doesn’t do justice just to call a supplier and ask for food anymore. I want to go to the source. Seven years ago I started to travel to see producers and people and farmers, speaking about what they need. I understood that I was probably wasting my time trying to achieve the best technique in the world, instead of working and understanding what the producers and products are doing – what’s happening in different places.

So it’s a feedback loop, right, they give you something, you can give something back.

Yes, its’s a conversation between us and producers and the way that the producers see their own ecosystem. I’m from Lima, the capital, and we used to see Peru as just Lima: you couldn’t go to the Andes and the jungle. The jungle was related to drugs; the Andes to terrorism. We were in this bubble. That’s why I left  – I was living in this little bubble that had no meaning for me. I travelled for a year, all over Peru, and I found fascinating things with produce and people and culture. I didn’t know our culture was so vast and huge, that there was so much knowledge about agriculture. I was coming from a society where organic was the cool thing [laughs].

Maize, Orilla. Photography by Ernesto Benavides

Maize, Orilla. Photography by Ernesto Benavides

That’s familiar.

In the Andes they are talking about this “mother earth”, this spiritualism – they were treating the soil with such respect that the produce was amazing. In your country, you try a potato here, and you try a potato there – it’s totally different. I don’t want to be disrespectful to your potatoes [laughs].

No offence taken.

But you know, I don’t need the label “organic”.

It’s a limitation, rather than an accreditation.

Exactly. In the Andes, they’re thinking, “Why should I put that label, ‘organic’? I’m treating this thing as coming from my mother.” Which is the earth. We flew to the jungle, the Amazon, and we saw how these shamans communicate with the soil and the plants. How they actually talk to plants. Which at the beginning sounded very weird, I was very sceptical: “Come on man, why are you talking to plants?” But I truly respect these people and the product was just amazing. It was on another level. I’m not going to say: “I’m the guy from the Andes. I’m the guy from the jungle.” [laughs] But at least I understand now.

Going back a little bit to when you were growing up, what was your day-to-day life around food?

It’s funny because we had a very strong Chinese influence in Peru. Every Sunday we used to go to a Chinese-Peruvian restaurant.

A fusion?

Yeah. It has a name: “chifa“. Which doesn’t exist in China, if you ask people in China they are confused. And another thing called “nikkei” which is Peruvian-Japanese. I had Japanese food maybe once a week. And then ceviches once or twice a week. That’s my memory of food, but I don’t want to replicate it. New ways of working don’t have to have these connections, these fusions. Peruvian food has been here for hundreds of years. Our approach to modern food relates to ancient Peruvian food and tradition, bringing these foods to modern life.

Is there one meal you would go back to?

Going to the mountains in the Andes and seeing how people are cooking meat and potatoes underground. Digging a hole, adding hot rocks, covering the whole thing for two hours, opening it again… That was memorable.

We flew to the Amazon and saw how these shamans communicate with the soil, how they actually talk to plants. I was very sceptical: “Come on man, why are you talking to plants?” But I truly respect these people and the product was just amazing. It was on another level

And nowadays – what’s a typical day? Do you cook at home?

Nothing [laughs].

That’s a very typical answer.

I have some rotten cheese and rotten ham in my fridge. And some sparkling water. That’s it.

A very simple diet.

Before I left for London, I cooked a nice pasta for my wife… Carbonara.

You eat out a lot, in that case?

In my restaurant… There is something weird for me which is very contradictory. I really like people to enjoy the table. I do not enjoy the table [laughs]. I don’t have time to sit there. I’m obsessing about how the experience is for people. All the time. When the drinks are coming, when the food is coming, whether people are getting the message, stuff like that. Honestly, a few years ago, I started to lose the whole emotion of it. But what I’m doing now, what I’m gaining, is enjoying eating raw products that I have not tried before.

It could sound very contradictory to have a restaurant like Central, which is quite pricey, in a country where there is still hunger, malnutrition, poverty. But we promote so many producing regions that their economies are changing, because people are buying the products

I see.

This is my new table. Meeting native communities and trying their foods. For me it’s not about what I like: what I do, what I see – I want people to enjoy that instead. Doing a menu based on altitude and ecosystems: it’s because I want people to have this sense of place, this sense of landscape, in one experience.

Communicating your experience of Peru through food.

Yes. Yes. Exactly.

Carachama y yacón (Carachama and Yacón). Photography by Jimena Agois

Carachama y yacón (Carachama and Yacón). Photography by Jimena Agois

How do you see Peruvian food in a global context?

We need to understand farmers’ and producers’ needs. We can cook after that, and I think that’s what is happening in Peru. Not demanding that they do the opposite. So we are cooking what is there, in the soil – Peruvian ecosystems.

Could you compare that to the first days of opening Central?

It was very confusing. I was cooking a very eclectic cuisine.

In terms of Peru or other countries as well?

Other countries as well. You get this fusion which doesn’t work. It took about two years to erase it [laughs]. Then we started to understand that we had to focus on Peruvian biodiversity. We stopped using all these additives and magic powders and decided to use our things, our products.

Looking at food in this way, as not just being food, but as something which is intrinsically related to biodiversity, it’s complex.

Yes, and it can take some time. We don’t want to spread a message too early, we are just starting to make people aware of what’s happening in Peru. Everybody just knew about the bear. What’s his name, the bear?

Paddington?

Paddington. They wanted me to put Paddington bear on the cover of the book [laughs].

How do you think Peruvian people see their food in the context of “fine-dining” – does it make sense?

It could sound very contradictory to have a restaurant like Central, which is quite pricey, in a country where there is still hunger, malnutrition, poverty. But we promote so many producing regions that their economies are changing, because people are buying the products. People want to go and meet the producers of quinoa, eat the quinoa with the producer. That’s magic. And we can promote that. We are only cooking for 40 people in the restaurant: that’s nothing. This way we can cook for thousands of people.

Talking about cuisine is quite limiting.

Yes. Nowadays we don’t understand what “fine-dining” or “gastronomy” really mean: different things are happening.

Are there any places you’ve been on recent travels that you’ve enjoyed?

In Peru there is a place called Isolina which is the best place to enjoy classic Peruvian cuisine. There is a cevicheria called El Mercado. These are the places I go to most to enjoy food in Lima. In other countries: The Willows Inn [on Lummi Island, Washington] in the USA. If I go to the Basque Country then I love to go to Mugaritz. It’s a good place to understand a very personal way to see food. Eating in Tokyo, too, is one of the best experiences you can have.

That attention to two or three details, perfectly done.

Yes. As a South American – we don’t have that. We work by intuition, we break the rules every single time… I’m trying to represent, trying to communicate what is happening in Peru, to make sure people get to see what we are doing. If people go to Lima because they like what we are doing, seeing Peru just for that experience – it’s fantastic. We want to tell a story, and we are telling that story.

Central by Virgilio Martinez is out now on Phaidon Books

Central is at Santa Isabel 376 Miraflores Lima, Peru; www.centralrestaurante.com.pe

Follow Virgilio: Instagram | Twitter

Sangre de árbol (Blood of the Tree). Photography by Jimena Agois

Sangre de árbol (Blood of the Tree). Photography by Jimena Agois

Posted 14th March 2017

In Journal

 

Interview: James Hansen
Photographs: Ernesto Benavides & Jimena Agois

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