14th March 2017
Interview: James Hansen
Photographs: Ernesto Benavides & Jimena Agois
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
“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…
Exactly. Further back.
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
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.
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].
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].
But you know, I don’t need the label “organic”.
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.
It’s funny because we had a very strong Chinese influence in Peru. Every Sunday we used to go to a Chinese-Peruvian restaurant.
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.
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
I have some rotten cheese and rotten ham in my fridge. And some sparkling water. That’s it.
Before I left for London, I cooked a nice pasta for my wife… Carbonara.
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
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.
Yes. Yes. Exactly.
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.
It was very confusing. I was cooking a very eclectic cuisine.
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.
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. They wanted me to put Paddington bear on the cover of the book [laughs].
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.
Yes. Nowadays we don’t understand what “fine-dining” or “gastronomy” really mean: different things are happening.
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.
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
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