When The Best Chef in Latin America Came to Galway – An Interview with Virgilio Martinez
Picking up right where Food on the Edge left off last year, in the opening address for the second annual global chef symposium director JP McMahon sparked a conversation on ‘The Future of Food’; the theme of the festival. Just as provocative as his rallying call to action for chefs to become true change makers was his attire. Never shy about making a statement, the red-haired chef sported a Celtic look with a tweed shawl draped over his shoulders, and underneath a t-shirt emblazoned with ‘We Need to Talk About Seaweed’; a reference to JP’s personal mandate to make seaweed Ireland’s “national vegetable.”
While his dress sense might have raised a few eyebrows in the crowd, backstage, it threw the first star speaker, Virgilio Martinez, into a state of panic. Stepping in front of the podium, Virgilio revealed that JP’s t-shirt had caused him to think the entire theme of the festival had changed, and that the speech he had prepared on ‘Diversity’ would be entirely out of kilter with this new seaweed focus.
Despite perhaps not knowing a lot about seaweed in particular, the Peruvian chef could certainly appreciate the agenda to cast a light on overlooked indigenous ingredients. He went on to speak about the revival of interest in native Peruvian foods, including the humble potato. First domesticated in Peru, Virgilio enthused about the 4,000 native varieties that grow in the Andean highlands along with their tuber cousins like oca, that come in a mind-boggling spectrum of sizes and a rainbow of colours.
Boasting far more than potatoes, Peruvian food has burst onto the global stage in the last few years, and Virgilio is chief among a band of innovative chefs who have harmonised the diverse nature of Peru’s produce, micro-climates, and cultures to initiate a gastronomic revolution in the country. By virtue of his reinvention of Peruvian flavours and ingredients in a clean and contemporary style, in 2016 his restaurant, Central, in Lima, topped the list of Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants for the third year in a row. An equally impressive feat is its ranking as 4th Best Restaurant in the World.
Despite his successes, sitting down with Latin America’s best chef he is humble and sincere, and the same hands that have reshaped his country’s culinary identity are temporarily tattooed with ballpoint pen; notes to help quell his nerves. Not as surprising as his apprehension in his performance, are his typically Latin American qualities; sallow skinned, slight, and suave, Virgilio’s thick mop of glossy dark hair and defined beard frame his chocolate-brown eyes.
At 11am, shortly after his 9.30am speech, the chef was due to leave Galway having only arrived the evening before. Though Virgilio concedes the quick turnaround is something he has become used to: “I travel a lot, especially recently for the promotion of our new book, Central, which I think is necessary to spread our message.”
That message is simple: to increase the global recognition of the gastronomy of Peru, and Virgilio admits he feels a responsibility to spread the word.
“I live in a place where I get access to all these different producers, and I need to promote these people and their produce. I am always looking for people who are growing beautiful and amazing stuff, so I think our mission is to promote these people.”
His dedication to the cause has seen him cross borders, opening LIMA in London in 2012, which earned a Michelin star of its own within a year, little sister LIMA Floral in 2014, and a LIMA concession at luxury department store Harrods, and Virgilio has plans to bring contemporary Peruvian cuisine to Dubai. “As much as we are one to be very local, we are getting very, very global,” he says beaming.
Commenting why Peru’s cuisine has spread like wildfire globally, Virgilio says: “it’s a lot to do with biodiversity,” citing the rich bounty of tubers and potatoes, hundreds of types of corn, and the other native ingredients like quinoa and maca root that have become the ‘superfoods’ du jour.
Closer to home, he reveals that he plans to open a food lab and restaurant in the remoteness of the Andes, on the edge of the Inca ruins of Moray. Overlooking the ancient plateau of garden terraces, Virgilio and his team of ten chefs, along with an array of other experts such as foragers, botanists, anthropologists, and artists will research, grow and cook the native ingredients that are so central to his cooking.
While he is steadfast in his vision today, for twenty years Virgilio admits he suffered from a lack of identity. During that time he travelled all over the world, training with chefs like André Soltner at Lutèce and Gastón Acurio at Astrid y Gastón. “Peru wasn’t the best place to be at the time,” the chef says. Despite his worldly experience, Virgilio concedes looking back he says he was more naive then he thought. All that time, he, like many others in Peru, had turned his back on his Andean origins, and neglected the resources and ancient traditions of what is the oldest civilization in South America.
Virgilio came home and embarked on mission to rediscover his country, travelling from the picturesque Pacific Ocean coastline in the West, to the majestic national parks in the East, into the wild jungles that spread from South to North, and high onto the magnificent Andes that form the spine of the country. His shallow perceptions were soon dashed as his travels revealed the “richness of the land.” Virgilio says research was a “complete revelation” that brought him to a “new level of understanding and cooking”.
Virgilio appreciated for the first time that the Andes stretching from North to South, divided Peru into three distinct natural geographical areas: coast, jungle, and mountains, and through this revelation he “found a new way to see Peruvian Cuisine.” At his restaurant on Lima’s coast he began to question the concept of local, and whether to focus on their direct locality, or on the entire diverse landscape of Peru.
“Ecosystem is our rule,” says Virgilio of the philosophy which now guides his cooking. At Central the menu is a gastronomic exploration of altitude and Peru’s ecosystem. “Andean people see the world in a vertical way, not a horizontal way,” explains Virgilio.
“We don’t mix the ecosystems. We preserve ingredients to each area. What grows together, goes together on the plate.”
Central’s tasting menu starts from 20 metres below sea level and travels up to 4,100 metres, taking diners on a culinary expedition of the Peruvian ingredients that grow at various elevation; from the seafood-rich Pacific, to the fertile Andes where potatoes, corn and tomatoes grow abundantly, to the Amazon basin where an array of exotic jungle fruits and herbs flourish.
His journey through Peru and through food has encouraged him to look beyond foraging for ingredients and to preserve of the ecosystem, to “give back.” At the heart of Central is Mater, an initiative that sees him and his team regularly travelling across the country in search of ingredients and stories from local producers. His explorations will be deepened at the lab and restaurant at Moray, where he will cook food found only in the surrounding areas, and using only ancient cooking techniques.
He hopes to launch the project, named Mil, a reference to its altitude of 11,500 feet, in March 2017. Next year will also see Central move to the trendy Barranco neighborhood, having outgrown its original home, and add a bar to their offering to accommodate the droves of customers that come early, to make the most of their prized bookings at the restaurant. His wife Pia, who does most of the cooking at Central, will also open her own restaurant next door, with an à la carte menu; a project that is still very much under wraps.
Virgilio says his sense of responsibility to investigate, preserve and share Peru’s gastronomy has been heightened by the awards and accolades he has accumulated:
“We don’t work for these awards, they are just a consequence. But at the same time they give you more voice, and more responsibility. I think now you have to use this exposure to spread the right messages, and not just think about your own restaurant and your persona.”
He believes that coming together with like-minded chefs and other stakeholders at events like Food on the Edge is vital to the development of the food industry. “It makes people think. You can feel that all the people who are here have all this ambition and willingness to bring about change.” “The future of food is sharing knowledge constantly, now we understand that food connects our whole world. We are in contact with food everyday, and food is connecting us to nature, every bite that you take is a connection to that food, the people who produced it, and a culture.”
With time ticking on his time in Ireland, Virgilio lamented that he could not indulge his passion for discovery and exploration of new ingredients, flavours and cultures here more. Though it appears he did get a fleeting chance to draw one culinary parallel between Ireland and Peru: stumbling across the purple heritage potatoes from Ballymckenny Farm, in the Artisan Food Village at Food on the Edge, he shared a photo of the terrific tuber on Instagram with the caption: “Irlande: amigos de la papa también” – Ireland: friends of the potato too.
Erica grew up with a baker and confectioner for a father, and a mother with an instinct and love for good food. It is little wonder then that, after completing a law, she went on to do a Masters in Food Business at UCC. With a consuming passion for all things food, nutrition and wellness, working with TheTaste is a perfect fit for Erica; allowing her to learn and experience every aspect of the food world meeting its characters and influencers along the way.