Maybe most of people haven’t heard of him (yet), but the truth is that the Limean chef Virgilio Martínez is currently the centre of all glances. It is so that even the National Restaurant Awards has awarded his restaurant Lima in London the One to Watch distinction. Besides, his restaurant in the Peruvian capital, Central, has been chosen as the best of the Country by the Summum guide.
He left the Country to study Culinary Arts, story that seems to repeat systematically, but this time instead of Europe he went to Canada and London, now, to the Cordon Bleu of course. In addition he has worked in New York, Singapore, Spain or Colombia, but home is home so he is back in Lima. Said like that, it sounds like he just came back from vacations, but actually he has been working hard at his Central restaurant from 2009. He stocks up from his own vegetable patch, and the cuisine he practices is contemporary Peruvian, sustainable and local.
Nora – Having studied abroad and worked in different places in the world, which cuisine would you say has influenced you the most?
Virgilio – Well right now I’m very attached to Country’s cuisine and its produce. But if we talk about which cuisine really touched me it would be the Asian, no doubt. Southeast Asia, for example, has a very direct style, a cuisine with so many nuances, like the hawker centers (food courts) in Singapore. I studied French cuisine and had always worked around that type of cuisine, but when visiting Singapore I realized they had no limits, didn’t follow recipes, there was so much to discover.
N – It’s obvious then that the products you work with are Peruvian, you even have a small vegetable patch on the restaurant’s rooftop and a bigger one a bit further away. This concept of local and sustainable larder, how is it sustained in you r restaurant in London, so far from Peru?
V – Actually now that you mention it, opening the restaurant in London is a contradiction indeed, because the type of cuisine we are doing right one is one really close to the earth, to the origins. So in London, such a metropolis, to be able to apply the Peruvian cuisine what I do is select 6 or 7 basic ingredients available in the market, and for the rest I choose ingredients related to the Peruvian in one way or another, for example the asparagus, which is widely produced in Peru. However the other component is completely local, and there’s the good thing, that we do a cuisine which adapts, which can be defined as flexible, and, above all, as real. There we have the challenge on innovation and creation, on trying to adapt the Peruvian recipes to the local produce, in this case, English. It’s not about bringing the raw material from Peru. When I got to Lima I had the same conflict, I wanted to bring the product from abroad: olive oil had to be Spanish etc, until we found a good Peruvian olive oil. We are trying to do the same in London, get to the source.
N – However, as the name of the restaurant is Lima, it can’t go too far off the Peruvian...
V – Exactly. But what we want is to transmit the concept of the current Lima, which has evolved a lot. Modern Lima is not as before now you can find very different concepts here.
N – How does Central’s menu work? Do you keep changing it depending on the availability of the produce?
V – Here in Central we change it a lot, as well as the tasting menu. What we do have is a fixed structure for the menu, say we have 10 steps, 10 moments, but the ingredients and side dishes keep changing. With the dishes in the menu is the same thing, now we are respecting the closed seasons a lot. Besides we are getting more and more different products, and we are trying to emphasize this novelties as we do try to innovate constantly.
N – At the Bulli, Ferrán Adriá used to close for 6 months in order to investigate. How do you deal with balancing both working and innovating at the same time?
V – Well that every cook’s dream, but we are still very young and still have loads of bills to pay. However we started a project in Cusco which we have an investigation group working for. It’s completely unlinked to Central because it has another focus, but I keep feeding from this group.
N – Seeing that you have started a project in Cusco, your restaurant Lima in London and of course the one in Lima, is it your goal to create a Virgilio’s empire as Acurio’s one?
V – Actually I don’t believe I could. I think that handling the projects that we already have, and seeing Central as a small real restaurant, what I would like is for them to be even smaller. For example we have around 70 seats in Central, and we’d like to lower it to 50 or 40 to make the experience more unique. We want to do things in a more specialized way. What Gastón is doing is great because there has been so much exposure. What we do in London is also great because it shows what I do, but besides this exposure I don’t crave anything else because I think only with that we’ve brought the attention over Peru and provoked people to come, which was the real goal. I don’t see the expansion as a business man, that’s not my path.
N – How do you see yourself in 10 years?
V – I see myself with a family, with a son, working less at the restaurant. Obviously I want to think that it’s going to go really well with Central, so then I’m sure I won’t be so much in the kitchen in 10 years. I’ll come more to orientate.
N – I’ve seen you have your own cocoa vault , what does it respond to?
V – When I was little I was allergic to chocolate, so I could never eat it. When I was around 15 they said the allergy was over so I started collecting cocoa bars from every trip I went to. The thing is that I didn’t know how to store them because humidity in Lima is too bad, so then I talked to this person who sorted it out the refrigeration system for us and that’s how we constructed this this cocoa lodge where we keep it. We also use it at the restaurant, we keep playing with it.
N – Once we’re over the Peruvian product recognition and the national boom, which do you think will be the next step for Peruvian gastronomy?
V – Look I think we are already over the boom and we are in the consequences period, grabbing the rebound, the good and the bad: the bad, we are running out of fish; the good, that everybody wants to know about Peruvian food. The discourse is over, now we are on the right track. There are lots of young cooks here eager to try new things. At least we have stablished the brand Peru. Before, ceviche was made in many places but no one would associate it with my Country. Now it’s known that it is Peruvian, and this is consequence of the boom. We are pretty much settled down.
N – Chefs like Paco Morales os The Daemon Chef are coming to cook at Central. How did this pop up dinner project where you invite foreign chefs happened?
V – Well we used to invite each other between chefs to cook in our houses, and at the end I thought it was a better idea to invite them to Central to share it with Peruvian people. It’s a good thing because it brings diversity to the Country. We are living our food very proudly, but we need to start looking at other cuisines as well. I also quite like to see how foreign cooks deal with our products, with our cuisine. That’s the interesting part.
N – If you could eat anywhere in the world right now, where would it be?
V – The last best meal I’ve had was at Masa, in NYC. A very pure Japanese.
WE EAT AT... Central
Every tasting menu is a trip, but Central’s is literally. Each dish of the 10 step menu is inspired in a region of Peru, specified on the napkin-menu that we are given. I hope my critics are constructive, because this has been the best meal of my travels so far anyway.
- Amuse bouche I: basil cracker. Pretentious holder for such a fragile triangle.
- Amuse bouche II: charred cassava with a cocoa lid on herbs soil, caramelized sweet potato on clementine soil. The cassava with cocoa is a surprise made mouthful., one keeps tasting and tasting not understanding very well what it is or how or why or when. However, the soils don’t taste too much like their colors.
-I. SHELLS HARVEST AND SOUTH SEAWEED (Bahía, South coast): scallops, amaranth, avocado with seaweed, tiger’s milk. I don’t usually label anything like perfect, but this dish is close. Very close.
-II. 60 MILES FISHING AT 6 DEGREES (North Coast):charela fish with courgette crust, airampo granite (Andean cactus fruit) and tiger milk (where I get milk and lemon). The granite is a great contribution for the temperature but keeps you waiting for flavour. In my opinion it’s lacking something, acidic? Spicy?
-III. ROCK OCTOPUS. PURPLE COAL (Central coast):the octopus has been charred on purple chicha coal, served on a lentil stew and some olive psicodelia. The octopus is just right: crisp on the outside, soft inside. However it asks for salt, and then the olive comes in. My question is: is the dot lake necessary? Wouldn’t it be enough with some very precise cuts of olive next to each octopus bite?
-IV. DEEP ANDINE WATER KING PRAWN (Low Andean valley): king prawns, airampo rice noodles, altitude cushuro seaweed spheres and fumet. This dish is indeed perfect.
-V. PAICHE IN AMAZON YURIMAGUAS VEGETABLE PATCH (Yurimaguas jungle): paiche (Amazonian fish), arracacha potato pureé and heart of palm salad, clam and fungus sauce, lime line. The paiche doesn’t convince me as a fish, it’s a bit rubbery and is not at the same level as the rest of the plate. The heart of palm is lacking that acidity that defines it and the sauce is also lacking a bit of deepness. The potato is delicious in both its textures. One misses a bit more of the lime.
-VI. SUCKER PORK ON ALTITUDE PASTURE (Central Andes): palosanto smoked pork cheeks, black quinoa from Cusco, purple chicha soil, sweet quinoa milk, yacón cubes. The sweet touch comes from the milk, the fibrous and fresh from the yacón, exquisite along with the cheeks. However, the black quinoa makes me hesitate.
- VII. 21 by 24 GOAT (Pachacamac): potatoes wrapped with clay, goat’s cheese wrapped with tomato granite, sicker lamb. It lives up to it, precise, very tasty, no surprises.
- VIII. BAHUAJA NUT (Mother of God): Taperibá (tropical fruit) with yoghurt, covered with grated bahuaja nut, plum meringue and mint grains from their vegetable patch. Exquisite sweat start: creamy (taperibá and yoghurt), dry (nuts), crunchy (meringue) and fresh (mint).
- IX. ANNONA TREE (North Amazon): chirimoya, maca cream, cocoa stone, vanilla pod. The cocoa stone makes the dessert: exquisite again. Mi only complain is why put on the dish a pod you can’t eat?
- X. TEA TIME: tea mixture elaborated by Central, served with homemade marshmallows and cocoa from their own vault.
Thank you Virgilio.