Photography by Erick Andía
Two years ago most people had not heard of Virgilio Martínez. But since then his rise in the international restaurant scene has been truly meteoric. It happened after his first entry in 2013 into The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list at number 50. It surprised everyone – including the chef himself, but from that moment on, things started to change for Virgilio Martínez.
His story is rather unusual. He was the national skateboard champion in Peru at the age of 19, but after an accident, he decided to change direction: “I loved the sport, but couldn’t do it any more at the same level. I tried to become a lawyer, following a family tradition, but it was not for me. In the kitchen, I found all elements that could make me happy!”
A holiday job at the family catering company made him enthusiastic about a possible new career and he decided to enroll at Le Cordon Bleu in Ottawa, Canada, later continuing the course in London.
He obtained international experience in the US and Spain, and then joined the team of Gastón Acurio, becoming the executive chef at Astrid y Gastón in Bogota.
He opened his first restaurant, Central in 2010, after a long delay for legal reasons. The support from his family was important to make it happen – his mother was the architect of the beautiful restaurant and as the family was in the food business and on hand to offer support.
Martínez has used all of the opportunities that have come his way wisely. With great focus, commitment and hard work, he has managed to get Central on the right track: “I was always a perfectionist and very obsessed and competitive in my work. In the kitchen I managed to find myself in the right place, with the right tools to be able to develop my ideas.”
The restaurant is not only beautiful, but also has some interesting elements that make it different from other restaurants. Because of the lack of rain in Lima, the kitchen is partially open, and the development kitchen (next to the main kitchen) has an old tree in the corner, with branches showing on the second floor, as part of the herbal roof garden. Central is also proud of its water laboratory. The water served in the restaurant is filtered by an inverted osmosis system, and is also used to make ice cubes for cocktails. The sustainable solutions of Central match perfectly the cuisine of Martínez – cushuros cyanobacterias, frozen potatoes, multi-coloured quinoas, Andean herbs and exotic flowers are part of delicate yet powerful dishes. What Central does in each menu is to capture elements of Peruvian nature in a unique way. Each dish is a journey discovering a tradition, a technique, or even a forgotten product. The bread at Central is made with the powder of coca leaves, an ancient Andean product used to keep people healthy at high altitudes. You will see various types of exotic grain, from amaranth to kiwicha. Even the butter will provide you with a surprise – maybe prepared with pure cocoa nibs, or with cupuassu (or cupuaçu) – a pre-Colombian Amazonian fruit.
Nothing is ordinary at Central, but the richness of Peruvian nature is presented gently, in a curious and exciting way. You can have lamb with quinoa or kiwicha from 1,200-metres above sea level or delicate scallops from the sea, or even a dessert from the Amazonian forest with fruit and herbs with unpronounceable names. Infused water, artisan beers and perfect wine matching using the characteristics of the terroir of each dish will make the Central experience a memorable journey through Peruvian flavours.
Martínez wanted to expand his business in 2012, but to reduce risk he first opened a restaurant (Senso) in Cusco inside the hotel Palacio Nazarenas of the Orient Express group. In the same year he had a great opportunity in London – a partnership with brothers Gabriel and Jose Luis Gonzales. The concept was casual and modern Peruvian style, with Lima restaurant opening in 2012 in Fitzrovia; in less than a year after the opening, it received its first Michelin star. Lima was the first Peruvian restaurant in the UK to enter the Michelin Guide and this made it an important event for Peru, not only for the chef.
After the great success in London, the partners decided to open Lima Floral, in Soho; this second house opened its doors this summer – and was also an immediate success. Both concepts express the Peru of today – a contemporary approach to Peruvian cuisine where comfort and creativity interact together.
There are other plans for expansion in the near future, in Peru and also internationally, but Martínez prefers to announce things only when plans are complete. He had announced previously plans of an opening with chef Gastón Acurio in London, but these seem to be frozen for the time being.
Central is the best restaurant in Peru today, according to Peruvian restaurant guide Summum. It is the number one in Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants 2014 and number 15 in The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list.
Married to his sous-chef, Pia Leon, the chef also has his sister, Malena Martínez, as his partner at Central. These two strong and intelligent women help him to keep his feet on the ground: “To be honest, they are the bosses at Central! I just want to keep cooking and dreaming!” says Martínez with a smile.
He travels around Peru with his sister and friends to relax, but uses the opportunity to discover new products and to learn more about his country. The informal weekend expeditions turned into Mater Iniciativa – a project that gives the names to menus at Central, and is now the core of his work. The menu is divided by altitude, having one central product in each dish as the protagonist. It is a delicious and exciting dining experience and at the same time a lesson in geography!
The wide nature of Peru offers to a creative chef, such as Martínez, the perfect ground for research. As Mater Iniciativa needs support from people with local and academic knowledge, he has involved local communities and experts from local universities to find out more about the potential of using each new product.
In the development kitchen at Central, Martínez relies on the young yet experienced Mexican chef Karime Tagle, who worked for many years at RyuGin, in Japan, Can Fabes in Spain, and Pujol in Mexico. The wine and drink programme at Central is in the hands of the US sommelier, Gregory Smith – who creates the perfect matching to a complex menu – the best in Lima, according to specialists. With a team of young and talented chefs and waiters, Martínez has all the tools to keep growing.
Two cookbooks are also on the way – the first to be released in 2015 by Octopus Publishing Group. Travelling around the world for congresses, events and overviewing three restaurants, there is not much spare time: “It is a busy time, but when you love what you do, you manage to go through the stressful times without losing your positivity and enjoying every minute! I am happy and grateful!”