It's been a pretty important couple of years for both Peruvian cuisine and its young practitioner Virgilio Martínez, chef of Lima's acclaimed Central. Peruvian gastronomy has continued to capture the world's attention, a fact that will be underlined in September with the recurrence of the annual Mistura food festival as well as the debut of the Latin's America's 50 Best Restaurants list. And Central is likely to place fairly high on that list given its entrance earlier on the World's 50 Best Restaurants list in 2013 (at lucky spot #50).
In the following interview, Martínez traces the evolution of Peruvian gastronomy and explains his commitment to serve as an ambassador of sorts for his country during his travels to culinary congresses. He also talks about his restaurant's research initiative, Mater Iniciativa, that seeks to discover and register the hundreds of wild Peruvian products that remain undocumented.
I was talking with Christopher Kostow right before your Lummi Island dinner. How was that?
I was really amazed about the whole thing in Lummi Island. Christopher was hilarious, Blaine [Wetzel] was such a great guy. Cooking in the same kitchen with Grant Achatz was something really, really amazing for me. Kind of a legend, right?
Yeah no kidding.
I've read many of his books, so sharing a kitchen was great. And then Justin [Yu] and Dominique [Crenn], yeah. I'm coming back to the CIA in November. I'm going to meet these guys again.
Is that for their seminar [the Worlds of Flavor conference]?
Yes. I've seen the lineup with chefs from Spain, France, Singapore, London. Lots of friends are going there, so it's going to be quite amazing.
Awesome. How often do you get to travel?
I'm trying to spend 80 percent of my time here. When we opened London, I stayed for one month for the opening until I was convinced the chef was right in philosophy and that he had the touch and everything. So I stayed one month, then my wife stayed probably like two months. Lately I have to go to London every three or four months [and] I stay for one week.
And then for every congress, I try to go for like two days once a month or something like that. Sometimes I go to [dinners] like Lummi Island. An experience like that, how can I say no because there is so much learning and sharing. [Doing] some real foraging in the States was amazing. I have to pick very well where to go, right? I cannot leave my restaurant that much. But for Peruvians it's different — this happens with Gaston a lot, but for him it's at another level — because people want to know what's going on with Peru. We have this commitment to talk about what's going on here in Peru. We have to go.
To be an ambassador.
Yeah. We don't talk that much about our restaurants. What we do is we talk in general. We're trying to get people to understand that there is a very deep culture of food [in Peru] and there are not only three or four restaurants as people sometimes think. There are plenty of different experiences. We have a lot of passion about what we do with food.
Virgilio Martínez at the Willows Inn on Lummi Island. [Photo: Facebook]
For the last year or two, people have been talking about the rise of South American and especially Peruvian cuisine. What do you think sparked that interest?
On one side, it's something very obvious: I think people are looking for something new. I think the unknown [is] something really sexy for people. They want to know what's going on outside of their own places. And then Peru believes a lot in its own identity, so [these people notice] when there is a country or people that really care about their culture and look after its legacy. In Peru, most people depend on our diversity. So we are really looking after our ingredients, our traditions, our food.
And then a lot of other people, even in many places in the States, really respect a natural, diverse, kind of organic, wild country. After that, having all this diversity [in Peru's] natural environment, we also have a diversity of cultural gastronomic styles and legacies. We've got the Incas legacy, and then the Japanese and Chinese arrived, and then Italians and Spanish. This happens everywhere, but in Peru it was special because people were really open-minded to let these people in. The Chinese came to Peru and they were eating in our houses, sharing our food. This is a very modern way of thinking that happened a hundred years ago. So I think that's one other factor. But there are lots.
The other thing is whenever I get to see people, most of them haven't experienced the Amazon. People are really touched by the energy of the natural view of the country. I think their experience is very emotional. So I think that makes any type of gastronomic experience in Peru a lot more special.
Also, you can get [most Peruvian ingredients] anywhere in the world. Really nice cacao, really nice coffee, really good fish. You pay for good fish and you can get good fish everywhere in the world. That makes Peruvian food adaptable to many places in the world. So I think that helps a lot.
That makes sense. I read an interview in which you mentioned that when you were younger you weren't sure whether to be proud of Peruvian cuisine. Can you talk more about that? Obviously you're proud of it now, but is that a sentiment that's widespread now across the country or is it still being evangelized?
When I was like 17, people were very concerned about the situation in Peru, the terrorism and kidnappings. It was not a very nice place to live. Even going out for dinner was difficult. It wasn't safe. And people were very negative. Most people were leaving the country. You grow up with this, and the only message you get is, "You have to leave." Everything turns bad, even the food turns bad. We have amazing stuff like great potatoes, great tomatoes, but we were unable to get them because we had very bad issues happening in the Andes and the Amazonia.
On the other side, the message of our parents' generation was that there was not much to do in the Andes or the Amazonia where everything is happening nowadays. There is nothing to do there because terrorism was based there. In order to keep ourselves safe, we had to stay in our houses in Lima, the capital. So you were not able to get as much information as you can get now. Now, you can take your car and in one hour you can be at 4,000 meters above sea level, very very high in the Andes. And then you can drive two or three hours more and you can get to the Amazon. So you can see a very diverse country, diverse people.
That's why when I got back to Peru, I had this feeling of, "Wow, it has changed a lot." And then we didn't actually have this feeling of Peruvian cuisine. It was more like, "Oh let's have Italian or French gastronomy." You could not imagine having a nice Peruvian asparagus on the plate. We had to have some foie gras or something like that. So we were confused.
When did you feel it all start to change? Or was it while you were traveling abroad?
You know what, I spent some time in Madrid and in Barcelona 10 years ago. After awhile, I went back to Peru and I saw more calm in the city. In the gastronomic sense, it was just okay, it was good. I had this epiphany when I went to Southeast Asia and I saw how people were very proud of street food. That really inspired me to go to the very unknown parts [of Peru]. So I got to know these parts, and I got to know all these ingredients. When I saw 200 ingredients that I'd never seen in my life, I was like, okay we have to do something with this because this is just amazing. And then we started to do the research on recipes with those ingredients. That was my personal motivation to go back to Peru and do my thing.
Martínez at this year's Mesamérica. [Photo: Amy McKeever/Eater.com]
I wanted to ask you, too, about the Mater Iniciativa. Can you explain a little more about what it is?
Probably three years ago, [my team and I] started to travel around Peru just to get produce, inspiration, and get to know people. We were having a lot of fun. We were traveling Saturday, Sunday and Monday all over Peru. So we had this idea of taking these products and giving some of them a name — some of them don't even have names and people don't know they're available. And then after that, we were so inspired. We started to travel more to get these unique products.
Then we started to call anthropologists, biologists. We called these friends and then we decided to do our own group. We call it Mater Iniciativa because it's a way to get information and get to register wild products of Peru that are not even known for us. That's the idea. It's really inspiring us to continue doing some serious stuff with our food and giving the right message. [Peruvians have] had some bad information for years and years, and now we have to try to fight against this not very good information about food.
So are you still traveling on the weekend a lot for this?
Yeah. So we do Saturdays and Sundays and sometimes we get to travel in the middle of the week. Mater Iniciativa doesn't need me on all the trips. My sister is working with me now in Mater. She's the one who's dealing with the whole agenda of Mater. She's now 100 percent committed. And I have another girl from Mexico who just started to work with us because the agenda is getting very full with trees and things to plant.
We have to give information to restaurant people. Next week, they're going to the mountains again, two or three hours from here by car, to get some herbs that we just discovered. A week afterward, we have to decide if we'll post it on our website just to share with people. But then what's important is to put a registration on this.
Stay tuned tomorrow for part two of the interview in which Martínez discusses Central's ascent to the World's 50 Best Restaurants list, the creation of the Latin America's 50 Best Restaurants list, and his new London project with Gastón Acurio.