Back in late April, Peruvian chef Virgilio Martínez witnessed his Lima-based restaurant Central crack the World's 50 Best Restaurants list. The ingredient-driven Central snagged the very last spot on the list — "I'm the worst of the 50 Best," Martínez jokes — while his more traditional Peruvian year-old London-based restaurant Lima London catered the event. Martínez and his fellow Peruvian chef Gastón Acurio also announced at the time that they're going to be opening a joint venture in London next year. And now the Latin America's 50 Best Restaurants list is set to launch in Lima on September 4, just days before the kickoff of Peru's annual Mistura food festival.
Yesterday, Martínez talked about the ways in which he has seen gastronomy evolve in his country and his own efforts to evangelize Peruvian food. Now, in the second part of this two-part interview, Martínez shares his thoughts about the World's 50 Best Restaurants list and what the impending debut of the Latin American list means for the region. He also shares a few more details about the project with Acurio, which is essentially going to be two restaurants in one.
Central hit the World's 50 Best list for the first time this year. What was that like for you?
It was really nice. I'm the worst of the 50 Best. (laughs) It was fantastic. Honestly, I had no idea. I had no clue. Well, you receive the letter. But I was really surprised. I thought it was going to be something wrong because the restaurant is really young. We are getting into our fourth year and I know we've been working hard. We've been doing a lot of new stuff and, yeah, nowadays the restaurant is getting a lot of attention from many places in the world.
I wouldn't say [the 50 Best is] changing the story of Central. Central is still the same, just with more people coming from abroad. That's the only change. Lots of people are coming just because of the list. I've never had something like that. We don't have PR here. When I opened the restaurant, I only called my friends. And then the week after, we started to get our regulars. So nowadays, it's hard for us to get organized to book tables properly.
We are very happy to be part of something so special for lots of people. I understand that actually people really put more value [on a restaurant] if you really have a message or something to say. This country needs to deliver a real message of what's going on in Peru. I think that's our main commitment at Central, to give everyone the real message of what's going on in Peru.
That's great. And now you're about to have the first-ever Latin America's 50 Best Restaurants in Peru.
Yeah, one or two days before Mistura. There are a lot of people coming from everywhere, a lot of them from Latin America. We are very surprised because the impact is huge. I think it's nice to get to know people from Argentina, Brazil, Chile. We don't get to travel very much. It's not Europe, where you take a train and that's it, you're in São Paulo. It's like a five-hour flight or something like that. So we don't get to travel often. But in a gastronomic way, what is happening is great because lots of people are coming, lots of cooks, lots of students. I think the city is going to be quite a mess, but in a positive way.
Central. [Photo: Facebook]
Yeah, everyone is going to Mistura.
Yeah, I think it's part of the agenda for a lot of people who really enjoy food, going to Mistura and seeing this very massive festival. And then have a look at street food, go to restaurants, and then the Latin America 50 Best is one other thing. There are a lot of things that are happening. I think it's going to be a whirlwind, very intense. We have to be ready.
What do you think it means to have the Latin America 50 Best? And should Latin American restaurants have greater representation on the World list? Or is it getting there?
I think it's great to have the Latin America list. It's going to give more importance to Latin America in a worldwide perspective. People in Asia and Australia are going to hear about our countries, our neighbors like Chile, Argentina, Brazil. So it's good for Latin America to have this exposure to the world. We all know that this list is important for some countries. Some other countries it's not that much important. But, honestly, in Peru it is important. I think it's going to be important to our region. At the end of the day, we need more people to come and visit us.
And then [having] Latin American restaurants on the World's 50 Best list, I think we've made a huge achievement. Many years ago, people wouldn't think that you could have a real nice [gastronomic] experience in our countries. And now I think people are starting to see that they can come to Buenos Aires, São Paulo, Mexico City, Lima and really, really enjoy food. I think any type of exposure like that helps. It's really welcome.
And you and Gastón Acurio are helping to spread the appreciation of Peruvian food in London, both with your own restaurant plus this news of a new joint venture. What's the latest on that project?
The idea of opening with Gastón was really fun because he wanted to open a restaurant like La Mar in London. He just called me and was like, "Oh, we're thinking to open in London. We can do something together." At one point I was thinking why not do two restaurants in one place? He totally agreed. And then we started to develop the concept.
We had this meeting with my partners and their partners and we all agreed to have a very casual restaurant with 150 covers or something like that. We'll have a late-night bar, pisco sour, a lot of ceviche, a lot of seafood. Very, very simple and basic Peruvian food. Gastón has lots of restaurants all over the world and he understands well what people like about Peruvian food. So we're thinking to do this and then having a restaurant with only 15 seats [where we'll have] different things happening like pop-ups. We have a lot of young chefs here in Lima that really don't have exposure.
I feel that since I opened [Lima] in London, I have a lot of attention in London. And Peru is starting to have a lot of attention. So I was thinking why not bring in all of these guys? The ones who are doing Nikkei cuisine, Japanese-Peruvian. The guys who are doing Chinese and Peruvian fusion. Why not bring in those guys and have these different things happening? Or even have a long tasting menu just for this small area. So it's going to be very theatrical. It'll be a small area to do some crazy stuff. I think it's going to be fun, thinking about how cosmopolitan and how open London is to new concepts. Why not do something really hip? And I think London could be the city to welcome this craziness. Hopefully.
That sounds awesome. How far away is that? Next year sometime?
Yeah, we are looking for a place in Shoreditch. Shoreditch is a cool area full of bars and lots of young people. A lot of energy. We are very close to getting the restaurant location. After that, we have one guy to be the chef. So that part is kind of ready. But the most important part, which is the location is still on the waiting list. We haven't signed yet.
That part always takes too long. Anyway, how has everything been with Lima London? Sounds like you've gotten a pretty good response over the year it's been open?
I'm very happy with Lima London. I really enjoy going to London because, three years ago, London didn't have any idea of what Peruvian food was all about. Then a guy called Martin Morales opened a restaurant called Ceviche. We opened two months later. And this guy helped a lot to inform Londoners about Peruvian food. So when we opened, people had some knowledge [of it]. But I wasn't trying to do what we are doing at Central. I have to remove all my Central ideas or the feeling of being in Central because this is not our focus. Our focus is Lima as the capital of Peru, which is getting most of the influences from many cuisines, many ingredients from all over Peru.
People are happy. I really like it because people in London are very open-minded to new flavors and new trends. Actually, I don't like it when people say it's a new trend or it's in fashion or whatever. What I want to say is it's something real and it's going to last. We don't want to get into this "trendiest scene in London." We don't want to be that. We just want to be a normal, real restaurant that works and that is making people happy. Drinking lots of pisco and having very relaxed food like in a cevicheria, that makes a restaurant very simple yet very direct. I love it.
It's great because when I get people to go to Lima London, some guys book tables at Central and go to Peru. It's just magic. It helps a lot, not only for me as well. It helps all the restaurants. And it's not only my restaurant in London. Some other restaurants are doing the same thing. So it's a good way of giving attention to, "Hey, come to Peru and get the real experience."