This episode of David Gelb’s Netflix documentary series Chef’s Table circles around the theme of discovery. Virgilio Martínez is the chef/owner of Central, a restaurant in Lima, Peru that currently sits at number four on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. After a decade spent cooking in kitchens around the world, Martínez only found his true identity as a chef when he began exploring the different regions of his native Peru, from the ocean to the Andes. While some chefs are obsessed with a “sense of place,” Martínez strives to offer his guests a sense of many places — entire ecosystems over the course of a tasting menu. Here are some takeaways from one of the most visually stunning episodes that Gelb and Co. have ever filmed:
• Martínez always had an adventurous spirit, but growing up in Peru during the 70s and ‘80s meant that many parts of the country were closed off to him. The chef notes: “When I was a kid, every single region of Peru was a tiny bubble, and I was living in this bubble of Lima. We had no idea about the Andes, we had no idea about the Amazonia. I was actually forbidden to go there because of the terrorism, the economic situation. There was a lack of hope and I felt trapped.”
• As a teenager, he learned that pursuing a career in the kitchen would allow him the freedom to travel all over the world. Martínez describes his first time working in the kitchen as “an amazing experience,” and his love of the culinary life only grew deeper from there. The chef remarks: “From an excuse, it turned to be my passion.”
• After working in European-centric restaurants abroad, Martínez returned home to Peru to visit his family, where he got a chance to cook with some local ingredients. This made him rethink the path that he was going down. Martínez notes: “I realized that I spent six years as a foreigner doing cuisines that did not belong to me, and I had no idea about Peruvian cuisine. For me, it was a call for a wake up.”
• The chef pursued a job working in a restaurant run by Peruvian celebrity chef Gastón Acurio. After working his way through the kitchen, Acurio put Martínez in charge of a restaurant he was opening in Madrid. This is really where Virgilio started to develop his experimental style. Acurio explains:
People started telling me that he was much more creative than me. So I went to Madrid to see my restaurant. I tasted arroz con pato, which is [a] traditional Peruvian dish. It was completely changed. I told him to put the dish back. “You need to put more of this and that and that.” And I left... I felt there’s a moment that you need to play the game, and there’s a moment that you need to play your game. Clearly, it was time for him to play his game.
• Martínez decided to leave Spain to go and work on opening his own restaurant in Peru. “I had to grow in my own country, with my own dreams,” he says.
• Shortly after opening Central, Martínez got some generally positive feedback. But people were saying that the food reminded them of something they would find in New York or London, which irked the chef. After some soul searching, Martínez realized what was holding him back: “I was confused about what type of food I was going to serve. I was very influenced by 10 years of being abroad. I was doing European cuisine with this Peruvian touch. There was something missing, this lack of identity.”
• The chef decided to take some time to explore the different regions of Peru. His big “aha” moment came while staying with a family in the Andes, near the ancient Incan agricultural terraces at Moray: “After seeing these terraces, I was obsessed. And then I started to talk to people, and I learned some Andean philosophy of life... They actually see the world in different levels and altitudes.” After this trip he decided to explore the idea of cooking dishes based on altitudes and ecosystems.
• Martínez runs Central’s kitchen with his wife, Pia León. They developed the altitude-based menu concept together. Martínez’s sister, Malena, has a science background, so he brought her on as part of the team to explore different terrains in search of ingredients that they could use at the restaurant. Virgilio remarks: “We use 180 ingredients, and 50 percent of them are unknown.“
• While on the hunt for things to cook, the Central team members also document their findings in the name of science. Malena explains: “We are focused on bringing stuff from different parts of Peru, and doing identification of species. We are the research arm of Central... This would be like the first filter. So the stuff that we see [that has] potential, we then bring to experiment in the kitchen of Central.”
• At Central, Virgilio and Pia also want to honor the cooking traditions of communities from all over Peru. One course of the dinner is inspired by the Andean tradition of baking potatoes in a soil oven called a huatia.
• The altitude-themed tasting menu was introduced in 2012, and the following year, Central landed at the bottom of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. Two years later, it soared to number four.
• Virgilio and Pia are now parents, and Martínez wants to become more of a family man. But at the same time, he fells like the Central team is just getting started. Martínez explains: “Since I came up with the idea of the altitude menu, we’ve been discovering these new things. And after four years, I realize that we know nothing — we know a little, that’s it. I’m still learning a lot. This is a work in progress. This is just the beginning.”