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Inside Virgilio Martínez and Pia León’s Growing Empire

New restaurants, a new food lab, and a new event series are in the works

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Virgilio Martínez and Pía León Courtesy of Central

Chefs Virgilio Martínez and Pia León, the husband-and-wife team behind the globally renowned Lima restaurant Central, have major expansion plans. They have multiple restaurant projects working in Lima and Cuzco, and potentially in London — all this immediately following Martínez’s two hit cookbooks (Lima and Central) and his star turn on the Netflix food television phenomenon Chef’s Table.

While their new projects range from a “new” Central to a more approachable all-day restaurant, the part of the Central empire that León and Martínez are focused on growing the most is their research arm, Mater Iniciativa. Run by Martínez’s sister, Malena Martínez, Mater Iniciativa is the beating heart that provides Central with the rare and foraged species that they are so known for — something they wouldn’t be Central without. “Mater Iniciativa is growing the most out of everything, even more than Central,” Martínez tells Eater of their upcoming expansion plans. “If Mater Iniciativa doesn’t work, Central doesn’t have any motivation or content.”

Here now, a look at what this multifaceted expansion means for team Central:

We will be ready very soon , would we had imagined we would have this landscape to cook ? Meet my next best friends ...

A post shared by Virgilio Martinez (@virgiliocentral) on

Mil, Cuzco

Projected opening: November 2017

Mil is the eagerly awaited next restaurant from Martínez, located in Cuzco, Peru. It will sit near the Moray, terraced Inca ruins (where the chef was first inspired to think of cooking based on altitude), at 11,500 feet above sea level, according to Bloomberg. To be clear, the restaurant is not changing the landscape of the area: “We need to protect that landscape,” Martínez tells Eater, “so we won't interfere with the view. The restaurant will be very close, but won’t have access; there’ll be no interruption of the beauty.”

Last year he told Bloomberg that the restaurant would focus on local ingredients found in the Andes prepared using ancient and traditional techniques, like in-ground roasting with hot stones and fire pit cooking. As he explains it now, his goals for the seven-course menu might sound lofty, but they’re of a piece with the work at Central. “We’ll do some modern things, but we still want to keep the sense of place and identity of the Andean culture,” he says. Guests will enter through his “food lab” Mater Iniciativa (more on that below), and the experience will end outside.

Mil was originally supposed to be open in March 2017, but now the chef tells Eater he’s looking at November.

Virgilio Martínez and others gather plants in Peru
The first Momento event
Courtesy of Central

Mater Iniciativa Food Lab, Cuzco

Projected opening: November 2017

A second branch of Mater Iniciativa housed on the same property as Mil will not only allow for students and researchers from around the world to come together for a stint of learning and discovering alongside Melena Martínez, it will also provide the grounds for a new weekend series dedicated to discovering and fostering conversation about Peruvian ingredients. “We [hosted] a meeting of 60 chefs and specialists in different areas to spend three days in the Sacred Valley,” Malena Martínez explains of the first Momento Andes event, which hosted chefs from all over the world. “There were lots of activities surrounding the Andean world. We planted, harvested, we spent three days together. We’re going to keep doing stuff like this, big ones and little ones — not just for chefs; anybody can come join.”

The plan is for each future Momento event to focus on a different region. “Momento Tambopata will be held November 2018,” says Malena Martínez. “We will be traveling a lot to that specific [region] in order to get more connected to that very unique rainforest.”

To get a feel for Momento, check out this video:

Central 2.0, Lima

Projected opening: April 2018

Say goodbye to the old Central, because its days are officially numbered. Following the purchase of a new location in Lima’s hip Barranco neighborhood, Martínez and León are closing March 2018 and relocating their flagship restaurant to a large complex chock full of new projects. Not only will the complex be home to the new Central, it will also host a new, more accessible concept called Kjolle (more below), a garden dedicated to the plants species of coastal Lima, and a larger space for their research arm, Mater Iniciativa (right now, the crew is working out of something that is not much bigger than a broom closet).

Pia León at Mater Iniciativa Lima
Courtesy of Central

Kjolle, Lima

Projected opening: April 2018

With months-long waits for reservations, an 18-course tasting menu, and the top spot on Latin America’s 50 Best list, Central isn’t exactly accessible to all. That’s where Kjolle will come in. “It’s a concept where we want people to come to more often, where locals can come without a reservation,” Martínez says.

Named for an indigenous Peruvian plant species, this new restaurant will serve food that showcases a variety of Latin American cuisine from Peru to Patagonia and beyond. León is taking the helm at Kjolle, giving her a chance to get some of the spotlight that Martínez believes is long overdue. “Pia is the one who is directing the [Central] kitchen, she’s the one who is not getting any credit at all, and she’s the one who’s always in the kitchen doing the hard work,” Martínez says. “She deserves the space to just do her own thing.”

León seems to be looking forward to what she calls the “liberty” of Kjolle, to use ingredients from different ecosystems in a way that is just not possible given the tenets of Central. “It’s more like free work, it going to be more creativity,” she says. Of course, she hopes to still give plenty of attention to Central. “The idea is I’ll be in both restaurants. They’re close, walking distance. I don’t want it to be separate; Central is home.”

Possible Casual London Restaurant

Projected opening: TBA 2018

While there have been rumors of an upcoming London restaurant, Virgilio Martínez says that something casual may be on the horizon: “I’m not sure it’s 100 percent, but we’re working for the possibility.” For now the concept will revolve around simple Peruvian dishes like ceviche with unique, Central-esque ingredients. According to Martínez, what’s really standing in the way is finding the right space. “We have a plan but not the place. I wouldn’t say it will be opening, but it’s in our plan. Maybe by the end of next year.”

And no, Martínez and León are not opening in the United States anytime soon.

“I’d love to, but it’s not the right time yet,” Martínez says. “What I can tell you is, if we work this way, things will be moving to America, because there’s a lot of people working with us and they want to move there, they want to do stuff in New York.”

Hillary Eaton is a food and travel writer based in Los Angeles.
Additional reporting by Hillary Dixler.

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