“The Amazon is the most fragile part of Peru right now,” says Malena Martínez, the research director of Mater Iniciativa, the driving force behind Central, the acclaimed restaurant in Peru. In her role, Martínez oversees projects, manages the Mater Iniciativa, and studies the preservation of Peru’s natural resources with the hope of sharing Peru’s biological and cultural diversity with the world. “We think that if we create a demand,” she says, “we can help [Amazonian communities] preserve what they have.”
Much of that work happens alongside chefs Pia León and Virgilio Martínez (who happens to be Malena’s brother); the duo are the proprietors of Central and the destination restaurant Mil, which stands 11,706 feet above sea level at the Inca ruins in Moray outside of Cusco. At the end of July, Virgilio Martínez is set to bring his first venture to Asia, Ichu Peru in Hong Kong. And last week, after a decade in Miraflores, the chefs closed the doors at the original Central, the restaurant that earned them global recognition, including a place on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. They moved it to a new location, Casa Tupac, in the Barranco neighborhood, where they also opened a bar, Mayo, and will soon open the more casual Kjolle restaurant.
Virgilio Martínez largely attributes this rapid growth to the scientific and social research center at the heart of the couple’s restaurant empire. “Mater Iniciativa is growing the most out of everything,” he told Eater in a recent interview. “If Mater Iniciativa doesn’t work, Central doesn’t have any motivation or content.”
Malena and Virgilio Martínez decided to call the center Mater, for Mother Earth and “alma mater,” which means the core or soul of something, the place where one belongs. When the research center started in 2013, a small research team led by Martínez traveled around Peru registering native ingredients, with the goal of incorporating these ingredients into Central’s culinary experience.
But after a few months, the project grew into something much bigger. Instead of just investigating products for Central’s menu, Malena now brings together a staff of anthropologists, sociologists, botanists, linguists, and conservationists who travel across the mountains, highlands, and jungles of Peru to gather, study, and research indigenous ingredients. Eater caught up with Malena Martínez to discuss Mater Iniciativa and how it’s helping to shape the future of Peruvian culture and gastronomy.
On the creation of Mater Iniciativa:
“When we started our research, we wanted to know about geography, biology, ecology, and the social ecosystem. We gained more contacts over time, and people from different disciplines who were interested in food, but not necessarily trained in food, joined the project. We invited sociologists, anthropologists, engineers, botanists, scientists, linguists, and organizations like the International Potato Center to join us. Mater has evolved into many things, and now we are working on serious scientific research projects.”
On working with local communities:
“There are two traditional Andean communities surrounding Mil: Kacllaraccay and Mullak’as-Misminay. Every day, they would cross the garden at Mil. As [they were] our neighbors, we had to get to know them, so five months before opening we sent Francesco D’Angelo, an anthropologist, to learn more about these communities. We wanted to find out about their daily life, how they work, live, [their] entertainment, family structure, and traditions. It’s fascinating because we have met many communities in the Andes mountains, and every single one is special and unique.
“We established a close connection and invited them to be part of a participatory project where we offered half an acre to grow native potatoes, roots, tubers, legumes, and other ingredients for the restaurants. They came to work, and benefited from 50 percent of the harvest, which was a huge success. The results have been truly amazing, and we have learned so much from them.
“Right now we are focused on accessing herbs and fruits which are getting lost because people aren’t producing or gathering them — they are simply dropping to the ground and rotting. People are less interested in local ingredients and more interested in potato chips. It’s crazy, but true.
“Every Mater trip is different, but oftentimes I travel with a biologist, a botanist, or an anthropologist. Even though we are Peruvian, when we are not in Lima, we are foreigners. We prefer to have a local guide whenever we can, especially from the native communities. Since we don’t always speak the same language, we also need a translator. I am trying to learn Quechua and other Amazonian languages because I always think I’m missing information, which is a horrible feeling. Language tells us so much about a community.”
On recognizing different culinary points of view:
“I don’t think Central could exist without Mater. The first time Virgilio thought of a tasting menu in Central, he thought of the idea of placing every dish in a particular altitude to state the fact that there was a vertical way of seeing the world, just as the Andean people do. That’s how they conceptualized the first Mater Altitudes menu [at Central in 2013], which helped the restaurant become what it is today.
“When we started traveling, we began to look at the Andean worldview. For them, we live in a vertical world, not horizontal, because they live on different levels. When we were in the Andes at 15,000 feet above sea level, our guide would always say ‘let’s go up to the potato fields’, or ‘let’s go down to the oca fields,’ so you get the sense you are constantly going up and down and not to the right or left. The up is the mountains, which look after them, while their ancestors live down, underground and stabilize the land, along with the crops that grow from that soil.
“The day before we opened Mil, we invited the neighboring community to try the menu and our interpretation of their food. I was very nervous — it was judgment time. They appreciated the experience, but didn’t understand some dishes, like the trout ceviche and lamb tartare. To them, cold dishes don’t exist in Andean cuisine. They believe that if the body receives something cold, it creates an imbalance, and the body should be preserved at a warm temperature. This really made us think. It wasn’t a clash, just two different worlds meeting each other.”
On Mater’s current projects:
“We are developing a registry of endemic flora species and samples for Mil, gathering plants that have medicinal value or culinary uses. In the Amazon, we want to create a sustainable supply chain from Tambopata to Central, so we are working with partners to develop a solar food dehydrator for Amazonian plants, fruits, and vegetables. We are also beginning to work on experimental field projects to study native potato varieties with the International Potato Center.
“We are always thinking how we can make a project better. For example, we are opening Mayo, a bar in Casa Tupac, and we want to bring plant species from Lima’s high jungle. So we are working with a forestry engineer to bring back plants that are supposed to be native to Lima’s coast, but disappeared when the city arrived. Virgilio planted a coffee plant years ago, and prayed to the coffee lords that it would grow. The engineer told us that there is coffee in Lima, so now we have coffee at our front door. Apparently the humidity in Lima is accommodating to many Amazonian plants, so it tells us that hundreds of years ago these plants grew here, and we want to bring them back.”
On empowering communities through ingredients:
“We’d love to see every region in Peru produce what is native to their land. We want these places to realize how important their ingredients are, and we want consumers to be aware of the nutritional value.
“Native communities get smaller because they see Western life as progress. The older generations have the knowledge and wisdom of their culture, but are the only ones who keep speaking their language. It’s very sad to see cultures disappear, but we think that through food we can change that. We want these communities to truly value what they have. In the Andes we have seen a change over the last five years. Before, the communities might not have shared their customs with the outside world because they didn’t see it as something that others would find interesting, but now they feel so proud. You can tell because they have special outfits they use for when there is a ritual or festivity, and they wear the colorful clothes for visitors to celebrate happiness.”
On how ingredients travel from the field to the kitchen:
“To become part of our menu, every ingredient has to first go through Virgilio. When we go to a new place, we come back with about 20 samples of potential ingredients. Virgilio tries each one, and thinks about if and how he can use it in the kitchen. For example, we recently brought back an amazing leaf from the Amazon called a clavo huasca, a wild liana. It was so spicy and smelled like almonds and cloves. Virgilio thought it would be great for our tasting menu at Central as a nonalcoholic aromatic herb infusion to accompany dishes from the Amazon. Right now we need to connect with locals in the Amazon to develop a whole sustainable supply chain so that they can gather, dehydrate, and send the leaf to Lima.
“When Virgilio is part of the journey the process is different, because it isn’t just about the ingredient; it becomes the story behind the ingredient. For instance, the first time we saw huatia [an ancient cooking technique using a soil oven], Virgilio wanted to recreate it. We were with a local community, eating these amazing potatoes cooked from the ground and sharing a moment. That’s what food is supposed to be. To feed you and connect with other people. So, when we went back to Lima, we had to figure out how to incorporate it into the menu.
“The preservation methods in the Andes are so interesting. We saw mountain communities who preserved potatoes and oca for years, one [community] for over 15 years. When you see the potato it looks like a small piece of strong-smelling chalk, but when you put it in hot preparations it rehydrates like a normal potato. This product has such a strong and powerful story, because it talks about the resilience of the Andean people who invented a preservation method that helped them survive centuries. Virgilio said we had to put this on the menu. So, he brought it to the kitchen and began working on recipes.
“The cooks push me out of the kitchen and it’s for the best, because I need to concentrate on my work, but I love seeing the final result. It’s amazing when a challenging ingredient successfully makes it on the menu, and tastes so good. I think, ‘Wow, people are going to come and try what tunta [freeze-dried potato] tastes like.’ For me, this is pure joy.”
Allie Lazar is a food writer based in Buenos Aires. Follow her on Instagram and Pick Up the Fork.
Editor: Hillary Dixler Canavan