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Pia León sits in the Kjolle dining room.
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Pia León Steps Into the Spotlight With Kjolle

The longtime co-chef of Central is focusing on her own vision at her new Lima restaurant

Pia León waited a long time for this weekend. On Friday, August 10th, the chef welcomed the first guests into Kjolle, her brand new restaurant in Lima. “It has been four years since I started considering having a place where I could state my view in the kitchen,” she said a few days before the opening.

Since 2009, León has co-piloted Central, the altitude-inspired restaurant known for being among the most acclaimed restaurants in South America and the world, with her partner and husband Virgilio Martínez. Media largely conflates the restaurant with Martínez himself. This narrative is best summed up by a Chef’s Table episode that acknowledges how important to Central both León and Malena Martínez, who leads the culinary research team that drives the innovation on display at Central, are — yet is still very much focused on Virgilio Martínez as chef-auteur. “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 told Eater last year. “She deserves the space to just do her own thing.” From the get-go, Kjolle has been positioned clearly as León’s project.

Kjolle sits directly above Central in a spacious building in Lima’s hip Barraco neighborhood. (Central, previously located in Miraflores, only opened the doors in its new home in July.) And as at Central, León will focus on Peru’s bounty and depend on Mater Iniciativa to keep finding ways to incorporate indigenous ingredients, but she will not be constrained by needing to focus on altitude nor will she serve a tasting menu. The space itself is also airier, with more wood tones and touches of color to Central’s metal and black, all meant to “make a conversation very comfortable,” she says.

“After 10 years at Central I have to say, this is the time for me to express things that probably Virgilio and the Central team didn’t pay attention [to] for structural reasons or just for following the pureness of [that] concept,” León says, referring to the tight self-restrictions of the Central menu. “I began with a very basic idea about choosing ingredients more freely to create dishes with my signature.”

With that freedom, she describes her cooking at Kjolle as “dynamic [and] new.” A dish called “scallops and seeds” is “all about sweetness,” the scallops and Amazonian pacae legume both white and subtle. A plate of clams and Amazonian roots is meant to evoke the colors and textures of the rain forrest. Another dish combines the extracts from five different types of Peruvian corn.

Kjolle’s opening signals the finish-line is fast-approaching for her and Martínez’s expansion sprint. 2018 has seen the opening of Mil, a blockbuster Andean restaurant set among the Inca ruins of Moray, as well as the relocation and reopening of Central. Mater Iniciativa, the culinary research team run by Malena Martínez also opened an additional lab space. With a bar and the couple’s first project in Asia still on the way, now is León’s time to focus on Kjolle.

“I feel excited mostly,” she said before the opening. “This would be the first time that I design [a restaurant] based on what I love and what my preferences are, so I will be hoping to impress visitors and make it the lovely place I’ve dreamt of since the start of this journey.”

Hillary Dixler Canavan is Eater’s restaurant editor.

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