Nina Sparling, AN INTERVIEW WITH VIRGILIO MARTINEZ
"We removed most of the menu we had and we just created something that was based on the altitudes of Peru. And then we have to respect it—every single dish has to come from one [single] altitude. A place where we have been before, met the purveyor, gotten lost, learned or what customs and habits, culture. We in some ways integrate the whole thing happening: It isn’t just a foraging thing; it’s not just grabbing a piece of culture, a piece of landscape of whatever. Everything has a meaning."
As the chef and owner of Central in Lima, Peru, Virgilio Martínez serves ecosystems. In the arc of the seventeen-course tasting menu, diners travel through taste from the Pacific coast, to the crest of the Andean mountain range, to the heart of the Amazonian jungle. Each dish expresses the essence of its altitude. The coastal dish aranas de roca (spiders of the rock) marries crab shell, shrimp heads and sea rocks; tallos extremos (extreme stems) mixes the innumerable varieties of tubers found in the Andes.
Martínez is in constant flight, traveling across the country to discover new ingredients and methods of preparation. He works with indigenous communities to understand traditional relationships to food and the landscapes in which it grows. The depth and quantity of information he has encountered drove him to build a facility to catalog and explore this immense wealth of knowledge. Called Mater Iniciativa, it shares a building with Central and maintains the restaurant’s integral connections to the biodiversity of Peru.
In 2016, Martínez published Central, a cookbook that introduces the reader to his wildly creative approach to recreating Peru’s myriad microclimates. Like the tasting menu, the book is organized by altitude: It starts at the seaside in Marcona, carries the reader up to Altura Extrema (where the air is so thin that locals chew coca leaves to keep from passing out) then descends into Amazonía. The recipes call for ingredients like sea bubble algae and offer intricate instructions for traditional methods of fermenting and preserving potatoes (tocosh). It isn’t the kind of book to leaf through while contemplating what to make for Sunday dinner—but it is an intimate window into the work Martínez and his team accomplish in the kitchen and in communities across Peru.
I spoke to Martínez about his philosophy, his relationships with his producers and coworkers, and his plans for expansion. He was in Lima, dressed for work in a denim apron and starched white shirt, and we bridged the distance to Brooklyn over Skype.
In the introduction to Central you talk about sacrifice. You discuss a desire to be willing to give up some of the ease and comfort of familiar eating. The dishes you create at the restaurant actively challenge assumptions about what food is and what tastes good. What lessons do you hope the guests at Central leave with, and how does the instruction build over the course of a meal?
It’s one of the things that has been really hard for us for these last five, six years because we have been trying to find different ways to work. I’ve been trained in very classic French basics, for me, when I came to Peru it was difficult to understand. It is so diverse. I’m in Lima now, but if I go to the Andes or to the Amazon things work in their own way. In the end, though we are very, very connected [in Peru]. This was very hard to understand when you come from cuisines where it’s all about seasonality and you have strong connections with suppliers. [I arrived] on another planet; everything worked differently.
I knew that I didn’t want to start doing what I was doing before (which was supposed to be the easy way) replicating with some Peruvian flair or just whatever. We had to build a strong connection to people so we had to travel and stay, for a few days or weeks, with different communities of people that work in different ways and actually think or live in a different way, who understand nature in a totally different way.
The Amazonian people really trust in the plants as a healing [source], there are no pharmacies in some areas, there are no hospitals. People see the plants as a part of their medicine and [part of] how much they trust in the pachamama, the mother earth. This is very strong because when you go there you see how much respect they have for nature. I found that this [respect] was really very strong in those regions. I don’t know if chefs and different media all over the world actually feel it.
We started to remove all the ingredients that didn’t belong to our territory so we started to see how many varieties of things we do have. Why use thickeners, why use gelatins and stuff like that, industrialized products—what I call magic powders—instead of using what we have? Whenever I go to the Andes I see how many powders they have. They all have meanings, history, years and years and years of people using them in different ways.
Our idea was just building a cuisine starting from all these products coming from different regions. Then we could start to see how people were thinking about life. We all know that nowadays that gastronomy is very powerful.
One of the things I most enjoyed about Central is how much you talk about your conversations and experiences with the people you work with—from the farmers and fisherman to your wife Pia, who runs the kitchen at Central, and your sister Malena, who manages Mater Iniciativa. Can you tell me a bit about working with Pia and Malena?
This is our life, we live just next to Central. We say this is our ecosystem now, where we live and we deal with everything. Working with Pia was tough at the beginning—in the first year. Now for me it is not difficult—it is just great. She is the one doing the hard work in the kitchen. Most people think she is the pastry chef. I keep saying, come on, she’s the head chef at the restaurant. She is in total control of the kitchen, which gives me the liberty to go explore all these places in Peru, explore different ways to work, and to make these connections with people.
Next year, we’re moving Central and Mater Iniciativa to Barranco. The district is very cool and fresh. It’s also not new—I always say it looks like the Lima I want to see everywhere. That’s Barranco. Now that we have some kind of obligation to represent Lima, to represent Peru, I think being in Barranco makes a lot of sense; it is not as posh as the district where we are now. We want to have Central the same way, the philosophy isn’t going to change.
When I started to travel, we were just two or three cooks with basic culinary knowledge and no science at all. Everything was working by intuition. At this point I had a need to work with someone who can organize and make plans and gather scientific information. I convinced Malena to join us, she was just about to work as a physician and I was like, kind of, asking for this information, the science—how can I introduce science to all these scales of nature?
Mater is growing now as well—we’ll have [another facility called] Mater Moray. We’ll be opening where you see all these terraces [in the Andes]. These terraces they create different ecosystems, so that’s amazing. We’ll be very close to that area, maybe a few meters from this whole ruin. Ideally we don’t want to be part of the ruin; we don’t want to ruin the landscape of seeing the terraces in a natural way.
This choice to shift the focus away from Europe and to observe Peru in intimate and intense detail is in many ways a provocative one. Can you tell me more about how this project has propelled you towards developing a restaurant that challenges the conventions of an often Eurocentric vision of haute-cuisine?
To me, it was pretty obvious to decide that we need to put down our own roots and give them value. Because of the power of food nowadays, we were in a position to be listened to. We cook for fifty nationalities every day. For us, it is pretty obvious that people want to come and enjoy and leave and feel all the emotions of Peru—not of another place.
I think that was something that really amazed me was being in a place where there is everything. I’m here in the coast now, just two blocks from the sea. Maybe in forty minutes, and actually I was this morning there, you start to get the Andes. You can get to the Andes by car in a few minutes! If you cross the Andes, in a few hours you can be in the jungle, in the Amazon. So you can go up to 5000 meters above sea level—which is very, very high—and then go down to the Amazon—a completely different microclimate.
People, when they grow their stuff, and they want to organize themselves, they have fields for quinoa in this altitude, fields for potatoes, fields for corn, to grow their llamas and alpacas and camelidos and different plants and herbs. People were thinking in a vertical way not in a horizontal way. Now, in the city, you want to go to the shop and you say just one block there and then you turn left. Over there [in the Andes] it’s like you just go up and down. Go up that mountain if you want to get that plant, just go down if you want to get the fish, or whatever.
We changed our whole system. We removed most of the menu we had and we just created something that was based on the altitudes of Peru. And then we have to respect it—every single dish has to come from one [single] altitude. A place where we have been before, met the purveyor, gotten lost, learned or what customs and habits, culture. We in some ways integrate the whole thing happening: It isn’t just a foraging thing; it’s not just grabbing a piece of culture, a piece of landscape of whatever. Everything has a meaning. We’re not just going there and taking stuff and taking ideas. We have to go there and we have to stay there and keep people there.
I see the cookbook almost more as an encyclopedia than a cookbook. As you can imagine it is sort of a challenge to cook out of in Brooklyn because the products and traditions are so rooted in Peru. Would you say that you see it more as an almost educational reference guide or inspiration for people to think about their relationship to the world?
Yes, absolutely. We think [of the book as] just the beginning of communicating something about what we are doing. For us it is pretty obvious that we live in a such a biodiverse and diverse place. For us it is very obvious to just understand that you have to work in this way—a way that is very committed to your community. We aren’t doing extreme local cuisine, but rather extreme local cuisine from every region where we go: local cuisine from the Andes, local cuisine from the Amazon, local cuisine from the high jungle, from the low jungle, from different regions.
This of course can be used in any other place. The challenge is to have those discussions with the people from the [culinary] schools: you train the guys this way at least to know the basics, but give a little window for them to be committed to something that is happening here.
It isn’t about being chauvinistic like “Oh Peru has everything!” In the end it is very superficial to think about it like that. Nowadays I think it is much more: We aren’t just cooking—when we say we are cooking ecosystems, we are very committed to people. I’m not thinking that we’re just cooking for forty people here in the restaurant. We’re cooking with lots of people. That’s huge because it also gave me the answer to why I was doing this, something that is perceived, or that could be perceived as banal or superficial or just pure luxury when I live in a country where there are lots of contradictions, where there is poverty.
Why are we doing this? In the end we are big promoters of our cultures; we are creating awareness and we’re working with lots of diverse values. And values like this are very important. When I was working [in kitchens] I was working those jobs because of the philosophy not because of the recipes. That’s what I feel here—all the chefs and the people who come into Central to cook from different parts of the world (it is very multicultural this restaurant) come for the what is happening here and our take on cuisine in this region.
Cusco has to be kind of the center of the empire—I don’t like that word—it was the center of where everything was happening. We are creating our expression inside [Peru], for us to manage all the knowledge that we can find. That is why we are doing [Mater Moray and Mil] in Cusco. And we want to replicate this in the jungle, too. At the beginning we were thinking this way: Let’s just show the unknown things. It’s quite cool, but it doesn’t give us more contents. We need to go and get information. It’s good that these are known, but please, let’s have some information and share it.
It also seems like your work in some measures aims to encourage and support traditional producers and farmers, people who are carrying on age old traditions of growing and cooking food. Do you see the projects that you’re doing as in some way supporting the continued livelihood of these communities of producers?
Traditions, yes. I was born in Lima, Lima was a melting pot—people and influences from Japan, China, Italy, Spain— it was all happening here. This created a huge atmosphere of positivity about our city in terms of [possibilities] about where to eat, Lima making some noise fifteen or twenty years ago about a new destination for food. In some ways that’s not what we do here at Central. We’re not focusing on what happened 200 or 300 years ago. We’re trying to look at what happened thousands of years ago, when people had the freedom to be connected to nature, in a very natural way.
I try to visit [some] producers once a week. We have a place 40 km from here, it’s a big farm, we work with a family, now the whole family is living there and they are producing more stuff because the restaurant is demanding more stuff. We are not owners of this land, we are just dedicated to the producers. We work with their own seasonalities, with what they have. We go and see what they have so we can see what is on the menu for the next few days.
It’s quite difficult when we work this way in the Amazon. People have to send things by plane; our country isn’t small. We can go to the Amazon by plane for a few days, for a week, but in terms of supply, when we need produce people have to send stuff. That’s what I’m saying, our food isn’t local, it isn’t Peruvian local, we cannot enter into that level of type of local Peruvian cuisine or local contemporary Peruvian cuisine.
It seems like each region is so different and distinct that that you couldn’t have a single Peruvian cuisine. You have to do it sort of through these altitudes.
That’s amazing actually, that’s our goal. We have to be and try to be like five years ahead of our perception about Peru. That’s a bit idealistic, it’s a huge ambition, it’s a huge dream, but we have to continue thinking this way. I have to make sure that my team thinks this way. That we are creating kind of something new, we are all innovators. This is quite new for Peru to create awareness. We are kind of still this little restaurant that has been moving and making noise for a while, probably getting attention more from the outside in an international way, but in Lima we have people who want to be part of what we do. Most of our producers they know what is happening but it is difficult for them to understand the value of their stuff. Even for us we try as much as possible to get them here to Central to get them to see how their things are here, how the production is working and making some changes.
We’ve been through lots of difficulties in Peru and we still have these kind of things that we need to change. Now they are disappearing. When I was little we suffered terrorism, people have forgotten everything. But we need that to understand. We’ve been through very difficult times and we need to stick together. All these difficulties maybe made a strong cuisine because people were staying at home cooking, trying to be together.But now, modern life is different. We are very connected [globally]. We have people coming from all over the world with big expectations, people want to go to the market, want to go fishing, want to experience Peru, they don’t want to experience Central. Our service has to go beyond that. If someone wants to meet my producers, we’ll send them to these producers. That’s very good because these producers have been producing these things for many years and in very difficult times. They lost languages, culture, everything. So now we can help give them back.