‘There are 4,700 varieties of potatoes in Peru but you only see around twenty in the markets. I’ve seen about 400 in my lifetime, so I’ve got a long way to go.’ Virgilio Martínez is a chef that never seems to slow down. With his Lima-based restaurant Central consistently voted one of the best in the world and his new research laboratory Mater Iniciativa, he’s not just cooking to please diners; he’s spreading awareness of his home country’s cuisine and changing it for the better.
His latest cookbook, Central, is a vital part of this process. While it is technically a recipe book, he isn’t expecting people to take it home and try to recreate the dishes (especially when a typical recipe’s first step is to dig a hole near a stream and bury some tubers only found in rural Peru). Instead, it’s meant to give an insight into what Virgilio and his team are trying to do, and shed some light on the incredible cornucopia of ingredients they’ve managed to collect. ‘Even for us it’s difficult to create these recipes,’ he says. ‘Every single one comes from a specific time in a specific area or ecosystem, so if you just bought the ingredients and cooked them at home, it wouldn’t always work.’
I’m meeting Virgilio in Lima, his London-based restaurant run by chef Robert Ortiz, as he hosts a one-night-only showcase of some of Central’s most famous dishes. While Lima is all about the flavours coming out of the Peruvian capital today, Central is a completely different beast, looking to the undiscovered parts of Peru, the communities found there and the different foods they eat. ‘We’re trying to put out a strong message about how important farmers and producers are in Peru, whilst creating an experience based on the different altitudes, microclimates and ecosystems found throughout the country,’ he explains. ‘We only have four tasting menus – two vegetarian, two based on altitudes – and we never mix terroirs; everything on the plate comes from one place at one time. Peru is like a giant mountain, with the Andes, forests, jungles and valleys. You can walk for just half an hour and find yourself in a completely different ecosystem, with different ingredients growing all around you.’