Virgilio Martínez on topography, tubers and Peru’s secret larder

Virgilio Martínez on topography, tubers and Peru’s secret larder

by Tom Shingler 2 February 2017

Tom Shingler sits down with the head chef of Central – voted the fourth best restaurant in the world – to learn more about his quest to document every single ingredient found throughout Peru’s rich system of microclimates.

Tom Shingler is the editor of Great British Chefs.

Tom Shingler is the editor at Great British Chefs. After studying journalism and working on national food magazines, he joined Great British Chefs in 2015 and has travelled the length and breadth of the UK to interview chefs and photograph their beautiful plates of food ever since. Tom is responsible for all the editorial output of the website and, of course, is obsessed with everything to do with food and drink.

‘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.’

Virgilio Martinez
Virgilio (left) set up Lima with Robert Ortiz (right) to bring a taste of the Peruvian capital's contemporary dining scene to London
However, his main restaurant in Peru – Central – is dedicated to exploring the ecosystems and ingredients found throughout the mountains, valleys and jungles of the country

It’s because of this that Virgilio has set up Mater Iniciativa, a research lab dedicated to finding, documenting and researching these ingredients, and how the rural communities found all over Peru cultivate and cook them. Based in Cusco, in the mountains, he plans to have around twenty people eventually working there, to help spread awareness of the country’s bountiful larder and preserve its culinary heritage.

‘We’re only just starting to discover Peru,’ he tells me. ‘About fifteen years ago the country changed massively – there was more tourism, the economy improved and it became safe to travel. Before all this people like me were just staying in Lima in this little bubble, and the only reason you’d venture into the Andes was to see Machu Picchu. We used suppliers for all our ingredients in restaurants and never learnt about the producers, but now I work entirely with the farmers and don’t use suppliers. We are beginning to understand the incredible geography around us, which in turn helps us to understand the world as a whole. That’s why I wanted the book to be not just about Peru, but to show my idea is one that can be reproduced anywhere else. Even in the UK you just have to look at your surroundings; when I went to the Highlands of Scotland I saw these amazing landscapes, and I think sometimes people take it for granted.’

The dishes at Central are unbelievably vibrant – especially as the chef only ever uses completely natural colourings found in Peru
Quinoa has had its time in the spotlight – Virgilio believes interesting varieties of corn are next in line

Of course, finding all these ingredients which are often only used by small, rural communities means there’s quite a lot of travel involved. Virgilio sounds like a sort of gastronomic David Attenborough, hiking through jungles to meet shamans and tribes to find undiscovered foods before bringing them back to his lab to be scientifically catalogued. ‘We find things out through word of mouth and we have lots of people all over Peru who will call us up when they hear about something,’ he explains. ‘But because we now have Mater Iniciativa, more and more people are coming to us directly with information. And when we go in search of one ingredient, we quite often discover another ten or twenty we’d never heard of before.’

These ingredients range from new varieties of potatoes and corn to the downright weird – edible clay from Altiplano being a good example. ‘Some people come to Central and don’t really like the idea of eating clay, but it’s just part of what we do,’ says Virgilio. ‘We serve things you probably won’t have seen before, and we want to challenge people’s perceptions of food and open their eyes to what’s out there.’

The food at Central is presented in an incredibly artful, refined way, but the chefs never use thickeners or colourings unless they can be naturally found in whatever microclimate they’re trying to represent. Virgilio originally found this to be a bit of a challenge, but as he started discovering more and more ingredients, he realised everything a chef could want or need was there – you just had to know where to look. ‘Obviously, the food we cook has to be delicious and the experience has to be better than what people expect when they come to Central, but that doesn’t mean we have to ignore what we believe in. The ingredients are the easy part; it’s attempting to take the spirituality or culture of a place and turn it into a single plate of food that we sometimes struggle with.’

Some people come to Central and don’t really like the idea of eating clay, but it’s just part of what we do. We serve things you probably won’t have seen before, and we want to challenge people’s perceptions of food and open their eyes to what’s out there.’

Virgilio Martínez

Virgilio Martinez
In some areas of Peru potatoes are freeze-dried underground, preserving them for when food is scarce
[i]Oca[/i] – a Peruvian tuber – is now grown in the UK, and Virgilio believes it will become as popular as quinoa in the next few years

As interest in Peruvian cuisine continues to grow all over the world, we’ve seen things like quinoa and ceviche become commonplace, especially in the UK. Five years ago these were almost unheard of – as was Peruvian cuisine in general – but thanks to people like Virgilio in Peru, Robert Ortiz here in London and other chefs all over the world bringing the country’s amazing larder to the fore, we’re now beginning to understand what an untapped resource Peruvian ingredients are.

‘People are crazy about quinoa, but there are all these other grains that are still relatively unknown in the UK,’ says Virgilio. ‘I think over the next few years these will start gaining popularity internationally, as will some of the Andean herbs that are so full of flavour. Herbs common in the UK and Europe are hardly ever used in Peru – we have things like paico and chincho instead. Vegetables are becoming more and more important in the UK as well, and Peru is full of interesting root vegetables and corn. Some British farms are now growing oca – an amazing colourful tuber native to Peru – so I think these will become popular very soon.’

While Virgilio is a walking encyclopaedia of Peruvian ingredients and cuisine, he stresses that his team have only scratched the surface of what’s out there. So between cooking at the fourth best restaurant in the world and managing a Michelin-starred restaurant in London, he still finds the time to plan expeditions into the jungles, mountains and valleys of Peru. After all, he still has 4,300 varieties of potato left to tick off his list.

Central (£39.95, Phaidon) is out now. To learn more about Virgilio Martinez, you can see him in the latest series of Chef’s Table on Netflix.

Header image taken by Ernesto Benavides (pages 156-7 of Central).