Editor’s Note: This story was originally published in October 2015.
Virgilio Martinez is chef-owner of Lima's Central, voted Latin America's best restaurant
Central is famed for its creative dishes that showcase the Peru's diverse ingredients
Carving up Lima’s 16th-century streets on a board or carving up a medium-rare piece of meat?
In the end, injury made the decision for Peruvian chef Virgilio Martinez and the skateboarding world’s loss was the culinary world’s most fortuitous gain.
With a restaurant ranked fourth in the world and a Michelin star to his name, Virgilio flexed his gastronomical muscles again last month when his Lima-based Central topped the S.Pellegrino Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants list for the second year running.
“I was a semi-pro skater, but I fractured my clavicle while skating at a park in California,” recalls 38-year-old Martinez.
“Once it was fixed back in Peru, I went skating again but broke my other shoulder!
“That’s when I stopped skating. I loved it but once I started cooking, I left all that behind and became totally involved in the kitchen. I’d toyed with being an architect too but I wanted to travel – cooking lets me do that.”
He certainly clocks up the air miles.
This past month, Martinez – who admits to thinking about food from the moment he wakes up, starting with which coffee to brew – was in Tokyo cooking at RyuGin restaurant, in Mexico City for Latin America’s 50 Best awards and foraging and filming in Acomayo near Cuzco for CNN.
“I went to the Andean community I usually visit near Cuzco that produces papas raices potatoes, wild herbs, and other tubers,” he says.
“We slept at homes belonging to belonging to Acomayo residents, and they really looked after us: we cooked together and went foraging.”
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Showcasing Peru’s diverse landscape
While Martinez, whose Michelin star is attached to UK eatery Lima London, says it would be easy to use products from other countries, Central’s very existence is based on the diversity of Peru’s extensive larder, which spans the Pacific ocean, the Amazon and the Andes.
In fact Mater Iniciativa, the cultural and biological diversity research project he set up with sister Malena, is the backbone of Central restaurant’s Mater Elevations tasting menu – a 17-course dinner that shows off Peru’s diverse altitudes.
Traversing his homeland to source underused ingredients or find a new piece of farming land is key.
“I like combing our geography – we work with lots of ecosystems so it’s important to move around and not just be in the kitchen,” says Martinez.
“I don’t believe a supplier should come to me, but that I should build a relationship with him, his land and products.”
“Central’s concept isn’t just lived through the restaurant and sitting down at a table, but also through Mater Iniciativa,” he says.
“Social media is very useful as I can share a bit of the countryside we’re visiting. I’ll put up a photo as it’s important that our clients see where we go and what we’re cooking that day.”
Martinez’s newest professional project, recently-opened restaurant Nos, has taken the casual dining route, placing it at the opposite end of the gastronomical spectrum to Central.
“Nos isn’t Centralito [Little Central] as it isn’t serving the same food as Central,” he says.
“But truth is I’ve never created a cuisine like this before – it’s not conceptual and it won’t change your life. It’s a direct cuisine with accessible prices you can enjoy all day long.”
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Where to find Lima’s best traditional food?
As for his favorite travel destinations, Martinez has a yen for Asia.
“I loved Thailand, and everything that Asia offers fascinates me: the traditions, its millions of years of history plus the food is incredible,” he says. “I’d love to visit China. If it wasn’t so far away, I’d go to Mongolia then work my way down.”
With fatherhood pending – Martinez and wife Pia will soon become first-time parents – his travel will be pared down but that means he can take advantage of Lima’s incredible food scene, which ranges from traditional street carts serving beef heart anticuchos to top-end fine dining.
One eatery in particular that he frequents specializes in traditional Peruvian food.
“Isolina serves up home cooking: clam tortilla, chicken escabeche served with white rice, lomo saltado – things I haven’t eaten in a long time but are making a comeback,” says Martinez.
“Ceviche and modern cuisine have taken over in the past few years so while this food isn’t cool, I really like it regardless.”
With two books in the pipeline – “Lima The Cookbook” will be released this October while “Alturas,” focusing on Central, is due out in 2016 – another upside to a less intense travel schedule means tucking into his mum’s home cooking regularly.
“Her ‘ají de gallina’ chicken stew is one of the tastiest things ever and it’s also one of the most simple,” he raves.
“But even if she made me a cebiche, it would be amazing too!”
Sorrel Moseley-Williams is a British journalist based in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She specializes in culture, food and wine and luxury travel in Latin America.