Peruvian chef Virgilio Martínez has been integral to putting the food of his country on the map with Central. Or rather, the lauded Lima restaurant that he runs with his wife and fellow chef, Pia León, which seeks to spotlight Peru’s staggering array of ingredients.
Central takes diners on a seventeen-course journey that spans the biodiversity of the country, from the ocean to the Amazon to the Andes—regions that he and his sister, Malena, have explored intensively through her research project, Mater Iniciativa.
Since he was a kid skateboarding through the streets of Lima, stopping at vendors for his favorite dishes, like anticuchos (grilled beef hearts), the 40-year-old chef has been inspired by Peru’s ingredients. (Remember, this is the country that gave us tomatoes and potatoes.) A meal at Central might include oxalis tuberosa, camu camu fruit, kanihua, and many other delights.
Martínez is also inspired by his country’s physical beauty, taking frequent research and foraging trips deep into the jungle and high into the Andes—even while he’s been busy as a young father and moving Central to a new location. “I keep going to Cusco to see my sister at Mater Iniciativa, getting research results and checking up on projects that involve our objectives to keep cataloging and exploring our region. The Mater team has increased, and cool and interesting information is helping our ideas. So we’ll do more of that!”
What are your favorite native Peruvian ingredients? Ocas (oxalis tuberosa), piscoronto corn, yacon root, camu camu fruit, kanihua.
Favorite food memories from childhood. Skateboarding around the city of Lima and going to the street vendors for picarones [sweet squash donuts], then going to another woman who was grilling anticuchos [beef hearts].
What is your advice to first-time visitors to Peru? It’s difficult to do it all in one trip, as people sometimes think. Most people go to Lima and Cusco, and then Puno, Arequipa, and more Andean regions. You may have to come back if you want to enjoy the peace and the unknown Amazonia—keep the jungle for another trip, with more energy to explore and visit deep Amazonian places and meet the people there.
What do you love most about the country? The people! Happy faces, good laughs, and people’s interaction with nature and biodiversity.
You also have a restaurant in London. What do you love to do in the city when you’re not working? It’s a city where you walk and walk and there is no end. Multicultural cities like London are fun: you listen to people and have bites from one place to another. I feel very welcome there.
What other projects are on the horizon? We are working on the new Central, where we will open with some other concepts—it’s an exciting challenge for us.
Where was your last vacation? I went to Hong Kong with my wife. We love that city.
Where will your next vacation be? Back to a little cottage on the Peruvian Amazon.
The thing you can’t travel without? My cellphone, magazines, and pajamas.
Plane, train, or automobile? Trains are really, really cool for me. There aren’t many trains in South America, so I actually find it very exotic and adventurous. Watching by the window is…wow.
The people you’d most like to sit next to on a long-haul flight? Local people, by which I mean people who live in the place I’m heading to. You have a chance to review your conceptions, ideas, and prejudices about the place you’re visiting, not to mention get tips and advice.
What is your in-flight ritual? I have to recheck my pockets and documents to make sure everything is at hand.
The language you wish you spoke? Portuguese.
When were you happiest on the road? I love taking a car from one city to another, like in Europe or Southeast Asia, knowing very little about where you are and discovering new things.
Desert island or downtown? Downtown. When I travel, I want to see things, people, different cultures, food, and stay connected.
If you could live at any hotel, which would it be? Inkaterra in the sacred valley of Cusco, Peru.
What is your room service indulgence? A club sandwich. It’s nice to go for something that you know has a global standard. I mean it! Because we are constantly searching for something different and unique, and the level of control and comfort that a club sandwich provides is incredible.
The strangest place you’ve spent a night? Lost in Taipei´s streets.
What is your favorite market? The Urubamba market in Peru.
If you could travel to any place in any epoch, which would it be? I would go to see the Mongolian Empire at its peak.
What are the show-off spots in your hometown? Cevicherías.
Which places would you happily spend a weekend, a week, and a year?
Weekend: Buenos Aires.
Week: New York City.
Your biggest extravagance on the road? Picking up local musicians on the road to the Peruvian Andes.
Describe a memorable meal from your travels. Asador Etxebarri in Spain.
Travel hell is? Losing your things…mainly your passport.
Where are you ashamed that you’ve never been? Africa.
Three favorite stores on earth? Samovar Tea Bar, San Francisco; Korin, New York; and D47 Museum, Tokyo.
Most treasured travel memento? Memories of traveling with my wife and son—nothing can beat their company.
Why do you travel? In an age where everything is on social media and online, travel allows us to experience things in real time and learn the wisdom of different cultures. Every time you travel, I think you enjoy things in a more transcendent way.