An Interview With Peruvian Chef Virgilio Martínez Véliz: Part 1

This is the first installment in a three-part interview with chef Virgilio Martínez Véliz. You can find the second installment here, and the third here.

Peruvian chef Virgilio Martinez has been riding an immense wave of success and rapidly expanding his restaurant empire over the last few years. Though skateboarding is more his style, his operations have expanded beyond his flagship Central in Lima to include Lima and Lima Floral in London, and opening soon is NOS, a casual eatery in Lima just a few doors away from his home base. There are other changes and expansions of another kind in his life as the 38-year-old and his wife, chef Pia Leon, who is at the pass every night, are expecting an addition to their family in early January. Understandably the jet-setting young chef and his wife are super excited to welcome their first child while preparing for this new phase in their lives and possibly easing their hectic schedules.

Much has changed in his life in the last two years. A few days after his restaurant moved into the 50th place on the World's 50 Best Restaurant list in 2013, the young couple celebrated their wedding in Lima. The guest list included chef Gaston Acurio, in whose organization Martinez held the executive chef position in Bogota and Madrid. Since then Central moved to the 15th spot on the 50 Best List as the "Highest Climber" in 2014, and this year to the coveted 4th position. Central was also declared the top restaurant in the 50 Best Restaurants of Latin America last September, overtaking Brazilian chef Alex Atala's D.O.M. Martinez, with his stylish, beautiful plates and his original concept and take on Peruvian cuisine is now the familiar face of contemporary Peruvian cuisine around the world.

The young Martinez, after having studied law, found his passion for cuisine while traveling around the world and subsequently enrolled at the Cordon Bleu in Ottawa and London. After putting in stints at various restaurants including Lutece in New York, Can Fabes in Spain, and then the Acurio restaurants in Bogota and Madrid, he returned home to Peru. After opening Central in the upscale Miraflores area of Lima in 2012, Martinez then ventured briefly into the tourist centric Cusco with his restaurant, Senzo. He then set his sights on London where he now has two restaurants, with his Lima being the first Peruvian restaurant in the world to hold a Michelin star. The very personable Martinez is seen frequently at culinary events and congresses all over the world, enabling him to build an immense international fan following over a very brief period of time.

In 2013, he established his Mater Iniciativa Project at Central in Lima to uncover, discover, and register the bounty of bio diversity that exists in the Andes, the Amazon, and the coastal Pacific region. The Central team regularly forays into the various microclimatic zones to bring back products like the cushuro, a cyanobacteria that might dress up plates at Central, which utilizes only 100 percent Peruvian products. The menus are conceptualized based on products, an example being the "Altitude" menu that explores the products grown and harvested at different heights in the Andes. Martinez's food is modern, innovative, and creative, utilizing Peruvian flora and fauna like the potatoes, corn, quinoa, amaranth, cacao, coffee, and obscure herbs that feature prominently on his menus. He is working towards creating a market for niche products in order to assist small local producers in the remote areas of Peru and enable social and economic change in the indigenous communities. The Mater office on the second floor at Central is flooded everyday with packages containing samples of products that they test and sometimes incorporate in their menus. During our conversation he excitedly opened a package of cacao beans to share what they would be testing later in the adjacent food lab.

The Daily Meal: Two years ago you were concentrating on Central and then you went on to open two restaurants in London and now a new one in Lima as well. Is your focus or approach to cuisine changing or shifting?
Virgilio Martínez Véliz:
The soul of Central is now Mater and now that has become very important for me, and if I didn't have the two restaurants in London and my upcoming casual restaurant here in Lima it would be impossible to maintain and support the work of my foundation. Central is an expensive restaurant in Lima but by international standards it is very reasonable, but these other businesses are important to fund and support our work here. I see myself as a cook but with a different viewpoint before anything else and definitely not as an entrepreneur. Yes, the life I am leading now is completely different from two years ago, and we are profitable and pay for our foundations work. Big brands have offered to take over Mater but we will not sell out and lose our heart. It's like being offered to open Central in Dubai which I turned down because Central can only be maintained in Lima. I don't allow myself to be distracted by all these things; it is amazing how much is changing here in Peru as 80,000 people have endeavored to become chefs and cooks which is a phenomenal number.

So no new upcoming projects in Asia or Australia?
I don't think so right now, though the Lima London concept can travel anywhere without me having to be there all the time. The head chef at Lima is the executive chef now and handles everything very well. It is also a casual restaurant and does not need us to bring in ingredients from Peru like Central or ensure sustainability as we do here so it can operate anywhere. Of course we need to adapt our cuisine to local products and be creative every day in our concepts.

You now have a Michelin star at Lima in London, you are ranked #4 on the World's 50 Best Restaurants list internationally, and #1 for Latin America's 50 Best Restaurants at present. With all the controversy surrounding these lists, to you, is the Michelin star more prestigious?
I have to be very positive about these things because at the end of the day they do bring in people into the restaurants. At one time, we had zero customers in Central but after we were on the list the reservations were piling in. So I have to say 50 Best has been great for us — it's how we went from zero to what we have now. I am not saying we are number four in the world and I am not going to believe that, but it does make us feel that we are doing something right. I am not saying that there is anything wrong with the list since that list is creating a new way to view gastronomy; it's creating expectations and bringing in guests to places like Lima they would not have traveled to earlier. [pullquote:right]

We don't have Michelin in Peru, and if it was not for this list we would not have so much recognition of our Peruvian gastronomy. When I got the news that I had received a Michelin star in London I was taken aback, but later it sank in that they felt we were doing positive work at Lima London and it is great to be recognized for that. As chefs I feel we don't have to reflect about that but it has more meaning for the customers who have certain expectations. It is encouraging for us that our customers feel that we deserve our number four rank in the world and that they are thrilled for us.

So now has the pressure increased this year?
Yes, especially in terms of reservations and expectations. I am not going to change anything just keep working as I did prior to this. I feel we don't have to push or be more creative or anything but just do our thing as we have for the last four years. You have seen me in many different parts of the world and I have been talking about my work here in Peru and about our food. Interestingly these days the situation has changed from what it was 40 years ago. Now people know more about Peru and now we are on the map so to speak and they are coming and we are waiting for their arrival.

This is the first installment in a three-part interview with chef Virgilio Martínez Véliz. You can find the second installment here, and the third here.