2016 International Chef of the Year: Virgilio Martínez

Peru’s greatest chef is on a mission to showcase and preserve traditional Peruvian ingredients
Virgilio Martinez

Jimena Agois

Martinez opened Central at the age of 30.

For 39-year-old Virgilio Martínez, the chef and owner of Lima, Peru’s renowned restaurant Central, cooking is more than just a profession, science, or art. It’s a way to showcase the vast culinary diversity of Peru, and by all accounts, he’s succeeding in a way that few could have predicted. Central has been named the best restaurant in Latin America and the fourth-best restaurant in the world by The World’s 50 Best Restaurants. For those reasons, and his dedication to introducing little-known indigenous ingredients to new audiences, he’s been voted The Daily Meal’s 2016 International Chef of the Year.

Martínez was born in Lima in 1977, and after abandoning a promising career as a professional skateboarder he attended cooking school at Le Cordon Bleu in both Ottawa and London. He spent time in New York at Lutèce, in Catalonia at the three-Michelin-starred Can Fabes, and in Bogota and Madrid at Astrid & Gastón before opening Central in 2008. Within four years of opening, Central was being hailed as Peru’s finest restaurant. He followed up Central in 2012 with a restaurant in Cusco called Senzo; he has also expanded to London, where he currently operates two locations of Lima, a modern Peruvian restaurant that’s also racked up accolades, including a Michelin star.

When he’s not in the kitchen, Martínez travels extensively throughout Peru, meeting the locals and discovering indigenous ingredients that are little-known outside of their native regions of the Peruvian coast, the Amazon rainforest, and the Andes highlands. Many of these ingredients, which have included an edible cyanobacteria called kushuru, a root vegetable called arracha, and an Amazonian freshwater fish called arapaima, have never even appeared on a restaurant menu before. Like last year’s honoree Enrique Olvera, Martínez isn’t just on a mission to discover lesser-known native foods — he’s eager to save them from extinction and make sure future generations discover them as well.

We didn’t decide to honor Martínez unilaterally; we called upon previous honorees for the International and American Chefs of the Year (including Massimo Bottura [International, 2012], René Redzepi [International, 2011], José Andrés [American, 2012], Sean Brock [American, 2014], David Chang [American, 2015], and Dan Barber [American, 2013]) to take a survey and vote for who they believed was most deserving. Other chefs in the running this year were Alex Atala, Fredrik Berselius, Heston Blumenthal, Gabriele Cámara, Magnus Nilsson, and Kamilla Seidler, but it was Martínez who rose to the top of the pack.

We had the opportunity to interview Martínez via email, and our discussion touched on his background, his inspirations and motivations, and what he hopes his legacy will be.

The Daily Meal: What first attracted you to cooking?
Virgilio Martínez: I remember being young and eager to travel, to experience new things, and get to know and understand the world. There was a lot to learn back then. Little did I know, more even from my own country. That came long after that first decision of studying abroad.  

Food and cooking is very connected to culture, to natural environments, to the way of life of different people, different social scenarios. When I get to cook, I feel the freedom to express what I feel like; I get to choose what I cook with and enjoy the ride. I think nowadays it is not difficult to be inspired by so many things.  

I remember the first time I stepped into a professional kitchen, also. I got the feeling I belonged to that group of people working together, creating stuff as a community.

What influences were most essential to your development as a chef?
I think most of what mattered for my training were the many travels I got to do, to different destinations of the world. That opened my eyes to lots of new things, to the way people see their world. And also it made me connect more with my own territory, as ironic as that may sound. It is like when you miss the things you normally take for granted at home.

There are many things that you learn from different kitchens, mostly when you get to travel and see diversity, contrast, places. And you see different methods as well. You see discipline and focus, or art, and creativity, more craft, design, or natural approaches to different products. There is always a story behind the way cooks connect to their ingredients, and how they feel about using them in a certain way. I find that particularly interesting. The differences.  

What sets Peruvian cuisine apart from that of the rest of the world?
Mostly, our biodiversity, the many microclimates, our nature, forests, the Andes, and our cultural diversity. So many ethnic groups converge in this territory and have a special way of life, and being part of their surroundings. I have learnt a lot from just staring at a mountain, listening to the stories of ancestors and the beginning of things, with the coldest wind.

Why do you think the world has begun to take more notice of Peruvian cuisine?
There is one side of Peruvian cuisine that hasn't been explored yet, which has to do with the mysticism of our people, the stories that have to be heard.There is one side of Peruvian cuisine that hasn't been explored yet, which has to do with the mysticism of our people, the stories that have to be heard.

People know about what is the trend on Peruvian cuisine, but what makes it more interesting is this diverse geography that inspires so much, and conveys so many ideas, promotes creativity. In Peru you see diversity everywhere.

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There is Lima, as a melting pot of cultures that has influenced cuisine for so many years. The beautiful thing is, all immigrant groups that have stepped into Peru have provided their flavors and ingredients. They have invested those into a very integrated cuisine, a very welcoming Peruvian cuisine. So you see some Japanese traits, and some Chinese, African, Italian, Mediterranean, and more. I guess the reason Peruvian food is accepted in other places of the world is you can identify other flavors there, immersed.

What can American chefs learn from traditional Peruvian cuisine?
How food is keeping us together as a nation with pride, and it makes us all happy. We can understand each other through food, welcoming our differences.

What was your initial inspiration behind Central, and how would you compare its philosophy to that of your other restaurants?
We had to do food that tells stories, true stories. That has a sense of place and transmits the landscapes, our people, culture, our colors.

We focus on Peruvian nature, terroir in a unique way, kind of the way we have seen ourselves in different regions of Peru, in debt to our territory, our food, and our people.

We came with ideas of communicating what different ecosystems are. Our food is of course most about biodiversity and creativity, avoiding labels; we understand our experience seeing the world in different altitudes (pretty obvious when you live in one of the most biodiverse places in the world), so we do work on different categories and disciplines, to understand, so there is a lot of innovation of our own: going up and down, foraging, understanding, sharing, connecting. We aim to transmit emotion and joy.

What attracted you to London? Would you consider opening a restaurant in the United States?
London is great; people get to see what is our casual approach to food. This was our chance to get Londoners to enjoy another type of Peruvian food, the one that travels, and adapts, so it is very different to what we do at Central, and we like it that way. It’s supposed to be Peruvian flavors in another geographical scene.

It all came with the idea of doing something new, and more accessible. The challenge was to adapt what we do to another city. The idea is showing what is happening in Lima nowadays.

What inspires you to keep cooking, to keep discovering new ingredients and developing new recipes?
The people we meet. There is curiosity and hunger for knowledge from our part, because we get to know these places where you find just amazing stuff.

Finding ingredients in their own habitat is something else. That is why we motivate travelling throughout the country, to search for the origins of these special items. And finding them in their origins is having the best quality there is. Then it is all about the people that live around, and share with you their knowledge. There is so much energy in our territory. So many things happen for an ingredient to exist.

What are some of your favorite dishes to prepare at home?
Carapulcra, ceviches, and tiraditos.

What are some Peruvian ingredients that aren’t commonly known but that you’d like to see become more popular?
Corn varieties.

Do you see yourself as on a mission to save traditional Peruvian ingredients from obscurity or extinction?
Yes. Most Peruvian cooks are doing it, and we feel a part of it.

What has been the most exciting or interesting lesson that you’ve learned since you started cooking?
I have learnt the importance of being consistent. It sounds like being consistent is being able to offer the same great result always, but there is something deeper than that; there is a more emotional way of being consistent. Consistency in your message, and consequently, to feel, speak, and act the same way.

What would you like your legacy to be?
That we worked to preserve Peruvian ecosystems.