An Interview With Peruvian Chef Virgilio Martínez Véliz: Part 2

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

The Daily Meal: In a recent interview with Grant Achatz regarding the perception that Peruvian cuisine is the next cuisine to be popular, he suggested that it was uncertain if it would be in the same position as Nordic or Spanish. What do you feel — is Peruvian cuisine the next thing and has it already arrived?
Virgilio Martínez Véliz:
I don't think Peruvian cuisine is going to play that role or its influence is going to be that drastic. Peruvian cuisine is going to take its time to become familiar, just like the potato and tomato traveled unobtrusively over time from Peru to different parts of the world. This is a delicate way to express how Peruvian cuisine can conquer the world unlike what a lot of journalists are prone to suggesting. Through our potatoes, quinoas, ceviches, and tiger's milk our concepts are slowly becoming known and we have an opportunity now to show our creativity and our traditions. We are going to be a part of worldwide gastronomy but just one part like French or Italian while being different, like for example Japanese cuisine that is so pervasive. I do feel that our cuisine is having a definite impact in the world.

Does Peruvian cuisine translate well when it travels?
There is a constant push for something new all the time and Peruvian cuisine is a part of that new thing. It does not translate in the right way every time and it's becoming more of a business. People without any Peruvian background are delving into it and not doing it right, and it risks becoming a fusion or a trend, but as we know trends sell as people are pushing for the new to feed the demand for it. Our cuisine though is more delicate and evolving though we are growing too fast. This cuisine is based on our diversity and we have been exploring it slowly at Central. We have also been exploring our vast territory and that is the key to our cuisine which is not possible to take abroad.

What is the basis of or key elements of Peruvian cuisine?
The authenticity of our people; we are not very pretentious people, we are very real. There are no special effects involved and when we invite you to our home we show you our reality. Our biodiversity is another important element with hundreds of varieties of corn and thousands of varieties of potatoes, herbs, and everything else that comes from the Amazonia, Andes, and Pacific coast. We have all these microclimates which are the key to our bounty of products. Then there is our mix of Japanese, Chinese, Spanish, Italian, Inca, and other people who make up our population. All these are unique and are the important elements of our cuisine. We have diversity in our people, our products and the other important thing is tolerance. In other cultures this tolerance is not as visible, but in Peruvian gastronomy there is a lot of it, though in politics it is another situation.

Has the tourism board helped in spreading the world about Peruvian Gastronomy?
We are a country usually connected with anthropology and archaeology because of sites like Machu Picchu and other ancient sites. So PROMPERU is focused more on these things and earlier they were supporting artisans in other fields. We the cooks started to ask why not us because we are artisans too and gastronomy should be getting that support too. So now the tourism board is supporting visits to local markets, encouraging tourists to visit restaurants serving this produce, to visit fishermen, but that help is not enough and the restaurant industry definitely needs more exposure. People are visiting all these historic sites like the Sacred Valley, Machu Picchu, and we need to encourage them to discover our cuisine and in this area we need to work together. If they can travel to Machu Picchu, why not come for a good meal at our restaurants in Cusco or Lima?

How do you stay motivated to achieve the perfect progression in the tasting experience of 18 courses?
We try not to lose the curiosity and the anticipation in the customer's experience, the emotion has to be maintained. You can go to the most amazing place but if you are not curious or motivated you can lose interest. To maintain this state is the most difficult part of our work. We can put everything on our agenda and travel a lot for dining experiences, but there is risk of tiring. For us at Central the love of what we do is very important to maintain and we are constantly working to stay motivated, involved and enjoying our work. The explorations we go on help us keep our story and motivation so we can tell these stories in our food. Every time we travel we develop a level of sensitivity and it is a progression to see the beauty of our people, product, and landscapes and we translate that in our cuisine, creativity and techniques apart. [pullquote:right]

You and your wife, Pia, work together in the kitchen, but who has the last word?
Always Pia! Even though now she is expecting she is at the pass every night and will be working as long as she can. We are very thrilled of course and can't wait. We live close to the restaurant so it will be convenient even though it will be a big change in our lives. Pia really maintains the standards in the kitchen and I don't think she will be away from her work as she likes to look after every single detail.

Are you traveling a lot like last year?
I have to be choosier with the many invitations we get now but I am going to Tokyo, Hong Kong, Italy, and New York, and that is about it for now.

Are you going to cook with Massimo Bottura for his project in Italy?
Yes, on his project of cooking with the leftovers at the Milan Expo to feed the homeless. Massimo has invited chefs from all over the world and I am one of the participating chefs. Originally I was to go with Pia but now I will be going on my own in October as she won't be able to travel. October will be a busy month as I am going to be at StarChefs in New York and on that visit I will be cooking a dinner at the Park Lane Hotel, and we are not far from New York as it is only six hour flight from Lima.

Any crazy stories about your cooking adventures far away from home?
When I traveled to Cologne to cook at Vendome last year my bags went missing and I had to struggle to find ingredients at the market. It was worse when I went to Italy to Identità Golose and I had to do a demo on stage and all the stuff I needed was missing from my luggage and I had to change my plans on the spot. I was supposed to cook after Daniel Humm so I exchanged places with Vladimir Muhin, the Russian chef, and people thought I was him when I cooked in his place the next day. Every time we travel we have some story and at this point we divide our products between the baggage of our team so as not to lose everything. When we go through customs we are unsure of what will pass through and nervous because if they take some of our stuff we can lose 50 percent of our soul.

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