An Interview With Peruvian Chef Virgilio Martínez Véliz: Part 3

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

The Daily Meal: You are surrounded by women in your operation at Central with you wife, Pia; your sister; mother; and chef Karime Lopez Moreno Tagle. Why do you think women get short shrift on the "Best of" lists?
Virgilio Martínez Véliz
: I always ask that question of myself, not only on the list but everywhere else in our industry. Interestingly, now that I am working with the university, I see that the culinary program has more women than men. All these women just need to stay on course and not get distracted and not be so discreet and own their talents. In my personal opinion, the best decision I made was to choose to work with women at Central. They are amazing and so quick sometimes when I suggest something I find it has already been taken care of. They do the best work and push me to be the protagonist for it.

You think Peru will be the breakthrough country to have a female chef at the forefront?
I hope so, and in my personal opinion they can work as well and sometimes better than men. Even at Central you don't hear much about Pia, Karime, and Malena because they stay on the sidelines by their own choice and don't ask for this attention. Pia works on the execution, Karime on the menus, Malena on the research, and my mother on the design of the restaurant. Now I want to push them to be part of the picture since they are probably better at their work than me!

Chefs such as yourself in Peru are reintroducing or introducing products from the Amazon or Andes in their restaurants. While you are compiling information and discovering these products and ancient cooking techniques with your Mater Iniciativa, are you also looking at possible health benefits of these ingredients?
Yes sure, since now we are working with people who care about what was once important and its health benefits. Mostly we focus on the impact of the ingredient in a particular ecosystem, so I am making these trips into different regions and their eco systems and truly it is still a work in progress. These days we are working with the university in Peru so I have access to their lab in order to do research but it is going to be a process. We just started as a restaurant collecting ingredients for our use and now we have found that our discovery of that ingredient has an impact on that region. These local communities and producers in the remote areas have now become our suppliers. Since we have accumulated so much information we needed another structure for our work because we are very responsible about what we use.

Are other chefs involved in your Mater Iniciativa?
Mater Iniciativa is a foundation based in our Central restaurant and our office is here in the second floor of the restaurant. In reality Mater is the heart of Central since it is from here that we do exploration trips and all our investigative work. We are not working with anthropologists or sociologists but directly with people but of course we share and discuss with others. We invite other chefs to join us or even specialists from other fields to speak about issues. What I was doing earlier with Gaston Acurio and Mitsuharu Tsumura was working on Leche de Tigra and traveling to cook and talk about ceviches and it was very useful and fun to promote our cuisine but now my focus with Mater is entirely different we work to register new products and their related social issues.

We work to find the best products, for example here is some cacao [he opens a parcel from a huge pile of packages that has just arrived]. Every single day I get products from all over to test and taste so this afternoon we will test it and possibly use it in our menu here at Central. First we will find out who is growing it and where and how we can help the growers of this cacao.

You are building your Mater Iniciativa complex in the Sacred Valley near Cusco. When will it be ready, and will it have a restaurant as well?In about two years it will be complete and will have a small restaurant which will be the focus of the laboratory on the complex. We are going to call it the Registration for Mater and it will focus on acquisition of knowledge and information about products and inspiration to use these. Some of this information needs to be utilized in situ as it does not travel very well even as far as Lima from the original source. [pullquote: right]

For your upcoming casual restaurant NOS in Lima, your cuisine is described as global cuisine with elements from outside, but is it still concentrating on Peruvian flavors?
It is a little bit of everything since it will be a very informal place compared to Central. I say it's global because it will not have this obsession with local products. It does have a Peruvian taste and many things you don't find in other parts of the world or regions in Peru. The menu will have ceviches and sandwiches etc.

Your new cookbook is coming out this fall for the home cook. What kind of recipes will be featured, and will they require Peruvian ingredients?
Yes in October, and truthfully it was a big challenge to put this together. We had to be very creative and not include complex recipes using ingredients people cannot source in other countries. We worked extensively on the recipes over four months and tried to use ingredients that can be found anywhere or we suggest alternatives for certain ingredients. The recipes look easy but it was a very difficult task, and I should add it has the spirit of my Lima London restaurant.

Next year we are doing a book with Phaidon and it focuses on Central. It is a very special project as we are writing based on our travels and expeditions and it is about the attitudes and altitudes of Peru. Essentially we are writing the book in a style similar to the way we do our menus. It is simple yet very complex at the same time, but we enjoying the process.

How many hours per day are you working, since you are doing so many different things?
From 8:00 in the morning to 1:00 the next morning, but I have no complaints. I am enjoying every moment of my work. I have a lot of gratitude for what I have now and I don't worry too much about me or my time at work. Working as a couple together with Pia I feel blessed and I also believe that my time is here and now!

Do you feel you have changed personally through your journey in the last two years?
Yeah I do, and though good and bad things happened, I am now working with a large group of people and since people are following our work I feel more responsible about what I do.  I am probably more mature in the way I see life and I have learned when to be calm and when to enjoy the moment and be happy.

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