Geeta Bansal Interviews Virgilo Martinez, Peru's Newest Chef Star

Categories: On the Line

Interviewing Martinez
Every Monday, Clay Oven Irvine executive chef/owner Geeta Bansal shares an interview that she's done with some of the heavyweights of European cooking. Today, she regales us with a visit to Peru, where Virgilio Martinez is currently the toast of the country's cooking scene. Enjoy!

Virgilio Martinez Veliz, The Chef at the Forefront of the Peruvian Culinary Metamorphosis
By Geeta Bansal, Executive Chef, Clay Oven Irvine

Virgilio Martinez Veliz is an energetic, young, handsome, introspective, accomplished chef and restaurateur with restaurants in Lima and Cusco, Peru and in London since last year. I first met him for a conversation at his restaurant Central in the posh Miraflores district of Lima. We sat down in the library upstairs, which his restaurant guests are allowed to reference. Adjacent to that is a small roof top garden that grows herbs and garnishes for the kitchens below. In the kitchens downstairs the staff was working feverishly to finish the prep for the day's service. His restaurant is the newest entry into the top 50 restaurants of the world at the Restaurant Magazine awards ceremony in London on April 29th, 2013--a great accomplishment, considering he opened the restaurant in 2010.

Prepping in the kitchen at Central

Virgilio grew up in a well-to-do family that allowed him to get a great education (a law degree, no less) and travel and explore the world before finding his calling in the kitchen. I had heard a lot about Virgilio the person from other chefs and friends and was looking forward to meeting this young chef. Our meeting had been planned in the morning before the lunch service at his restaurant for an hour but we ended up chatting about food and people we knew for a long time and on my last night in Lima I had a wonderful meal there which for me still brings back memories of the great food in Peru.

There is a great food culture there with Japanese, Chinese, Italian and Spanish influence in combination with the most unusual products from the Amazon to the Andes. At the moment it is the hottest gastronomic destination for food aficionados, at the forefront of the changing face of cuisine in South America. Every chef I meet or have met in the last few years has either been there or wants to (Joan Roca of Celler Can Roca, Aduriz of Mugaritz, Albert Adria of 41 degrees and Tickets, Elena and Juan Mari Arzak, Carme Ruscalleda, etc).

As a result I had heard all about chef Virgilio's culinary history. including his professional skateboarding days, his Cordon Bleu training in Canada, his work at the Astrid y Gaston restaurant in Lima (Gaston Acurio's flagship in Lima). He had also headed the kitchen at Acurio's ventures in Madrid and Bogota. The day before we met he had returned from Lisbon where had participated in a food conference and last week he was in London where his restaurant Lima his newest venture is located, for the restaurant awards ceremony at the London Guildhall.

Virgilio and Pia with the Central team

Virgilio recently launched his Mater initiative where he is working on bringing back and preserving the indigenous products from the different ecosystems that exist in his homeland and using them in his haute cuisine. (The newest chef trend that I have observed, Alex Atala of Brazil launched ATA last year, Redzepi has his Nordic foodlab).

The products from the Amazon, the Andean highlands, the coast and the desert a huge range of indigenous plants, animals and fish are the focus of this initiative. These forays added to his travels and work experience in Southeast Asia, Spain, Italy, South America, New York (Lutece), and France has given him a wider perspective on where he will be taking Peruvian food next. In my conversations with the grand masters of cuisine in Peru such as Javier Wong and Toshiro, he was always mentioned in glowing terms and identified with the future of the national cuisine.

Virgilio's cuisine is fresh, and contemporary with beautiful plates and very representative of his culture. The flavors and textures create memories for your taste buds; each delectable bite surpasses the last one. There came a point during my meal where I gave up trying to identify the techniques and flavors and became just an enraptured diner enjoying a great experience. He is assisted by Pia, his gorgeous partner and chef in the kitchen and they make a great team (wedding bells are around the corner for this young couple). There is a lot of energy and creativity in this duo that is due to explode on the international scene. Since last year Virgilio has been traveling to and speaking at a lot of events nationally and internationally (all these young chefs must be racking up a gazillion air miles with the trips they take constantly across continents...I should ask what they do with all those miles!) I have also visited his Cusco restaurant Senzo at the Palaccio Nazarenes hotel, Orient Express's newest hotel venture where the kitchen is run by Karime, a young petite Mexican chef. The food at Senzo is spectacular as well and true to Virgilio's vision.

Amuse from the Diversity Menu

My motivation for these interviews is to share my experiences of meeting and knowing these wonderful cooks in my attempt at connecting them with diners so they know them and the way they think and work and can relate to their food.

The menu at Central is divided into two sections. The Diversity showcases products from the Amazon to the Madre de Dios to Central Andes. The Experience Origin has ten courses with scallops, fish, algae, octopus, shrimp, goat, suckling pig, arapaima fish from the Amazon, bahuaja nuts to the last named tea time with an assortment of sweet delectables. The pictures don't do justice to the aromas and colors of these dishes but will make you want to be there yourself to experience them.

Our conversation which I hope will be continuing for a long time:

How do you define your style of cuisine?
My cuisine is inspired by the different regions of Peru. I know I am in an urban area here in Lima, yet I am very close to the sea, only two blocks away and the sea inspires me on a daily basis. My food is very visual, to me landscapes, feelings, romance, emotions are very important. I believe that my cuisine is very close to nature but in an artistic way.

So you go out to pick your own products or forage as the current trend now?
Firstly, I keep in touch with my producers. As you say, it is a trend now, but we do our best not to follow it. There are other trends as well to bring emotions and spirituality into food and that is significant as well. Every where people are aware of our culture and how it is becoming too artificial and we need to go back and reconnect emotionally. We need this balance and I see it as the new trend.

Do you think you set trends as people are following your lead now?
We are just trying to do something unique. I don't know how to classify our style; our commitment is to do something unique. My education as a cook was all over the world and when I got back to Peru five years ago my mission was to look into my heritage. I started to travel around Peru to identify the products and get to know people. This process led to the creation of my cuisine. It is a Peruviana cuisine and we use 100% Peruvian products and I am very proud of that.

Is it important to look to the past to create the future?
I think we must live in the moment not in the past or future or we will become static or immobilized. Once in a while we can meditate and become aware of something in the past that you can bring it into the present.

What is your Mater initiative about?
To discover the unknown, forgotten things in the jungles and the Andes Mountains of Peru. As a cook we don't have the ability to know the product, the producers, the soil, so we are working with people who are knowledgeable about it.

So like collaborating with cultural anthropologists?
I just had a meeting with anthropologists, biologists and designers this morning on this subject. We have travelled to the Andes, the jungle and met the people and came back with samples and data to send to the lab for analysis.

We must know the true nature of these products before we use it in our kitchens to make sure it is not unsafe for consumption. (Hey, I ate a kind of bacteria at both his restaurants so I am glad to know it was tested out). The Amazon for example has several micro-climates so all kinds of mushrooms grow there and not all are safe to eat. I respect the traditional products and the knowledge about traditional food styles but as you know our food is not traditional. We take a product and use it differently but we respect where it comes from. The soil is our God, where all these things come from and we must do our best not to damage it and maintain its true nature

For the last decade the emphasis has been on molecular cuisine. Do you see it changing?
We cooks believe in techniques, sometimes for the sake of our own egos. That stage helped us a lot to think about transforming things in nice artistic ways, stress hygiene, to set new standards in the cuisine globally. All the foams and spumas are now as commonplace as mayonnaise.

Virgilio's library and product samples

Are you a perfectionist by nature, detail oriented?
At this stage we have to be like this as I am in charge of this restaurant I have to keep the focus. This is a work with a lot of details and a lot of people sit down at our tables for 3-4 hours and they are expecting the best. We cannot afford to make mistakes. There is a lot of emotional expectation and I must honor them with the best and with perfect details.

Has the Internet changed diner's expectations since everything is shared instantly all over the place?
It's crazy because we have no answers and we don't know where or who is interacting with us. We make friends on face book, online and twitter. It is handy but it does not show the extent of our work. It is a small glimpse only. It's like when journalists call me or Skype an interview but it's not the same as here we are talking and getting a different feeling by being face to face. You are not a journalist and are writing from another approach and it is interesting to have this interaction with you.

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