• Virgilio Martinez with his wife Pia Leon at the World's 50 Best Restaurants announcement in New York this year. ( The World’s 50 Best Restaurants)Source: The World’s 50 Best Restaurants
Choosing cooking over skating has paid off - despite occasionally poisoning himself, Virgilio Martinez now runs one of the world's best kitchens.
Larissa Dubecki

20 Dec 2016 - 3:59 PM  UPDATED 20 Dec 2016 - 4:17 PM

Virgilio Martinez became a chef by accident - in the interests of complete accuracy, two of them. The superstar Peruvian chef was intent on making a career in the skate rink rather than the kitchen, but broke a clavicle showing off for a talent scout and a shoulder a few weeks later. Wisely, he decided cheffing was the safer career option.

It was a lucky break for him personally - his Lima restaurant Central now sits at number four on that influential annual ranking self-effacingly known as the World’s Best Restaurants list, and was also its best restaurant in South America for 2016 - and for his country’s massively underappreciated cuisine, which in only a few years has gone from local zero (he has spoken about being embarrassed when his mother served traditional Peruvian food to his friends) to global hero.

Peruvian food is hot. It’s trending in London (where Martinez has another restaurant, Lima London), and New York, and many places in between. Its restaurant world’s leading light, Gaston Acurio, is the most feted man in Peru and has been spoken about as a possible President. But back then, when Martinez reluctantly shelved his skateboard away, he couldn’t find a cooking school in Lima to train him.

“We didn't have this exposure of Peruvian cuisine worldwide, we didn't have people coming to Peru to eat like they do now,” he says in Melbourne, on tour promoting Central, the restaurant’s first monograph-slash-cookbook. “We didn't have institutions of gastronomy or culinary schools. It was quite difficult for me to realise what is Peruvian cuisine is.”

Like many young chefs from underappreciated culinary traditions, his road led to Paris and Le Cordon Bleu - hardly bastions of traditional Peruvian cooking. But he found work in the kitchen of Acurio’s Astrid y Gaston (also on the World’s Best list), becoming the great chef’s protégé in the process. On opening Central he first struggled with a fusion of Peruvian, French and a mixed bag of other national influences. In theory it could have worked - Peru is a culturally diverse country with a naturally occurring fusion cuisine - but a rare break made him take stock and strip the operation back to Peruvian essentiality. In the process, he invented something entirely new.
A flick through the pages of Central will reveal his ethos: it’s entirely based in Peru’s astoundingly diverse ecology (the nation is home to more than 3000 varieties of potato alone), and each dish pertains to the altitude at which its ingredients are found, from the coastal regions around Lima to the mountains of Cusco and the tropical Amazon Basin. It’s a radical new approach to food, and intellectually it makes perfect sense: matching like with like, the belief that flavours growing together bear an inherent complimentarity. It also makes for hard work: Martinez employs 10 people at his Mater Iniciativa, a gastronomical research group based in Cusco, where new ingredients are religiously recorded and analysed . He also enlists the help of a shaman and has, on occasion, poisoned himself (“You know, just rashes and the throat kind of closes.”)

“Ten people working on research might sound like a lot but we still need more,” he says. “We wouldn’t have success as a restaurant without Mater. We are in the process of building trust.”

Comparisons to Australia inevitably emerge when talking with Martinez about his homeland’s wholesale attitudinal shift. Australia, too, was late to its food culture; it’s only in this decade that native ingredients have been popularised by the likes of Attica’s Ben Shewry, Pei Modern’s Mark Best and Orana’s Jock Zonfrillo. Martinez sees it is as a global movement in which chefs are celebrating their home soil over the bland paradigm of the 1990s when travellers could eat the same food in Buenas Aires, London and New York (“A little boring, and not deep.”) To take Central on its new path involved giving up more than 200 ingredients that he had imported, such as common cooking oils. “Thinking in a global perspective it is good to have this adaptation to your territory and respect it. If you can’t see something, don’t do it. It’s very natural. Nowadays when people talk of natural cuisine, I think that’s good.”

And the timing, he says, is perfect. The new culinary pride Peruvians feel is twinned with a frantic sense of making up for lost time, Martinez says, but it is part of a new Renaissance of artistic endeavour in the country, including architecture and art.

“The whole country is moved by food. Maybe 30 years ago food and restaurants were not that important. We thought about going to France, we never thought about staying in Peru and defending our cuisine the way we are doing now.”

Like many of the books put out by his fellow World’s Best Restaurants brethren, Central is aspirational rather than practical. It’s a book to be pored over, to be enjoyed for its essays on landscape, ingredients, producers and nature, and for its striking photography (there are 150 photographs of the Peruvian landscape, from its ethereal mountain tops to forest floor blankets of flowers). Cooking from it will be the domain only of the obsessive (unless one has easy access to dry callampa mushrooms, huaranga molasses and the edible clay known as chaco) and the foolhardy (the recipe for “diversidad de qinuas”, or variety of quinoa finishes with the instruction “serve alongside the llama and chlorophyll”).

It is, nonetheless, a fascinating window into Peru’s moment in the sun that has become more like a supernova. “I left Peru because I couldn't find a school of gastronomy. There were none,” Martinez says incredulously. “Now it is one of the biggest things. Lima is the city with one of the most amount of culinary schools in the world. People are going crazy about cooking and being a chef. There are 80,000 Peruvians in cooking school now. It has changed a lot.”

Portrait in Peru and book images from Central, by Virgilio Martinez and Nicholas Gill (Phaidon, hb, $85). Lead image copyright The World’s 50 Best Restaurants.

tastes of peru
Sopa seca

If you don’t think of it as spaghetti bolognese, or anything Italian and pasta-y that you’re used to, you’re in for a real treat. 

Peruvian pork roll (pan con chicharron)

In Peru, chicharrón refers to succulent pork, which is braised and then fried in its own fat. It forms the basis of this popular snack, piled onto a roll with fried sweet potato and a spicy onion salsa. We’ve added a sauce made from Peru’s ubiquitous aji amarillo chilli, and have used pork belly roasted in the oven for ease.

Peruvian caramel and liqueur meringue (suspiro de limeña)

Translating to "sigh of a woman" and dating back to the 1800s, this is one of the best-loved traditional Peruvian desserts. The recipe's slow cooking process results in a golden, silky smooth caramel-like base, which is then crowned with a light and creamy liqueur meringue. Serve it with mixed berries.