‘What you find now in Lima, I couldn’t have imagined 5 years ago’, says chef Virgilio Martinez, as he skirts round the organic herb garden carpeting the roof of his restaurant Central. Escaping a pervading ennui during his second year of law studies, Martinez dropped out to explore a long held passion for creativity in the kitchen fostered from childhood, but found his native Lima was hardly the place to do it. Hard to believe of what is now repeatedly praised as the culinary capital of Latin America.
‘Yes, there was always ceviche and pisco, but there was no national pride in Peruvian cuisine or international interest beyond the clichés. The city’s most celebrated restaurants were invariably Italian or French and there wasn’t a single decent school for training chefs’. Take stock now and the Peruvian food revolution has spread across the globe: from London to Buenos Aires, Madrid to Toyko, any self respecting society girl knows her tiradito from her trio of ceviche, driven in part by the success of expanding franchises from Peru’s most acclaimed chefs Gaston Acurio (Astrid y Gaston) and Rafeal Osterling (Rafael).
Louche, dishevelled, slight as a Barcelona beach boy, Martinez could have walked straight out of a Tom Ford ad- an added draw for the carousel of Limenos who return to watch Virgillio and his team at work through the open plan kitchen. A sliver of glass separates the dining room from the entirety of the working kitchen where the flesh and bones of the operation are entirely exposed, although lovers of high octane drama may leave disappointed. With his girlfriend as head sous-chef, the kitchen runs with a military precision and pervading calm that is a far cry from Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares, and baffling to the majority of couples who have attempted harmony in the kitchen. ‘Don’t you ever just want to throw a plate at him? ‘ Sometimes’, she smiles.
From formal training in Ottowa, Martinez glided from the kitchens of New York’s legendary Lutece, much loved by Mad Men execs, to the Ritz in London, before working for Peruvian chef Gaston Acurio’s expanding empire, setting up his pied-a-terre in Madrid. While Martinez has certainly earned his stripes, with Central he has created something entirely unique, devoid of the heightened sobriety of his former haunts and crackling with an injection of pure passion and creativity, that once you see it makes you realise how rare it is.
The business is family run with the help of his sister, a former doctor, who accompanies him on foraging expeditions to the Amazon in search of little known exotic ingredients to be kept in rows of stoppered bottles in his alchemists laboratory, alongside sacks of obscure andean grains. ‘We change the tasting menu every week or so and each time I try and feature one of the new grains or plants I have found on my latest trip. I used to change it every day but it became a little confusing for the waiting staff…’
His air of boheme mask an intensity of preciseness and obsessive purism apparent from the 5 different types of homemade salt that accompany the bread basket(the black squid ink salt was the winner) to the distillation room that treats ecologically treats all water used in the kitchen, because ‘normal tap water alters the composition of the ingredients’.
Ask a discerning limeno their favourite spot for dinner and the answer will invariably be Central, but search for it in travel guides and on website hot lists and you will come up short. Visit Central and you realise why the locals are so keen to keep it a secret and why it is edging on to the hit lists of those who travel the world on the hunt for the ultimate dinner. Hats off to Peru’s culinary household names for focusing the world’s attention on the delights and complexities of Peruvian cuisine, but one feels that it is Martinez who will very soon be leading the race.
Dehouche will sneak you behind the scenes to experience the 7 course tasting menu from the intimacy of the chef’s table, kitchen side of the glass partition and tucked below a towering tree that pokes out of the roof. As well as talking you through the intricacies of each dish, Virgilio will also take you with him on a dawn raid to source his latest find from Lima’s exotic Surquillo market. Contact Dehouche for further details and our latest insider tips on how to experience the best of Peru.