Chef profile: Virgilio Martinez

23 January 2015
Chef profile: Virgilio Martinez

Virgilio Martinez is jetlagged. Bleary-eyed and sleepy, he's sat in his London restaurant Lima at 9.30am, half a world away from his native Peru.

"I'm so sorry I was late. Really. I don't want to give that impression of Latino countries that we are always unreliable!" he jokes in a springy Latin American accent, sipping a strong coffee with cream.

It's been a big 18 months for the chef, a time during which he has arguably become the poster boy for a new generation of Latin American chefs. In September his restaurant Central, based in Peru's capital Lima, plucked top spot in Latin America at the World's 50 Best Restaurants (and 15th in the global list) and a year before that, Lima became the first Peruvian restaurant to win a Michelin star. Then, in July 2014, he followed up that success with a second branch - Lima Floral - based around the corner in London's Covent Garden.

Today, he finds himself battling the jetlag to check up on the two London projects. First things first - why open a second restaurant so close by?

"That's a good question," he replies. "The menus are completely different. We didn'twant to repeat it. No dishes are repeated. We have a Pisco bar, the atmosphere is different, it's more lively. All new restaurants, it takes some time for them to find a personality."

Martinez has launched both restaurants with brothers Gabriel and Jose Luis Gonzalez, after meeting Gabriel at cookery expo Madrid Fusion six years ago. The brothers' original wish was to convince the chef to open a European branch of Central, but Martinez was quick to dismiss the possibility: "I said there was no way to open two Centrals, for me; no way to bring all the ingredients from Peru. We've tried to bring some of the stories and recipes from Central to Lima but the restaurant is very different - we have 55 chefs in Peru - here it is more casual. The idea is to use Peruvian techniques and food but in a casual environment. Central is 100% Peruvian products. Here we use UK fish, UK vegetables."

A flying start

So Lima was born, a more casual and informal take on Peruvian food, which made it all the more surprising, for Martinez at least, when it picked up a Michelin star within 18 months of opening. "We were not expecting a Michelin star, especially in our first year. The restaurant is very casual so I was surprised. When they first told me I said 'Are you sure?'."

What is even more remarkable is that when Lima opened, there was only one other Peruvian restaurant in London, a much more traditional joint (now closed) in London Bridge.

Since then, there has been a sea change around Peruvian cooking. A dozen other restaurants have opened in London, with the promise of more to come; Peruvian chefs have claimed top spot both years in Latin America's 50 Best Restaurants (since it launched in 2013); and last year, a host of uber-chefs rushed to praise Martinez himself is a model of adaptability.

After a stint as a pro-skateboarder, since switching to cooking his career has taken him from Peru to Canada, New York, Singapore, Thailand, London (at the Ritz and the Four Seasons Canary Wharf), back to Peru, where he worked at GastÁ³n Acurio's Astrid y GastÁ³n before helping to export the restaurant to Madrid, then returning home to go it alone with Central in 2010. What did he bring back to his homeland after all those travels?

"Lots of ideas. When you live abroad and in many countries you have a very global vision. I have cooked for Japanese, Germans, Americans, English - you learn how to think globally. It helped me because Peru is very diverse, loads of countries in one; so many cultures."

What he discovered when back in Peru was a country of incredible unexplored culinary heritage, and Martinez's dogged research of the country's Andean foods has not only helped make his own name but drive the whole Peruvian restaurant scene forward.

"The way Andean people see the world is amazing. They don't see it as a flat map like westerners; they see it in altitude. When they grow quinoa at 4,000m they have to leave their crop for two months because of the weather, and they need to move to grow potatoes."

Now, he works closely with Mater Iniciativa - a group that travels through Peru looking for unique Andean produce - and joins them foraging every few months. The goal is to find produce that was used widely in Incan times but has since disappeared from kitchens.

"When I was 15 years old I wasn't aware of my Incan heritage; they don't teach you to love it. When you travel you see that there are 80 varieties of corn, probably 2,000 types of potato. When I saw that I thought: 'How can we reflect that Incan heritage at Central?'".

The result is the use of wild varieties of kiwicha and quinoa, banana passion fruit and red dried cactus seed. These ingredients come together masterfully in themed dishes, such as Extreme Altitude, a celebration of crops grown in the Andes, which comprises frozen potato, cushuro (edible cyanobacteria), mullaca root and paico herb. It was this dedication and attention to detail that has seen the accolades pour in. Has the level of acclaim surprised him?

"I think it has been too quick for us," he says. But does he not feel that he deserves it? "It is not whether we deserve it or not. Yeah, probably we might deserve it but a lot of my colleagues do as well. A few years ago when everyone said we had a world class restaurant I wasn't happy. I think my city is amazing but I want to make guests feel like they are in Peru, not in Milan or Paris. Now we are properly properly reflecting that Andean heritage. Now we need to work out how we can improve things the whole time and carry on moving forward."

All this dedication to Andean food is pared down in London, where Martinez's two restaurants use 10% Peruvian ingredients and 90% British. Has their overriding success tempted him to open Lima restaurants in other European countries?

"Would it work elsewhere? Of course. You know why; a lot of restaurant concepts that work in London work around the world. But I struggle with the long trips and jetlag coming here and I need to save 80% of my time for Central. The remaining 20% I spend with other colleagues and being here. If we did do something different in another part of the world that would need to change. And going to another country would be selling our beliefs

too fast. This is a small authentic restaurant from a group of guys that had a dream of opening something in London. And I think we are achieving this."

Five of the best Latin American restaurants

Astrid y GastÁ³n, Lima, Peru

Martinez's alma mater, Astrid y GastÁ³n opened in 1994 as a French fine-dining pad courtesy of husband and wife team GastÁ³n Acurio and Astrid

Gutsche. The restaurant soon switched to Peruvian cuisine where Acurio made a name for himself as one of Peru's most celebrated chefs. The flagship recently relocated nearby in Lima, while the Astrid y GastÁ³n franchise now includes restaurants across South America and in Madrid.

Biko, Mexico City, Mexico

A fusion of modern Latin American flavours that comes courtesy of San SebastiÁ¡n-born chefs Bruno Oteiza, Gerard Bellver and Mikel Alonso, Biko melds traditional cooking from their Basque homeland with avant garde techniques from the elBulli-trained Bellver. Flavours hop merrily between Spain and Mexico, from the signature 100% cotton foie gras dish to almond-infused pork cheeks with a horchata foam.

BoragÁ³, Santiago, Chile

Chef Andoni Luis Aduriz opened BoragÁ³ in 2007 and it has swiftly gone on to become one of Chile's best restaurants. The creator of Spain's iconic Mugaritz restaurant, Aduriz uses the diverse Chilean landscape, putting emphasis on foraged herbs, flowers and berries, while also using age-old cooking techniques, with octopus cooked on rocks, and potatoes served in a bucket over smoking wood embers.

Mani, SÁ£o Paulo, Brazil

Opened in 2006 by husband and wife team Helena Rizzo and Daniel Redondo, Mani has become celebrated for its reinvention of traditional Brazilian

cuisine, elevating dishes and ingredients such as spherified feijoada (black bean and pork stew) and cassava into refined masterpieces. All of this takes

place in a casual setting in Jardim Paulistano - one of SÁ£o Paulo's swankiest suburbs.

Tegui, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Tegui is the standout of chef GermÁ¡n Martitegui's trio of Buenos Aires restaurants, and has become renowned for its gloriously varied menu - with dishes jumping from style to style on an almost daily basis. One day it might resemble a European fine-diner, the next it might be a refined take

on Argentinian comfort food. A minimalist interior located behind a graffiti-covered door only adds to the mystique.

Virgilio Martinez's restaurants

Central, Lima, Peru

  • Opened February 2010
  • Covers 70
  • Dishes Roast avocado, scorched milks, kiwicha, highland algae (£10); roasted grouper, black quinoa, native potato, calamari, peas (£16); Desert huarangos - peanut, palo blanco cacao, lucuma, citrus leaf (£8)

Lima, Fitzrovia, London

  • Opened June 2012
  • Covers 80
  • Dishes Sea bream ceviche, tiger's milk, sweet potato, red onion, cancha corn (£10); organic roasted lamb rump, yellow potato, Andean mint, queso fresco (£24); Cacao Porcelana Piura 75%, cinnamon cream, blue potato (£8.50)

Lima Floral, Covent Garden, London

  • Opened July 2014
  • Covers 70
  • Dishes Dry Andean potato - dry potato stew, goats' cheese, onion ashes, red shiso (£7); roasted black quinoa - Chaufastyle quinoa and egg, avocado, sesame seed oil (£16); passion fruit, organic yoghurt, hierba Buena (£7)

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