By Josefina Barrón
Photos: Jimena Agois, César del Río, Daniel Silva
Alchemy. That is the first thing that comes to mind when I step into Central, Virgilio Martínez’ restaurant in Lima, which is currently ranked as one of the five best in the world. Virgilio appears. Although he was recently named the best chef in the world, he does not necessarily look the part. He seems more like a restless young man, interested in seeking out Peruvian products unfamiliar even to other Peruvians.
He proudly shows me the menu: limpet, sargassum, huampo (gel from the bark of the huampo tree), the yuyo de pampa herb, toasted maize, the bitter tuber mashwa negra, Brazil nut, the taperiba fruit, peppery congona and matico herbs, the pilipili chile, and mallow. And no, I have not tried many of the ingredients featured here. It took a long time for these treasures to come to the attention of Virgilio, the city, and its haute cuisine, which was already globally renowned, but had never before reached the dizzying heights to which he has taken it.
Many of these ingredients came to his laboratory by way of indigenous peoples who share their knowledge. Other times, Virgilio and his team trekked through forests, forded rivers, walked in the rain, and climbed to the summits of Andean mountains as they chased rumors of a precious seed or the unknown qualities of a leaf.
Interestingly, the menu is divided into sections by altitude, or the relative number of feet above sea level from which the ingredients derive. The offerings are a nod to the great Javier Pulgar Vidal, a geographer who taught Peruvians to see their land in a more straightforward way. Perú is much more than the traditional categories of coast, mountain, and jungle. Javier Pulgar Vidal’s thesis posited that there are eight well-defined natural regions, categorized in accordance with altitudinal zones. The geographer’s novel concept was widely admired during the 1940s.
Perú is a craggy, jagged, and precipitous land that shades into diversity at every new level. Perú emerges from the rich Pacific Ocean that bathes its shores; from there the country embarks on an extended voyage that climbs to more than 16,000 feet above sea level, rising still higher as it continues toward the Eastern side of the Andean range, and then gradually descends again through the steps of this singular natural composition. This country is considered one of the four most diverse on earth. It is an inexhaustible palette of native flora and fauna, an infinity of possibilities that Virgilio is passionate about highlighting.
Virgilio carries a pair of tongs as he walks. Ingredients transform from one state to another in his lab: milk becomes paper, potatoes become glass. He is seeking a wordless eloquence that mirrors that of ancient Peruvians, who were pre-literate, but bequeathed to us a legacy of sensations. Would you like to get to know Perú? Try it, feel it.
This piece is called “The Secret Within” because this magic is within the country and within the artist. Virgilio fell in love with Perú. And Perú accepted his love. The bark of trees, the strange mollusks of the high Andes, the leaves of Amazonian shrubs, the fruits of the plains, the pink, still nameless forest tuber, the seed of hope encapsulated in a rare Andean flower all speak.
These ingredients are presented on plates that are not plates, but rather mineral surfaces, in a play of elements that he arranges with the precision of a jeweler. Virgilio fashions gastronomic adventures on these surfaces, but the compositions likewise suggest natural landscapes. He is a storyteller who narrates the nuances of a trip through Perú and its varying terrain. Diners who bring an open mind to his table will find this experience an exquisite gift to the palate.
I ask myself and I ask him: “How can you take the risk of not doing everything possible to please the customers?” How does he manage to remain completely free and exercise total creative control while cooking for the “audience” that fills the tables of his restaurant day after day? The answer is in the question: by not trying to please, Virgilio pleases.
By being honest with himself about the imperative imposed by his spirit to explore beyond the conventional, the unique experience of tasting his cuisine becomes captivating. Some diners have probably not returned, but he has made peace with himself and with a great many people who are willing to embrace the enchantment of new sensations. The British magazine Restaurant, which compiles an annual list of the best restaurants in the world based on surveys of chefs, restaurants, gourmets, and critics, was not acting on a whim when it awarded Virgilio the Chefs’ Choice Award 2017.
An Unprecedented Initiative
As part of his research, Virgilio began an undertaking he baptized the Mater Initiative. He led a team of researchers to examine ingredients collected from various parts of Perú. He and his team travel constantly in search of knowledge, following tips gleaned from local residents.
For example, Mrs. María Pinchi helped Mater Initiative gather flores de qolle (Buddleja coriacea) or buddleia, a plant that abounds in the mountains of Huancarani. In Madre de Dios, the team collected macambo seeds (Theobroma bicolor), a cacao-like fruit with sweet-sour pulp, that Virgilio uses to add a crunchy texture. Little by little, new challenges emerged with these discoveries; some of these ingredients have not been documented. Mater Initiative is a treasure trove of secrets.
Virgilio trained at Le Cordon Bleu in Ottawa and London. He worked at prestigious restaurants around the world, such as the Four Seasons Hotel in Singapore, Lutèce in Manhattan, Can Fabes in San Celoni, and Astrid & Gastón in Bogotá and Madrid. It was a good education. In July 2012, he opened the LIMA Restaurant in the Fitzrovia district of London. He also represented our country on the third season of the Netflix cooking show Chef’s Table. After years of traveling the world, he returned to Perú to cast a now-experienced eye on his native country. Since then, he has worked on consolidating his ideas, just like Antoni Tàpies did when he added earth and dust to paint to create textured surfaces.
Virgilio learned to accept that simply making good food was not his calling; it is easy to make good food and to eat well in Perú. But it is something else to awaken new sensations. His cuisine did not need the standard Peruvian touches, but rather a whole new spin. He took a deep breath and dared to break new ground. He stepped outside the comfort zone of safe cuisine and a safe life, and set out on an adventure into the unknown.
Nowadays, Virgilio focuses his research around Cusco. He chose Moray, considering it an expression of the experimentation he seeks. Those concentric paths laid down by the Incas were the perfect place to experiment with different altitudes and products. Virgilio has chosen to approach the vast diversity of our ingredients in a manner similar to that used by the peoples of the Andes in pre-Hispanic times: through vertical ecological management. After visiting the terraces of Moray in 2012, he designed his concept around the country’s different altitudes. No one had defined the country in quite this way.
He created dishes like Tierras Altas Verdes, which takes us to 3,445 feet above sea level, Mucílago Solar at 7,185 feet, and Aija Alta Montaña at 13,451 feet, where his iconic cushuro bacteria is found.
The dramatic changes of terrain in the Andean region make it possible to find products from varying altitudes, ranging from the coast to our Amazonia, concentrated in an area that measures just sixty miles across and is easily walkable by the native inhabitants.
It is clear that Virgilio is a treasure hunter. “Look,” he says, handing me a wooden display box that he calls a mater box. It holds some of the recent finds from his trips, showing the beauty of the ingredients collected with his team. To date, Virgilio has displayed more than one hundred fifty items in this box. He knows that collecting these ingredients requires a great deal of walking and keeping his senses attuned and his mind alert, while retaining a child’s sense of wonder.