Stand on top of selected mountains in Peru and you can see the entire country. To the north and south, wild, windswept grasslands climb towards glaciers and jagged peaks. To the east is the Amazon River Basin, a vast expanse of green forest veined with twisting rivers. To the west are arid plains riven by valleys splashed with colour. Beyond is the Pacific Ocean, extending to the horizon.
No borders separate the regions. Instead, each is defined by its ecosystem and its relationship to adjacent ecosystems, and all are connected by these relationships.
Peru is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world and Peruvian chef Virgilio Martínez is exploiting that fact in devising a menu for the future, which lists dishes made with a multitude of ingredients until recently unknown to us. Martínez runs Central, a restaurant in Lima he set up in 2008, along with a research laboratory called Mater Iniciativa. Central has just topped the list of Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants for the third year in a row, and is fourth on the list of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants.
Martínez has just completed a 20-day trip around Peru with the production crew of the award-winning Netflix documentary series Chef’s Table. He is one of the chefs featured in this year’s series. We meet him in Hong Kong where he’s promoting the title Central with book publisher Phaidon, from which all images in this story are taken.
Martínez has plenty on his plate. #legend can exclusively reveal that he will open in March a second dedicated space for Mater Iniciativa, along with a small, experimental restaurant called Mil in the Moray mountains, a 45-minute drive from Cusco city. It’s hard to imagine a more spectacularly located epicurean shrine, and must-go reason to visit Peru. Moray is the stuff of legend. It has large amphitheatres formed by agricultural terraces, built by the Incas in concentric circles that climb the slopes of the depressions they ring.
The difference between the temperature on the highest terrace of the biggest depression at Moray and the temperature on the lowest terrace, 30 metres below, can be up to 15 degrees Centigrade. Each terrace has its own microclimate and ecosystem, allowing different varieties of plants to be grown. The place may even have been an Incan agricultural laboratory. “It is Peru inverted. It inspired us,” Martínez says. Mil will seat 40 diners and some of the dishes on the menu will have their origins in antiquity. The chef says that even the potatoes will be cooked in the way they were 800 years ago. “There’s one dish called Wattia, in which people cook potatoes underground with hot rocks, stones,” Martínez says. “I cannot do that in Lima.”
Martínez will need a huge shopping basket. Of the 117 microclimates recorded around the globe, 84 are in Peru, giving life, it is estimated, to one-tenth of all the world’s species of plants and animals. Martínez marvels at the fecundity of his country. “Being in Peru and having access to these ingredients is a luxury that we are only beginning to understand as cooks,” he says. Peru has more than 4,700 species of potatoes, yet Martínez has tried only 400 or so. René Redzepi, the chef at Noma, formerly voted the world’s best restaurant, and which serves Nordic cuisine, talks of having a mere 200 species of mushroom to cook.
The work of chefs has changed in the modern age. Once they boasted that they spent 18 hours a day in the kitchen and were lauded for doing so. More important now is what they do outside the kitchen, in a world where they must think about conservation and sustainability. Ferran Adrià, the chef at the dearly departed El Bulli, realised that the future lay in the ingredients, rather than endless sphericated ways of cooking them. Redzepi worked for Adrià but began foraging for ingredients only after a stint at Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry in California.
What Redzepi did in the Old World, Martínez is doing in the New World. We have so little knowledge of the species of flora and fauna to be found in the vast expanse of the Amazon basin that Martínez has given himself the mission of documenting and understanding it for the sake of Peru.
Adrià asked other chefs and diners to unlearn French gastronomics as he pushed molecular cuisine. Martínez says Peru’s fecundity means it’s time to unlearn everything. “We’ve had to shift from everything we thought we knew. It’s not just about foraging and taking stuff,” he says. “When we talk about ecosystems, there’s the cultural ecosystem in people’s minds, too. We need to focus on and understand Peruvian diversity and help protect and nurture it.”
Martínez takes out a notebook, rips out a page and crumples it. “Peru is like wrinkled paper,” he says. “I’ll show you. Here’s the Pacific Coast. Here’s the Andes and there’s the Amazon. Imagine how many microclimates we get in all these little spots between – [it is] huge. So the person living here has to understand what’s happening here, and here. When he wants to fish, he goes to the Pacific Ocean or, for river fish, to the Amazon jungle, for which he must cross the Andes. Everybody does local cuisine to support our farms, farmers and nature. We apply this to our menu.”
The variety in Peru’s geography and the diversity of its wildlife intensify the challenge. “We had to work out how to make obscure ingredients like chaco clay or maca root seem as familiar in the restaurant as they were in their own ecosystem,” Martínez says. “Instead of shaving truffles, we shaved tunta, a freeze-dried potato.”
Everything eaten in Central is grown locally. Whatever Martínez may lack he refuses to import and uses instead the closest approximation he can find locally, or uses an entirely different kind of ingredient, which alters the paradigm of the dish. The food at Central differs according to the altitude of the place where the ingredients were grown. Martínez calls his plates “landscapes” because each reflects the source of its ingredients Central’s menu groups the individual dishes according to the altitude of their ingredients. To wit: Amazonian Rainforest (rose apple, pitahaya, lemon grass, 650 metres above sea level); Andean Root (yuca, annatto, coca, 2,580 metres); Tree Skins (avocado, loche, kiwicha, 2,300 metres); Colours of Amazonia (paiche, nut, pijuayo and ungurahui, 400 metres); Spiders on a Rock (sargassum, limpet, crab, 5 metres); and High Sierra Lake (mashua, duck, zapallo squash, 3,500 metres).
“I began to think about a research arm of the restaurant that could explore Peru’s biodiversity,” he says. “I knew it was important but, as a cook, I didn’t know where to start. It became an emotional, transformative experience to find ingredients in their native habitat. Seeing wild cacao beans or Amazonian fish eating fruit that had fallen into the water was unbelievable. Little by little, we expanded our reach.” The Mater Iniciativa laboratory is now staffed by specialists in disciplines from forest engineering to anthropology.
Martínez is moving several contours ahead of the zeitgeist. “We live in times where everybody wants to change the world, it seems. I don’t want to be part of that,” he says. “But we change the environment. That’s part of what we’re about. Stop getting ingredients from abroad. Stop thinking that Europe rules in terms of cuisine. We’re asking for change. The world is moving, we don’t know where, but we are proud to be part of that shift and have our own philosophy. Our food is 100 per cent local, with maximum biodiversity.”
Becoming a chef was not Martínez’s original ambition. He was once a skateboarder, with his eye on California and a professional career. In between listening to punk rock bands such as Bad Religion and NOFX, he was part of the surprisingly strong skateboarding movement in Peru, where he and other devotees would glean tips on the latest developments in the United States from Betamax videos. “For me, it was more than a sport,” Martínez says. “It was fashion, music, culture. You become part of a bigger culture than just the thing you do.”
But after twice breaking bones in the shoulder while attempting half-pikes, Martínez flipped his skateboard. He went to study at Le Cordon Bleu. He then did stints in New York at Lutèce, and in Bogotá and Madrid at Astrid & Gaston, before returning to Peru to explore the country and learn about its biodiversity. Now, apart from Central, he owns two restaurants in London: Lima, which has a Michelin star, and Lima Floral.
Peruvians have a natural relationship with Mother Earth. They rarely talk about organic food, for example, and have no organic food movement because Mother Earth provides such food naturally. Martínez says the indigenous people of the Amazon jungle use plants that have no nutritional purpose for medicine. “We have to eat more plants and vegetables,” he says. “All of us know that. But how many plants do we understand or use?”
Mater Iniciativa is making a register of plants. The laboratory has more than 100 species that have yet to be used in the kitchen. “Imagine, you don’t have to use parsley, basil or cilantro all the time if you have more than 200 plants and herbs that could be used in the same way,” Martínez says. “Why do we always use the same herbs?”
Central sometimes uses plants with medicinal properties in its dishes. “We’ve just started,” Martínez says. “We’re not trying to heal people, but it does have a body, soul and mind connotation that people like, and all the flavours are so different. Some people who finish eating in Central – at the end of a meal, their last night in Peru – they have this exploration of our biodiversity and culture through the plants and it makes me proud.”
Some diners even weep. “We should never take that for granted, just how emotional such things can be.”
“In structuring the menu, we began thinking about someone coming to Peru for the first time,” Martínez says. “What were they expecting? Were they aware of this tremendous biodiversity, and how could they have a better connection to it than just experiencing something they have never tasted before? As we looked at all the variables of Peru’s ecosystems, altitude kept appearing over and over again. Peru’s topography is uneven, which may sound chaotic or unwelcoming, and yet it is anything but. This unevenness has impact on every region, and the wide variation throughout the country is the primary cause of our biodiversity, allowing for all of these different plants and animals to exist and be cultivated.
Martínez believes people mistakenly regard Peru as a poor country. “It’s not about money,” he says. “We have such riches. When I go to places like the Andes, they have everything. They are bounteous. They just enjoy life, [with] no pressure. How can we be poor when we are so rich? We don’t have money, of course, but that’s different.”
Welcome to Perutopia.
Central by Virgilio Martinez is available for purchase wherever books are sold, and at www.phaidon.com