The fevered globetrotting of chef Virgilio Martínez eventually led him home to Peru, there to explore the South American nation’s extreme diversity of ecosystems, cultures, culinary traditions and ingredients

Virgilio Martínez Véliz was born in Lima, the capital and largest city of Peru. From a young age he was encouraged to leave his country – to pursue experiences and employment in places far from the South American nation that his generation – like generations before – considered too poor for a promising future. 

Another factor in Martínez’s decision to leave Peru was his desire to become a chef – there were, after all, no cooking schools in Peru at that time. Canada would be his first port of call, where he enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu in Ottawa. The world opened up from there. “I wanted to live in a more cosmopolitan city, a bigger city,” Martínez says. “I had the chance to go to New York or London. I had some friends in London, so I decided to go there.”

In the British capital, Martínez began by doing a little of everything – from washing dishes to serving front of house – before landing a chef role in a hotel. “I was doing French cuisine and I was in charge of the cheese,” he says. “That was fun for me because I was Peruvian, with no cheese background, and I learnt a lot.”

After London, Martínez moved to New York City, further mastering traditional French cuisine at renowned restaurant Lutèce that – after 40 years of great acclaim – finally closed its doors in 2004. “I really appreciated that because I learnt the basics,” the chef says, adding, however, that the desire to travel and learn about other cuisines remained strong 

Next, Martínez headed for Asia, to Singapore and Thailand. “I was doing street food; I was working on the beach in front of the sea on an island in Thailand,” he recalls. “In Singapore, I was working in a Chinese restaurant. I had no idea! I knew how to make puff pastry and pâté, but I was doing Chinese cuisine.

“I had thought I had to be a chef in a very classic way, and then I travelled. I went to Spain; I went to Madrid, to Barcelona [where he worked at now-defunct three-Michelin-starred Can Fabes restaurant], spent some time in Germany, and then to Bogota. I thought that was good training – to travel a lot – because I got a good understanding of how culture is so important in food.” 

But, despite the breadth of his travels and experience, Martínez felt lost. “I felt superficial,” he says, “because I was always the Peruvian guy doing Italian cuisine, the Peruvian guy doing French cuisine, doing Japanese cuisine, all the time doing something that didn’t belong to me.”

Peru, it seemed, was calling Martínez home, but still he had the travel bug. “When I got back to Peru, I took one year off and I started to travel to different regions, and I tried to understand,” he says. “It took me a while. I was running away from Peru because my generation was told we were a poor country, but we didn’t see how rich we were in terms of biodiversity. We have 87 microclimates. We have 4,700 varieties of potatoes. We have the best corn in the world. We have quinoa in all different colours. And then we have the Amazon, where I have seen fruits that I have never seen before.”

“I felt superficial because I was always the Peruvian guy doing Italian cuisine, the Peruvian guy doing French cuisine, doing Japanese cuisine, all the time doing something that didn’t belong to me.”—Virgilio Martínez

And Martínez quickly discovered that his culinary know-how was not quite good enough when applied to an entirely different tradition and range of ingredients. “I was trained in a French school, where the potato had a recipe – the mashed potato,” he says. “How could I apply that same recipe to more than 4,000 varieties of potato? It just doesn’t work – they have different moisture, different flavour. So that was the beginning of me starting to do something different, and to look for my own way.” 

And Martínez found his way, opening Central Restaurante, in the exclusive Miraflores District of Lima, in 2008. The restaurant has received numerous accolades, including The Best Restaurant in Latin America three years running, and is rated number five in San Pellegrino’s World’s 50 Best list for 2017. [Editor's note: Central Restaurante closes in its current location in Miraflores on June 9, and will relocate to Casa Tupac in Barranco on June 25, where it will also feature a research lab and casual bistro called Kjolle

Serving contemporary Peruvian cuisine, the philosophy at Central is to explore and experiment with Peru’s incredible biodiversity. The current tasting menu extends to 17 courses incorporating 256 ingredients. “What we cook is what we feel belongs to us. We are cooking with the altitudes of Peru, and the different ecosystems and producers that we connect with via Mater Iniciativa,” Martínez says, referring to an initiative, established in 2013, that seeks out ingredients and producers from across Peru for use in Central Restaurante. “I feel our restaurant promotes what is happening in my region.”

Mater Iniciativa can be seen, in fact, as a continuation of Martínez’s travels, and the body is comprised of anthropologists, historians and researchers. Mater Iniciativa, of which the chef is a founding member, also works in preservation, using gastronomy as a tool for change, supporting Peruvian producers and helping them to preserve natural ecosystems. The initiative plays into what Martínez believes is the expanded role of the modern-day chef. 

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Above A dish titled Harvest and Collection, at Central Restaurante in Lima, Peru (Photo: Central Restaurante)

“At some point, you had to start thinking about making an impact on the world, about sustainability,” he says. “You have to talk to journalists, to be a model of conduct, behave in a proper way. Chefs are turning into something that is different. [Before], we were just eating in the kitchen, we were nobody – even the servers had more visibility.”

Gracing the covers of magazines, receiving awards, delivering seminars and managing a global restaurant empire are just a few of the things that make Martínez’s role so much broader than that of a traditional chef. Martínez has also been instrumental in bringing Peruvian cuisine to the world, firstly with the opening of Lima restaurant in London’s Fitzrovia neighbourhood in 2012. The restaurant was awarded a Michelin star in 2014, the same year that a second London Lima opened, in Covent Garden.  A third Lima restaurant, in Dubai, welcomed its first guests in March last year.

“At some point, you had to start thinking about making an impact on the world, about sustainability."

The Lima concept is relatively simple: to bring the food of the Peruvian capital to the world, but not necessarily the homegrown ingredients, which, Martínez says, would be unsustainable. “It’s not in our culture to produce ingredients to make them travel,” he explains. “We harvest and we eat. In Central in Peru, no ingredient sleeps in the refrigerator. We finish the ingredients and the next day we collect more.” 

Martínez has also been spending time in Hong Kong recently, and he plans to open a restaurant in the city this July. The final concept is still forming, but it will, of course, be Peruvian. “I enjoy travelling,” says the chef, “but I never forget that I come from Peru.”  

And while Martínez has his sights set globally, he is also expanding within his homeland. His latest venture in Peru is Mil, situated in hills close to the Moray Inca ruins near Cuzco. The location is home to a 40-person restaurant, as well as a laboratory for Mater Iniciativa. The menu is distinctive, too. 

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Above Martínez meets with local food growers on a trip with Mater Iniciativa (Photo: Gustavo Vivanco)

“What is happening in Central is that you are eating the different ecosystems of Peru, and different produce, and you are travelling to different ecosystems,” Martínez says. “In Mil, you are in one ecosystem, which is one altitude, between 3,000 and 4,000 metres above sea level, so there is not going to be any fish, or anything from the sea, nothing from the river or the jungle. Everything is going to come from the altitudes of Peru.” Ingredients, he adds, will be sourced from the various Andean communities in the area. 

Martínez’s dream is for a destination-driven restaurant in the jungles of the Amazon, serving up delights sourced from the ecosystem of the Amazon River. With so much varied experience, enviable ambition and resounding success, what advice does Martínez have for young aspiring chefs? After all, it was not so long ago that he was in their shoes.

“Work hard. Make mistakes, a lot,” he says. “Cry in the kitchen. I’ve cried many times in the kitchen. And also, be nice.”

On top of winning many awards, doing things his way, the right way – “working at this level of commitment and still being nice all the time” – might possibly be well-travelled Martínez’s greatest achievement. “The work we are doing nowadays is so strong and impressive,” the chef says, “yet we are still like a family. And that, for me, is amazing.” 

This story originally appeared in the March 2018 issue of Ambrosia, the official magazine of the International Culinary Institute