Creating gastrocosms
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Creating gastrocosms

Peruvian chef and restaurateur Virgilio Martínez on weaving together cultural ecosystems and food

Conexión Amazónica at Central. (Photos: Mil Centro)
Conexión Amazónica at Central. (Photos: Mil Centro)

Virgilio Martínez, Peruvian chef and restaurateur, is synonymous with Central, his flagship restaurant, which has been voted one of the world's best.

However, making more of a splash these days is Mil Centro, the restaurant he co-owns and runs with wife Pia León and sister Malena Martínez. Situated 3,600m above sea level, Mil is close to the Inca ruins of Moray in the Sacred Valley and is an Andean microcosm of Lima's iconic Central.

"My food philosophy is simple. It's about searching for the truth about ingredients and how food gets people together. Being in charge of a restaurant and dealing with different groups, a chef has to understand what is happening. Not just in the restaurant, but also along the whole food chain. Being in South America, I like to have some freedom to grow our own crops and to keep security on our territory," says chef Martínez.

Peruvian chef Virgilio Martínez.

Mil Centro isn't just a destination restaurant, it's also a food lab and interpretation centre. Before diners sit down to a meal, they are taken on an introductory tour, getting to know the surrounding communities, becoming familiar with the native plants used for their nutritional and medicinal purposes. There's a botanical dyeing workshop, a chance to taste chocolate crafted with Chuncho, the native Cusqueñan cacao, and an education in the vast collection of seeds of high-altitude cultivars. Quenching the thirst are drinks made with ingredients that continue the immersion into the Andean world.

"When I returned to Peru 17 years ago, I did not want to do what I was doing in London. In Peru, Mother Nature is the chef. I wanted to express what is happening in my territory, where I come from, and do things that truly make sense. I wanted to use the really good ingredients, really good stories, narratives that we were finding in different spots. I found that one of my biggest challenges is doing something good for humanity, even if it is small," says chef Martínez.

A plate at Mil Centro.

"Central being named the World's Best Restaurant by the World's 50 Best in 2023 and also the Best Restaurant in South America in 2023, was one little goal. But after a few weeks of being No.1, you'll realise that it is only one step out of a 100. I see myself doing this for 20 years, maybe not in the kitchen, though. Maybe I'll aid with the research at Mater [Mater Iniciativa is an interdisciplinary organisation that aims to articulate knowledge through research, interpretation and cultural expressions in Peru], maybe at Mil, maybe with some communities, maybe another lab or in other places in South America.

"It could also be in Japan, where I have Maz in Tokyo. But beyond all the awards and recognition, I need to prove myself every single day to the people working with me that it is the No.1 place to work. For me, the journey has just begun.

"Not only do I have to please people who come to my restaurants, I also have to think about what's happening in my environment. That's why at our restaurants we talk about the ecosystem so deeply. This is so challenging that in a way it becomes part of our lives, since my entire family is also involved."

Mil Centro in Moray, Peru.

While most people find ways to disconnect from their jobs, chef Martínez says it's the exact opposite for him. "I don't need to disconnect because I am enjoying this."

"It's a really nice story because I work with my wife and sister. It was a little difficult in the past, but we soon learnt that we do something good together; we are creating our own world together. We, in a way, are role models for the younger people. If they see a family working together, being creative, they are also motivated. It's been a process, for sure, but is also very organic."

The menu at Mil and Central is best described as complexities of Peru on a plate.

"If you see the Peruvian territory, when you visit Cusco, it's like wrinkled paper, full of altitudes, ecosystems and different habitats. It's complex and has the complexity of consistent narratives. At Central in Lima, we are in a nice environment, but then you go to places where you'll meet and work with local producers or farmers in Cusco or in the Amazon, where the conditions are very different. The job then is to articulate all these different ethnic groups. That's why the food we serve is full of all these colours, textures and lots of information," explains chef Martinez.

"Often you see people say food is all about the taste. For us, it is not just about the taste. We are human beings, we need narratives, we need stories, we need legends, we need things to inspire us, and that makes things delicious. When people say we are doing Peruvian cuisine, we are not just doing Peruvian cuisine. We are doing cuisine from the Amazon, cuisine from the Andes, cuisine from the ocean… it could be global cuisine. But of course, we have a local perspective in the use of ingredients."

Cacao Chuncho at Central in Lima, Peru.

Mil Centro and Central have been setting the course for the future of food, where in an urbanised society rural ingredients that are unheard of are made more approachable and put on plates.

"I cannot be humble about this because this is one of our main missions. Our restaurants are a tiny example of how we can change a few families, their lifestyles. At Mil, there are around 200 families that live off what we produce in the restaurant. They have more means. We don't want to impress people with luxury, it's about the authenticity," says the chef.

"I don't know what my vision will be in 20-30 years time, but we need to prove that we can articulate the work of different people, probably those who are struggling working the land, and we can help them with our presence. When we showcase what is happening in different places, it is quite futuristic. It used to be seen as something that makes an impact, but in a world where technology is booming, it is important to realise that your experiences impact the way you think about ingredients and regions.

"Mil gave me the chance to have a different vision of life, of people; the motivation and sensibility to understand that we are working with people, history and anthropology. Archaeology comes before the tsunami. As chefs, we need to learn a lot about farming, agriculture, history and people's anthropology. I am not saying I don't want to be a chef any more, but I am more conscious about what's happening outside than just in my kitchen.

"At Mil, we are creating our own world of understanding our food. What we are doing in Cusco, despite Peru being one of the world's most biodiverse places, can happen anywhere in the world. We are still working on opening a Mil-like space in the Amazon, which is another world. We are creating new groups of people for the Amazonian project. I have the location in mind, but I need to have a better understanding of the whole ecosystem before opening anything there."

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