Peruvian chef Virgilio Martínez has tasked his finest culinary generals to open and lead restaurants in Russia and Japan, and while the pandemic has had them on standby, this global mission is now unfolding fast. Olluco in Moscow is led by Argentine Nicanor Vieyra and supported by Korean Sang Joeng in research and development, while Venezuelan Santiago Fernández is ready to depart for Tokyo to helm the soon-to-open MAZ. The three chefs share their experiences and expectations with Fine Dining Lovers.
Head chef, Olluco, Moscow
Nicanor Vieyra, photo courtesy of Olluco
Buenos Aires-born Vieyra certainly hasn’t played the hierarchy card in the run-up to opening Olluco: it’s been all hands on deck for the head chef, who’s been involved in every task required of him for the most anticipated launch of 2021 in Moscow. “I’ve prepared the bar’s infusions, compiled recipes with Sang, made inventories, checked the decor, what uniform is missing and fixed things in preparation for opening night,” he says.
A former law student who jacked in his degree to pursue his passion for cooking, Vieyra’s first job was at a traditional Buenos Aires bodegón. Moving to Peru to train at a Lima culinary school, staging at Central led to stints at Nerua (Bilbao) and L’Enclume (UK) before Pía León called him to return to Peru. Nicanor worked his way up to become Central’s head chef before accepting the position in Russia.
“Saying yes to Moscow was the easy part,” he says. “Although it was hard going into the unknown and considering how to explain Virgilio’s vision here. Of course, the challenge at Olluco is replicating our approach in Peru, but in Moscow, so we’ve been working with a knowledgeable academic team, taking baby steps to humbly learn everything we can about Russia's diverse ecosystems, products and plants. The way we interpret nature will be appreciated in each dish, showing both Peruvian and Russian ingredients. We can get hold of quinoa and coriander and our agronomist planted huacatay and sacha culantro (Eryngium foetidum), but for roots and tubers, we’ll use Russian alternatives such as turnips and Jerusalem artichoke that we don’t have in Peru.”
A keen runner, Vieyra loves making the most of the abundant green spaces in Russia, sometimes running 30km without realising. But he’s missing one thing about Lima: “The warm weather. It’s already snowing in Moscow,” he says.
Head of research and development, Olluco, Moscow
Sang Jeong, photo courtesy of Olluco
While Sang Jeong started his career at Jungsik in Seoul before moving to the US and Australia to rack up fine-dining experience at Alinea and Quay, in 2015 the Korean chef headed to Lima to work at Central. Although he had since moved to Hong Kong to lead the kitchen at Ichy, when the opportunity arose to move to Moscow, he grabbed it.
“I really enjoyed working with chef Virgilio in Peru and had learned a lot from him, so it was an easy decision to come to Moscow because I knew I wanted to continue working on Virgilio’s team. As the head of research and development, my role is to transplant Virgilio’s vision from Peru to Russia,” he says.
Part of that vision means working with a Russian academic team including an agronomist, a chef-historian and sociologist Artemy Pozanenko, who explores the countryside with Jeong, and Olluco’s head chef Nicanor Vieyra. “We originally planned to use Russian plants, but when we got to Moscow, we realised that what we planned to work with are easily found in food stores and not rare ingredients for Russians. Artemy takes us to places such as swampy bogs dotted with small lakes and forest to forage cranberries, and try wild mushrooms and different types of berries.”
At Central, Jeong worked with paiche, an Amazonian river fish, so he is enjoying cooking with fresh water fish once again. But one Russian ingredient that particularly excites him is oblepiha, more commonly known as sea buckthorn. He says: “I like its aroma and acidity, and I can make leche de tigre (tiger’s milk) with sea buckthorn juice. I blend fresh berries, reduce the juice then combine it with fresh lime juice to make tiger’s milk.”
While Jeong is a cosmopolitan chef who has now lived and worked on five continents, there’s one thing he does miss about Korea: “Meals are served family-style, so everyone shares the food. I miss being able to try a little bit of everything at the table.”
Head chef, MAZ, Tokyo
Santiago Fernández, photo courtesy of MAZ
Aged just 17 and armed with a passion for cooking, Venezuelan chef Santiago Fernández realised he’d have to leave his home country to pursue his dreams. Being accepted to study at the Basque Culinary Center came at just the right time, he says. “Venezuela was in its worst moment with Chávez. Culinary schools were very basic, which wasn’t motivating, then Maduro came in [to power]. Security was at its worst, kidnappings were the norm, and working in restaurants meant you were even more vulnerable. I left just in time because two years later, heavy protests erupted, a lot of young people died and the country was paralysed for three months: I left at exactly the right moment to study abroad.”
At the tender age of 15, Fernández worked at Carlos García’s restaurant Alto to see if he truly did enjoy cooking, and he quickly threw himself into a gruelling schedule. “I’d work in the evening until late then go to high school at 7am – it was a never-ending cycle for three months. And when it came to staging, I chose Central: my parents dropped me off and left me. At 19, I was the youngest in the kitchen.”
Now aged 26, Fernández leaves Central and Mater Iniciativa as creative head to lead MAZ, a pocket-size dinner-only restaurant based in Tokyo’s financial district. Offering two tasting menus for just 20 covers, MAZ will aim to express biodiversity, ecosystems and landscapes, but always using Japanese products.
Fernández says: “We are merely spectators in Japan’s millenary gastronomic culture, and we won’t be investigating their techniques for the moment. We will use incredible products and ecosystems that are similar to those in Latin America, such as the cold Hokkaido Sea, which is like South America’s Pacific and its Humboldt Current. As I’ve decided to take advantage of these similarities, there’s no need to bring Peruvian products.”
While MAZ’s menus were ready six months ago, Fernández reckons they will change again before opening. “We’ve all grown during this time and are seeing the menus with fresh eyes. Our philosophy is more mature, and now we need to capture Japan. Of course, we’re very conscious that the Japanese see food differently to Peruvians, so we need to adapt. We have to control the amount of salt and acidity we use, for example, which isn’t comfortable for the Japanese palate.”
As for Japanese ingredients, Fernández is looking forward to exploring the universe of aquatic chlorophyll organisms. “There’s a whole spectrum of algae that will be beneficial to us and while we probably won’t include miso or katsuobushi on the menus, I’m really intrigued by them.”