Although neither of her parents were culinary professionals, like all good limeños, the León family enjoyed eating well, and everyone got involved in the cooking process at home. That’s how the young León started out in the kitchen. “My mum used to make a tasty rice pudding, for example, and the Sunday ritual was gathering the whole family for a big lunch. My lemon pie was a classic that I’d make for that meal.”
That industriousness witnessed from a young age has continued into her professional life. After graduating from the Cordon Bleu Lima, León worked for a spell in the US but decided to return to her homeland. “It was around 2006 and I wanted to find out what was happening [gastronomically] in Peru. I started working at an Italian restaurant, then, in 2008, I sent my CV off to Virgilio [Martínez, the chef who today is her husband and business partner]. He set me the task of gathering herbs and spices from around Peru, some 50,000 little sprays. It was the worst assignment – I visited all the markets in Lima to source them, then label them… but today those samples are on display in Central.”
Martínez opened Central in Miraflores, and while its culinary approach initially had a European slant, it soon started to focus on sharing Peru’s diverse ecosystems, respecting little-known ingredients such as Andean tuber olluco or Amazonian fish paiche. León sailed through the ranks to become head chef, leading this fine-dining establishment that three times consecutively topped the Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants list between 2014 and 2016, and also frequented the World’s 50 Best Restaurants top 10.
Having made her mark at Central, León’s turning point came in 2018: first, she and Virgilio opened Mil in the Andes’ Cusco region, then relocated Central to a purpose-built gastronomic hub in Barranco. Casa Tupac accounted for space to construct León’s first restaurant, Kjolle – and the opportunity for her to fly solo. Many of her team had already shared Central’s burners with her and few had qualms about following the ‘Lion Queen’ into her début project. “My team launched Kjolle without any expectations, but they weren’t afraid to embark upon this new path with me,” she adds.
While there is often debate about whether gender-specific chef awards should continue to exist, León prefers to view being named Best Female Chef 2021 by The World’s 50 Best Restaurants as an opportunity to act as a role model and support her colleagues, rather than bang the equality drum.
“While I support women 100 percent, I also don’t want to put pressure on them to have to stand out. Yes, it’s true there are more men working in gastronomy, but we shouldn’t force more women to work in the industry. You’re born with that passion, you can’t force it to be real: women have to want to belong in the industry. And yes, more women are working in the field and I hope it continues that way. I support people with the desire to learn and follow our philosophy while accompanying us on this journey – that’s the most important thing.”
“The award is a great platform that allows people to get to know my work, and while there are lots of great female chefs who aren’t known or don’t seek out the spotlight, it gives us huge visibility and shows us that nothing is impossible; you simply need to be decisive and act upon that. It’s a good opportunity to make women more visible in general."
“Women write to me all the time and I try to respond to each and every one, giving advice. I believe that’s my role, to be an example and via my small acts, to be in contact with women who have concerns or questions,” she says.
Grounded for 18 months in Lima, the world’s best female chef is keen to travel once more, to seek inspiration within Peru as well as other places. “I really get inspired when I travel, not just from the landscapes but also communicating and listening to other people. Travel means learning about ancestral customs and culinary techniques and it really opens my eyes to what’s going on around me. That’s how I learn.”
While plans for 2022 have yet to unfold, she says, the immediate future includes two launches for Casa Tupac’s culinary teams: Olluco in Moscow in October and MAZ in Tokyo the following month. “I’m fully concentrating on Lima and Mil’s reopening in two months, but Olluco and MAZ are our group’s projects that I’m supporting from Casa Tupac,” she adds.