In a few days time, a linguist, a neurosurgeon, one of the world's leading entomologist, a microbiologist, a botanical expert and a nutritionist will land in Peru for an adventure deep in the Amazon.
It's not for a university research project, it’s not big-pharma searching for the new medicines and it’s not some highly equipped group of specialists arriving to conduct a new study. It is just a small group of the 50 strong guest list invited to attend a new food festival organized by chef Virgilio Martinez in Peru.
When Martinez decided he wanted to organize a food festival, he knew it had to be different. "Food Festivals now have to change. They have to be as authentic and natural as we can make them," explained the chef during a recent interview. With this in mind, he launched Momento: a food festival with no presentations, no tents, no stages and no tickets. The guest list is selected months in advance to deliver a perfect mix of experts, described by Martinez as: "Fifty percent related to food and fifty percent who think they are not connected to food."
The basic idea is to curate a unique group of people from many different professions, allow them to participate in different experiences around food culture and sit back as conversations and connections are made between those firmly in the food world camp and those who don't immediately realize their link.
The first festival was in 2017. Martinez invited around 50 participants to The Andes in Cusco, Peru, for three days of workshops. In his own words: “People were blown away by what they saw". They had lessons on the diversity of corn, they farmed for Andean roots and tubers, foraged and learned to make the local beverage, all with the local communities. There were talks, "not presentations" - this was important for Martinez. There were also workshops and campfire conversations all designed to encourage the different schools of thought within the group to share ideas. "They saw a new world," explained Martinez, "they met indigenous communities. They worked in the field. We visited different areas, did different activities, learned about ingredients around us while doing stuff, doing it together. It's a way to let others experience what we see all the time.”
For the second gathering, the group, some new and some returning, are set to embark on a gastro-expedition to the Amazon. They will meet what Martinez described as a "nomadic community" that inhabit a “hotspot”. In the chef's words: "It's one of the most biodiverse areas on the planet, lots of animals and plants that will be fascinating. We want to share this area.”
The guest list is just as varied, with a linguist on hand to help with communication and one of the world's leading insect experts there to explain the thousands of bugs they will encounter. For Martinez, Momento is the food festival he would want to attend. "The explanation from the entomologist about just one insect and how much we depend on that little animal in our eco-system will be so much information."
Food festivals have become formulaic. Presentations on stage from chefs, cooking demos, discussions about pressing issues of the moment. For Martinez they have also become a bit too much about the chef. "It's time for the chefs to stop being us. You are you in your kitchen but when you go to nature you have to listen and you have to be respectful, you have to acknowledge that you don't know anything... We want to work with researchers and specialists from different fields and put them forward and say, "hey, you are important, we have to listen to these people, rather than listening to chefs."
For Martinez, who runs Momento alongside his sister Malena, a broader conversation away from food on the plate is essential. A step away from the often "banal" chatter linked to the profession, a deeper understanding of food, where it comes from, who it touches, and how it's related to almost every walk in society are the motivation behind Momento. They are also a part of what the chef sees as Fine Dining in the 21st Century.
"The social aspect, the anthropological aspect, the environmental aspect and the cultural aspect. If you are not doing something regarding this, you can not call what you're doing Fine Dining because you don't have a meaning. For me, fine dining now is about consciousness, meaningfulness, if we have the luxury, time and means to be doing the good stuff, then we also have to be doing the important stuff."