Virgilio Martinez was stopped by customs at LAX airport with a bag full of frozen Piranhas and held for five hours before being released.
The Peruvian chef-owner of Central in Peru uses traditional Peruvian ingredients but prepared with modern techniques, he travels regularly to international food festivals and events to give cooking demonstrations, so he is well used to having to deal with various airport customs, but even for him bringing piranha into Los Angeles was risky.
The chef was planning to prepare the Amazonian fish at two different events as part of the month-long food festival LA Food Bowl – one at Somni and one at Vespertine. He told the LA Times, who run the festival, “I was extremely obsessed about bringing piranhas because we serve piranhas in the Amazon at Central, so I said, ‘Guys, why not take a risk to bring piranhas to L.A.?’ You probably have preconceived notions about piranhas because of movies but for me, piranhas, we go fish them.”
The LA Times reports that when customs found the bag of forty frozen vacuum-packed piranha they held Martinez for five hours. Eventually, the chef was able to explain what he was doing that he wanted to cook the piranha for some friends of his and they let him go.
“I told him that it was from my heart and showed him a few photos,” Martinez said. “I took my book and said, ‘Look, this is what I want to do with the piranhas.’ And he finally said, ‘Oh, wow, go ahead.’”
“I bet most people here have never tried piranhas,” Martinez said. “I told the people at the Somni dinner that I spent five hours for you, so you better enjoy it.”
The LA Food Bowl continues throughout the month of May.