Virgilio Martínez used to “skateboard like crazy.” He also used to paint, and read. But then running one of the world’s best restaurants, Central, in Lima, tends to eat into your hobby time.
“I don’t remember the last time I just spent reading,” he says when we meet in Milan, where Martínez is a member of the top international chefs jury tasked with choosing the eventual winner of the S.Pellegrino Young Chef 2018 competition. “As chefs we’re trained to give everything in our kitchens and to give everything for the guests, all our passion: working and pleasing people. Actually, that’s not fair.”
For Martínez, having enough time to enjoy your hobbies or see family is essential to produce good work. It’s something he himself has only taken on recently though. For a long time, he was addicted to the buzz of always being busy. Now he tries to emphasise the importance of taking time out to his staff, in fact for a chef in his position he says – number six best restaurant in the world, star of Chef’s Table, an expanding global restaurant empire – it’s his duty, as a role model.
“We have to promote balance to the people who work with us in our restaurants,” he says. “You have to tell your chefs: have time to feel the passion, have time for your hobby, have time for your family.”
It’s non-stop for Martínez and wife Pía León currently though: there’s the revamped Central, relocated to a much larger space in Lima, one they’ll share with the restaurant’s research arm Mater Iniciativa, a new bar called Mayo and Leon’s fist solo restaurant, Kjolle. There’s a first foray into Asia, Ichu Peru, a huge, soon to open bistro-style spot in Hong Kong serving Peruvian comfort food, plus restaurants in London and Dubai.
“I’m trying to do my best to enjoy every single minute of what I do,” says Martínez. “Before I had no idea why I was working that hard. I was probably enjoying the rush, enjoying being in this situation of always being busy. But now I’m enjoying talking with producers, talking with my team, coming here to Italy. I have to enjoy every single second.”
And then there’s Mil, their new restaurant high in the Andes at Cusco, where they’re trialling a way of working that they hope to implement at Central.
“We do only one service and we serve 20 to 27 people,” Martínez tells me later on over the phone (Central has 40 covers). “Our team consists of male and females close to 50:50 and they do six services in total [per week]. Every day they do two to three hours [outside the kitchen], which could be foraging, going to visit Andean communities, seeing produce, exploration, growing, harvesting ... and then a service of three hours. Even if there is not much to do sometimes we have Mater Iniciativa space to welcome chefs and servers to enjoy a conversation about a project, or time working with Andean families.
"This is clearly very different to what happens in many restaurants," he continues, "different to the way we work at Central, but this is set to be a model of how another system can have more focus on learning and dealing with free time, a system where working less is becoming way more productive.”
It’s been having a child – he and Leon have a young son, Cristobal – that has changed his perspective, he says and he wants to try and integrate work and family life as much as possible now.
“I find my peace when I see my kid, so how can I have my kid in my restaurant for 18 hours? How can I bring my kid to my trips, how can I bring my kid to the market? Everything’s possible.
“I’m from the generation when you had to work 18 hours, crazy hours with no orientation, no vision or probably no understanding of what a team is, where you follow the recipes and just accept any kind of rules,” he says. “But balance is one of the best fuels you can have to enjoy your day: to wake up in the morning with a smile saying, ‘I am going to work.’”