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Pía Leon is one half of the creative Peruvian chef duo, along with husband Virgilio Martínez, behind Central in Lima, number six on the World's 50 Best Restaurants list and a three time winner of Latin America's 50 Best Restaurants.
A native of Lima, Leon started assisting in her mother's catering business when she was just 16-years-old, before heading through various international restaurants, including El Celler de Can Roca, and eventually back to Lima, where she would meet Martínez.
The pair have had a busy few months, opening a new restaurant, MIL, high in the Andes at Cusco, as well as closing and reopening Central at a new, bigger site in Lima's Barranco neighbourhood, which will also house a space for the restaurant group's research arm, Mater Iniciativa led by Malena Martínez, sister of Virgilio, a bar, garden, and on the second floor, Leon's first solo restaurant.
Called Kjolle, the restaurant will be a different proposition to Central, though still a celebration of indigenous Peruvian ingredients, based on the work of Mater Iniciativa, as Leon explains ahead of the restaurant's slated opening on 31 July...
So, how long has Kjolle been in the pipeline and how long have you been ready to step out on your own?
Four years ago I was looking to express how I see the kitchen and I was able assimilate that through several trips I took with Mater Iniciativa around the Peruvian territory. Although I direct the Central kitchen, it is not 100% my concept, therefore, after 10 years in the kitchen of Central, Kjolle allows me to tell my own story to others, a story of many chefs that work with me at this time, and will be part of Kjolle – a different perspective on the Peruvian revolution.
How will Kjolle differ from Central and MIL?
Central has a structure and concept established with a tremendous vision towards the future. At Kjolle, I don’t want to represent the landscape or ecosystems of our regions. However, I will express gratitude for the ingredients of all Peru's regions with the ‘freedom’ of not cooking ecosystems, but cooking unique products that Mater Initiative is already providing us day by day.
Can you tell us a little about the menu and the kind of cuisine you'll be serving?
Central is known for ‘innovation,’ ‘creativity,’ and ‘high cuisine.’ Kjolle is not going to renounce that, because the restaurant was not born to be the casual version of Central. All the products of our biodiversity can be linked, so they can appear in different ways. No ecosystems, no altitudes will be part of our philosophy. At Kjolle we will have another take on Peruvian products, producers, the land and the people. Mater Iniciativa will be the connector. The menu will be very seasonal: some a la carte, some tasting menus. We can’t get away from Central because the team of Kjolle has been the Central team, and I am part of Central. Similarities will exist, but the background is totally different.
How do you think, as cooks, yourself and Virgilio influence each other? Tell us a little about your dynamic in the kitchen.
As a couple we sometimes do not realise the influence of each other, but we are constantly sharing food, gastronomy, talking about experiences, traveling together, learning and discovering together. We have followed the road together for years and I can’t deny his influence. In that sense, Virgilio, Malena and Mater Iniciativa have a constant influence on me, and of course same way for them. My education as a cook is from Central, but everything in life has a stage and now I'm going through a new stage.
The Central team
Can you tell us more about the new Central?
We have moved into a district [Barranco] that promotes cultural and artistic incentives, which we have always added. Our innovation was the food and the messages, but now it’s in the spaces, the tables, rooms, the interaction, and the routes that a client has to take through the restaurant. The space is much bigger: the team feels more comfortable and we will have more space for creativity and better kitchens. But we are still Central: we continue cooking ecosystems and have the same capacity for 40 people.
Mater Iniciativa has a big presence at MIL and now has the challenge to be bigger in its headquarters in Lima, that's why we will have product traceability.
Do you envisage Mater Iniciativa growing, to become, perhaps, a full academic institution in the future?
We think it may become a data centre, where all information gathered from different natural and social systems is stored and made available for everyone, a lab for experimenting in the kitchen as in the fields (with different varieties of crops and produce), and a campus of research projects to be developed, where young researchers may be mentored by experts in different fields of study.
What do you think is the biggest challenge facing gastronomy today?
To accept that your own growth comes from pure knowledge, a pure relationship with nature and your products, and your people. These days you assume more economical risks in a restaurant, but also you have the challenge of understanding people: what they want or expect, how to please them or create emotions and promote a better way of thinking about relationships with food. It’s about education.
Also, people have to understand that high cuisine and casual restaurants are two very different things. To compare and put them in the same box is wrong and not good for gastronomy.