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Virgilio Martinez is a powerhouse of Peruvian gastronomy. His Central restaurant sits at number five on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, number two on Latin America’s list, he just opened a new restaurant/research centre in the Andes of Peru, and plans to open a similar set up in the Amazon. Working with his Mater Iniciativa research arm, the chef and his team are discovering, connecting, cataloging and cooking up delicious ingredients from across Peru.
Martinez will offer his unique talents as one of the Seven Sages at this year’s S.Pellegrino Young Chef Grand Finale in Milan in May. We caught up with the chef to find out more about his own time training as a young chef, his newest restaurant and when exactly he will be opening the new location for Central.
What advice would you offer to young chefs of today?
“It’s not always about having the best technique or having the best products, we can talk about amazing techniques and always having perfection in ingredients but the most important things for me is the ability to work together and be part of a team. Getting along with people in the kitchen is one of the best techniques in the world. You are there to support other people.”
What’s the best advice anyone has given to you?
"I used to be quite disorganized and unpunctual, somebody told me one day that I had to reorganize my life if I wanted to be a better cook. I’m talking about something as basic as another chef saying, “hey, grow up a little bit and organize your life”.
Tell us about a time you made a mistake as a young chef.
“I almost set a hotel kitchen on fire. It was the first time I was taking over the sauce area, so I was in charge of all the sauces and in a French restaurant this is one of the most important areas. It was my first day on the sauces and this guy told me that he had a dish cooking in the oven in a different kitchen, he said, ‘when you finish your service please go to the other kitchen and switch off the oven’.
“I totally forgot - the worst thing? The dish in the oven set on fire, the oven was ruined, and the fire alarm of this five-star hotel started to ring with all the guests having to go outside. I arrived the next day all happy and ready for work and there was just this piece of paper outside with the words, ‘can Virgilio Martinez please come to the office’. It was a big mistake - I’ve made lots of mistakes but this is just one I remember - I should have listened to this person more, you are part of a team, you are not working on your own in a kitchen, you have to listen and support people. If someone asks you a favor and you accept that favor, you are responsible for that.”
What do you miss about being a young chef?
“When you’re young you still have this feeling of having all this space, spare time to do whatever you want to do. Nowadays I don’t get a chance to disconnect from gastronomy, I live it, I go to bed and wake up and continue thinking about food, traveling because of food, meeting producers, congresses, always talking about food - you start to loose the few hours I remember I used to have to do something totally unrelated to food.”
What’s happening with the new restaurant in the Andes?
"As a restaurant I’m very, very happy because the products are amazing - it’s very different than Central - all the food we serve is from that region, we don’t focus on all these different altitudes, here we just cook this high-Andean cuisine. Everything is coming from the Andes.
It’s really something special because it shows you how food is connecting different people, different cultures, different fields.
We have this interpretation and research centre that allows us to catalogue ingredients in the Andes. We also invite people from many different projects and disciplines who want to work on a ideas related to food and the Andes. We are working with lots of different fields - this has to be a multi-disciplinary thing. It is a restaurant too, we seat just 20 people and do just one service a day.
We have included two Andean communities in the project, our neighbors, that live there. This is about 300 families that are working on the farmlands. In these farmlands we have many varieties of quinoa, 25 varieties of potatoes, 20 varieties of tubas, a whole range of different plants - we are working with lots of people there.
We split teams and every six months a team from Central exchange with a team from the Mil restaurant. It gives them a chance to understand the ingredients we are using, to visit the places where are ingredients are coming from."
Now you’re also starting to look at the Amazon. How difficult is it to start research in a whole new area?
"What we are doing in Cusco with Mil will eventually be replicated in the Amazon but if we don’t have research and knowledge we can’t open new things. I don’t want to open some empty, lack-of-soul cooking. We need to start to analyze, make connections, meet the local communities."
Tell us about the new Central.
"Central will be very similar in the new location, there will be a lot more space for Mata Initiative. It will open in June 2018 and in July we will open Kjolle - this will be Pia’s new place. Kaolle is a plant that grows in very high altitudes, people use it to dye things because it gives off this beautiful orange color - the flower is beautiful but it also has lots of meaning, it’s a very resilient plant and many people are surprised that it gives off this bright color so high up in the Andes."