Virgilio Martinez — Peru. Chef’s Table, V.3 E.6
We’re rounding out Volume 3 of Chef’s Table, with a great episode on Peruvian chef Virgilio Martinez. Yesterday’s episode featured Berliner Tim Raue and his journey from the streets of an impoverished neighborhood to the kitchen of one of the best restaurants in the world. As a reminder, you can find all installments in this guide in the Chef’s Table archives.
I enjoyed today’s episode, though it may not be the high point of the volume (as Eater suggests). And I’d like to point out that Virgilio’s restaurant Central runs as much on the contributions of his wife, Pia León, and his sister Malena as it does on his own. A truer title might be “Virgilio, Pia, and Malena.”
FROM LIMA TO EUROPE
Virgilio Martinez was born in Lima, the capital of Peru, during a time when Peru was deeply divided. If you were born in the city, you stayed in the city. Born in the mountains, you stayed in the mountains. If your family was from the rainforest, you stayed in the rainforest. As a child, Virgilio loved to explore. But he was confined to the world of Lima. He dreamed of traveling to far away places. Europe, America, Asia. He dreamed of escaping Peru.
After graduating high school, a friend suggested that he might enjoy cooking his way across the world.
Jumping on the opportunity, Virgilio flew to Europe, where he held a string of jobs in various European fine dining establishments. Eventually, he heard of the work of Peruvian chef Gastón Acurio and chose him as a mentor. He ended up managing Astrid y Gastón in Madrid.
There, Virgilio began pushing the ticket. Eventually, Acurio heard that his apprentice had begun taking creative liberties with his traditional Peruvian menu. The two decided it was time Virgilio spread his wings and flew. He returned to his home city and opened Central, his own restaurant.
Early days at Central…
Dominique didn’t start cooking in restaurant kitchens until she moved to San Francisco in the late 1980s, around twenty years old. Then, she jumped straight into the kitchen of Stars, a restaurant run by “superstar” chef Jeremiah Tower. In Tower’s kitchen, she learned to innovate new dishes and expand on techniques she already knew.
She traveled the world from restaurant kitchens, holding positions in Indonesia and in various locations around the U.S. before returning to San Francisco, where she opened Atelier Crenn.
Although the local critics didn’t see the importance of Dominique’s vision — cooking as art — Atelier Crenn was awarded with one Michelin star within a year of its inception. Not long after, it gained a second Michelin star. And in 2018, it gained its third Michelin star — and Crenn’s second restaurant, Petit Crenn, gained its first. This means that Dominique Crenn now holds four Michelin stars.
Above: Several examples of dishes created by Virgilio Martinez and Pia León at their restaurant Central.
Peru, you see, is an incredibly biodiverse country in terms of its ecosystems and natural life.
The Andes number among the tallest mountains in the world. Desert borders them on one side. Peru borders the sea. On the other side of the country sprawls one arm of the Amazon rainforest. Peru is a land of diverse climes and diverse people, and was once the seat of the Inca Empire, the only large empire to have stretched north and south instead of east and west. What allowed the Incas to maintain control over such a diverse area?
They view the world in terms of altitude: vertically, instead of horizontally.
Virgilio decided he wanted to base his new menu around altitude. So he created a menu of twenty dishes, each with an altitude tag. And each dish featured ingredients taken from that altitude. In order to emphasize research and development, he brought in his sister Malena, who supports the kitchen with her scientific background. She identifies species and helps determine which plants and animals can be used in dishes.
Together, Virgilio Martinez the dreamer, Pia the leader, and Malena the scientist create new and innovative flavor profiles. Not all of them are delicious. Some push the ticket even further. Others make guests uncomfortable. But that’s the point. They’re eating Peru and everything that goes along with it.
You can learn more about Virgilio and his restaurant in this spotlight from the Michelin Guide.
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