Descending from the long, white, naturally lit restaurant to the dark blue basement area with its own bar, I find nothing has changed since I last made this journey – shortly after it first opened. The only real difference is that, instead of the tables laid, Virgilio is sitting with his team and publisher, discussing the special dinner they are hosting that evening, the table dressed with papers and copies of his new book, Central (named after his restaurant in Lima), for him to sign.
As I’m spotted, the group breaks up and I’m introduced to the man behind the number four restaurant in the world – and South America’s number one. Its hard to know what to expect when you meet such a chef, but one thing is for sure, those of his ilk exude a love and enthusiasm for what they do that is infectious, and necessarily so if they are to successfully drive their teams through the long hours all must put in to reach the top. Despite being clearly exhausted from weeks on the road, travelling the world to promote his new book, this enthusiasm shines through and undoubtedly fuels him despite it all. His relative youth doesn’t hurt with this either.
We sit down to what no doubt is the last thing he feels like doing, an interview, but, if it is, he gives no sign of this from behind his smile and engaged eyes. Given the pressures of running such a high-profile and genre-defining restaurant and the ecological research centre, Mater Iniciativa, that runs parallel to it, informing all that it does, I can’t help but wonder why the stress of the book and its promotion now? The answer comes in Virgilio’s thick accent that at times can be hard to decipher but is always slow, methodical and to the point. “Central has been open for about eight years now, though for the first two to three years the menu was very eclectic as we hadn’t yet found our voice.” I note that he talks about Central with the collective “we” rather than “I”. It may be his (and his wife’s) restaurant, but the restaurant only works because all play a role and take ownership of what they do
“It soon became obvious that Peruvian was the way to go. We have huge biodiversity; one minute you can be by the sea, then in an hour in the Andes, and there’s the Amazon and its rainforest, and we just weren’t taking advantage of this richness. There are some four thousand varieties of potato and huge numbers of different quinoa and corn all to be rediscovered. Some ingredients are used in corners of Peru but not the rest of it, so I spent a year travelling and talking to communities, and this led to the formation of Mater Iniciativa, which allowed for the ecosystem to be brought to us and into the kitchen. People now get this and what we are trying to do, so that and the fact Peruvian food is popular now, made it seem like the right time for this book. People can find out about all this that exists.”
One can but wonder how long it takes to get a dish from the land to Mater Iniciativa and onto the plate at Central. Unsurprisingly, I suppose, Martinez tells me it “varies hugely and is affected by many factors, from the length of season and availability, to altitude” as some ingredients grow differently when they are brought out of their ecosystem and down to Central. “Then every time we visit somewhere like the Amazon and the rainforest, looking for one species of something, we end up discovering three or four ingredients we’ve never seen before and we bring them all to Mater Iniciativa and try them and taste them and find references to them, and we find they have been growing in China or Japan but nobody uses them.”
The book is not one that can be used at home with great ease, given the scarceness of the ingredients and the skill and equipment needed, but, if you try one thing, Virgilio suggests the infusions or the octopus: “you can do ninety percent of the dishes; they just won’t be the same. At Central we don’t have recipes, we have guides – so the ingredients in the dishes change with seasons, and the ingredients change when they come down to the restaurant. It’s why we’re opening a new restaurant in the Andes, so that the ingredients can be experienced as they are in their ecosystem.” At this point he reaches over and opens my copy of his book at a picture towards the back. It’s a beautiful image of concentric rings of stone and lush green grass going down into the ground. It is on this site that the new restaurant is to be built: “It was used by our [Inca] culture to grow different agricultures. It was like a research laboratory; each ring mimics the conditions of a different ecosystem so they could test ingredients. They were so smart and full of knowledge.”
This sounds like the perfect place for Virgilio to open his second restaurant in Peru, with the connection to the research he does today, back to similar work by the Incas. He’s certainly looking forward to it as he will have more freedom than he did previously when he had a second outpost operated in a Cusco hotel. Here he can do what he wants without fear of interference from his backer. Better still, the producers know who he is and respect what he is doing which was never the case in Cusco. “I can have that connection with people on my terms; Cusco was a very tight-knit community.”
Work life balance must be hard to manage with all this, but clearly Virgilio is enthralled by what he does and the position and opportunities available to him. People are leaving the profession, but he is “loving it, getting to find out about what’s available and going on in the world and living in Lima and Peru”. It wasn’t the same when he was younger.
“In Peru being a chef is now a great thing. It wasn’t twenty years ago. Peru used to have a lot of problems, corruption, violence, Shining Path, but in the very bad times food was where we found tolerance and no violence. You’re not going to punch a guy at the table, you know. And we have loads of influences like Japanese and great ingredients and a love of food so, when the situation came better, there was all this craziness about food like now and people look for new things and Peru appears with all this.” Of course he isn’t wrong; Peruvian food has been a huge hit in London and elsewhere now for a few years and shows no signs of diminishing in popularity.
Is a restaurant in Asia on the cards? Well, not for the moment; he is looking forward to the end of the book tour and being able to get back to his family. Not that he hasn’t loved the platform the tour has given him, enabling him to travel and be an ambassador for his country and the ingredients it has. It’s not just Lima, and it’s not just potatoes. Peru is no longer just poor and raw materials, there is a lot of money to be made, and they are now processing raw materials to be sold as products globally. He’s been so busy that, since being in town, he hasn’t even had a chance to pop back to the Ritz, now it’s been awarded a star, where he used to cook while training in London.
What does help him keep going is starting the day with a coffee and chocolate and, even when tired, he’ll end the day with a the same: “but that’s only when I’m travelling and really busy. That will end soon as I have the new restaurant and I want to spend my time there and expanding Central’s repertoire, and of course the menu changes every three months. I have to go back to my normal life. But that’s difficult as chefs now have to travel a lot and visit farms when you used to just pick up the phone and talk to your suppliers.”
With Mater Iniciativa this is something that he has to do a lot, and I have to wonder if it is this initiative and not Central that he is most proud of. “The last two years I have been working more on Mater Iniciativa because I have been gaining a lot of knowledge. Obviously, we couldn’t call the book “Mater Iniciativa”, but [the public] will know about it more because of the new restaurant and where we are opening it.” It’s certainly the perfect time for the book and the new restaurant as diners look for the new but increasingly do so with an interest in the produce and its place in our world.
Favourite restaurant? “I enjoy conceptual restaurants, somewhere that makes you really have to think. You have to be focussed and creative too and I want that in my places too; no negative people, creative people. Some will not like it, others will and there are people that hate Central and I see them at the table having a bad time and we try to make everybody happy, but it’s difficult. The expectations when people come to Central are getting higher and higher and what people create in their own minds is getting crazy.”
Does he think we’ll see guinea pig on London menus any time soon? At this he laughs: “this I think would be very difficult; it’s a protected pet I think, maybe, so it would be illegal probably. I don’t even serve it at Central, as people don’t want to see their pets on their plate. Though, every time I go to the Andes, I eat like two a day.”
On a comparatively lighter note to eating one’s pets, I ask Virgilio about footwear in the kitchen, an innocuous and seemingly stupid question, but one that matters to chefs. Crocs are widely used but Virgilio also suggests Birkenstocks: ”they are comfortable, hard wearing and not that expensive so they can be thrown away when they get destroyed by food being dropped on them.” He sees no point in using expensive hand made shoes like Jason Atherton recently said he does.
At this point we’re interrupted by two of the chefs that Virgilio has brought over from Central to help him with the dinner he is cooking tonight. They want to know if the thing they are holding (it looks like squid) is cut to the size he wants. I have been with him now for about half an hour and it’s clear he needs to get on and oversee the preparations for dinner.
Of course I can’t let this master of Peruvian cuisine go without asking for a few ceviche tips. “For me the sole is the best but, if its not fresh or the best, then I go to another fish; it’s raw food and fish, so everything has to be fresh. You also need to make a good tiger’s milk [the marinade]. Use lime juice, ginger, garlic, onion, celery and coriander.” I’m surprised by the use of celery. “Oh yeah, some don’t like to use it but I add it because of the bitterness. Ceviche has to have a balance; it’s not all about the acid and I don’t like it like that, but people think that’s what it’s meant to be, you’re killing the fish. You should marinate it for only five seconds, so you’re just marinating the fish.” His final pearl of wisdom is to “also keep everything in the fridge, the bowl, everything. It slows down the reaction with the fish.”
With this I take my leave and let him get back to tonight’s preparations and the seventy odd books that have been laid out open for him to sign as a gift for everyone at the dinner that evening. An early Christmas present for them all, and a present that any food lover would love to receive and devour with glee this Noel.
Portrait photo: Helge Kirchberger/Red Bull Hangar-7