Peruvian chef builds menus based on native ingredients

Peruvian chef Virgilio Martinez builds menus based on native ingredients


Horticulture
TOP CHEF: Peruvian chef, Virgilio Martinez, has forged a reputation for using native ingredients from his home country to create elaborate menu items.

TOP CHEF: Peruvian chef, Virgilio Martinez, has forged a reputation for using native ingredients from his home country to create elaborate menu items.

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For this Peruvian chef, each dish is a work of art that has a story.

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THE room is packed to standing point only at the 10th World Potato Congress in Cusco, Peru. Up the front is a small table with an arrangement of potatoes and other native Peruvian ingredients on it.

But the people aren't here to see what's on the table; they are here to see the magician who uses those ingredients; Virgilio Martinez.

He's more than just a Peruvian food celebrity; he's the number four chef in the world, and he's come to the Congress to speak about his cooking style and restaurants which have taken native ingredients and developed a high-brow menu that's salivated over by foodies globally.

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In an unassuming blue jumper and jeans, Mr Martinez looks about 19 years old but he's actually 40.

He talks briefly about his journey, how he grew up in Peru and decided to become a chef so took off around the world to work in some top kitchens in America and Europe.

It wasn't until he returned home and was inspired to use ingredients native to his homeland that he really started to make his mark.

DINE: A Centrale menu item, Palto y las semillas (Avocado & Seeds). Photo: Jimena Agois

DINE: A Centrale menu item, Palto y las semillas (Avocado & Seeds). Photo: Jimena Agois

"My mother used to tell me not to play with food. But I said I want to play with food. And now that's what I do - play with food," Mr Martinez said.

"I remember when I started to cook. There was only recipe for potato puree. People were telling me the potato has to be cooked this way and prepared this way."

"I came back to Peru found that puree could be done a hundred different ways."

The food is flash but it is the story behind the food which is equally important according to Mr Martinez.

His main outlet, Centrale, in the capital Lima, has a months-long reservation waiting list.

The food is based on Peruvian ingredients presented in interesting, often remarkable ways.

The menu is based on elevation levels. So there might be rare seafood ensembles from below the ocean, with progressively other interesting delicacies right up to the 3000m above sea level of the Andean mountains.

He says it's about connecting the land to the food, via those who grow or harvest it.

SPECIAL: Another creation from Virgilio Martinez, sapote, ungurahui y macambo (Sapote, Ungurahui and Macambo). Photo: Jimena Agois

SPECIAL: Another creation from Virgilio Martinez, sapote, ungurahui y macambo (Sapote, Ungurahui and Macambo). Photo: Jimena Agois

"Food for me is art. But in order to make this happen, we have to be responsible," he said.  

"Within 10 years it has been very successful. People have a strong passion about what we do."  

He said the idea of basing a menu around altitudes and ecosystems is finding favour in other parts of the world.  

"It's about thinking different. It's more about exploring Peru; seeing the landscape, meeting people," he said.

"It's not just about waiting for the ingredients to come to us. We are supposed to go and get ingredients."

Seeking out those ingredients is part of the process for the chef. He said he enjoys meeting the people and learning traditional cooking techniques for various crops that would not be widely known outside the mountains.

Although, don't expect to find boiled spuds in front of you.

"We don't serve these traditional cuisines. We are looking at our own way to cook and how much Peru has given to us and how much we are giving back," he said.

RESEARCH: Peruvian chef, Virgilio Martinez, explores Peru looking for native, sometimes unheard of, ingredients to use at his restaurant.

RESEARCH: Peruvian chef, Virgilio Martinez, explores Peru looking for native, sometimes unheard of, ingredients to use at his restaurant.

"A small potato in itself is amazing. We don't have to do much. There are plenty of chances to ruin it."

Mr Martinez doesn't do dinner parties. In his own words: "We create experiences for 40 people."

They are given a tasting menu of 17 courses and each course represents a different ecosystem of Peru.

These culinary works of art don't come easily.

Mr Martinez says his staff will sometimes do 16 hours in the kitchen.

"We are not complaining about out it anymore because we are enjoying it," he said.

His menus keep changing based on new discoveries and new challenges.

Mr Martinez's sister, Malena Martínez, a trained physician who has gone into nutrition, also speaks about her work at Mater Iniciativa.

PLATE UP: Virgilio Martinez says his dishes have a story to them based on research and speaking with native farmers and producers.

PLATE UP: Virgilio Martinez says his dishes have a story to them based on research and speaking with native farmers and producers.

In simple terms, this is the laboratory behind the kitchen.

Every month, a group of Mater Iniciativa researchers travels to different places in Peru in search of knowledge.

Walking through fog or under heavy rain, following the directions of members of the community, the team discovers unknown ingredients.

It's all in keeping with Mater Iniciativa's slogan: "There is more outside".

Ms Martínez said they started asking the question: What is there outside that we know nothing about that we should be caring about?

DISH: Carachama y yacón (Carachama and Yacón). Photo: Jimena Agois

DISH: Carachama y yacón (Carachama and Yacón). Photo: Jimena Agois

And so began an ingredient gathering journey.

"There is so much information you get from ingredients you have never tasted before because you don't have any memory," she said.

"If we present something you haven't tasted before, it comes with a story or a system or a habitat that it comes from.

"It's much more enriching than just tasting something you haven't tasted before."

TREK: Virgilio Martinez gathers up some ingredients from his home country.

TREK: Virgilio Martinez gathers up some ingredients from his home country.

She encouraged other nations to embrace their own native ingredients and explore what could be done with them.

"The amazing diversity we have in Peru. We understand it is a luxury to be here," Ms Martinez said.

"We are not saying this is just specific to Peru - this can be done anywhere in the world."

The exploration and utilisation of native ingredients goes beyond the plate.

"We make distillations from plants from the region. We make spirits and liqueurs and chocolate, all from the region," Ms Martinez said.

  • Ashley Walmsley travelled to Peru with assistance from the Crawford Fund and with financial support from DFAT Council on Australia Latin America Relations.

The story Peruvian chef builds menus based on native ingredients first appeared on Good Fruit & Vegetables.

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