Pía León's resounding voice has been heard throughout Latin America’s dynamic culinary scene since day one. Invigorated by her mother’s recipes from her youth, León, who was born and raised in Lima, Peru, decided to start her own culinary exploration at her native city Le Cordon Bleu. It was there that she began to appreciate the unique ingredients and biodiversity Peru had to offer, from its vast Pacific Ocean coast to its sky-kissing Andes mountains, to the mysterious Amazon. León started to cook in kitchens around her city, until finding a home at globally acclaimed restaurant, Central, at a mere 21 years old.
After a nearly twelve-year journey at the beloved establishment alongside head chef and husband, Virgilio Martínez, León pivoted from Latin America’s top restaurant to create a new project. Kjolle, which opened its doors in 2018, launched as a culinary destination where León and her team evoke the beauty of Peru’s natural characteristics—not just in the food, but in the space around them. With the help of the Mater Iniciativa, which resides in the high altitudes of the Andes, the team incorporates indigenous ingredients and emphasizes sustainable practices in each of their dishes. The sensational experience sees patrons immersed in the biodiversity of the country without leaving their seats.
In Lima, Kjolle sits directly above Central, which was recently named the number two restaurant in the world by the prestigious The World’s 50 Best Awards. However, Kjolle powerfully reflects León’s own unique vision, attitude, and flair, and suitably earned her World’s Best Female Chef of 2021 from the same awards entity. During her recent culinary excursion to Baja, California, Flaunt caught up with León to learn more about her unequivocal journey.
What ignited your passion for cooking? Can you share with us any early memories with food or fond culinary experiences?
I discovered my passion for gastronomy very early, at home, through my mother. She had a catering business for home events, I used to see her cooking all the time, and I fell in love with this. I have this anecdote when I was at school, I used to make cakes that I would sell on the sly. It was a lot of fun. Other fond memories are Sundays at my home, all together as a family sharing meals and stories.
Who taught you how to cook, and what was your favorite family dish when you were growing up?
Of course, it was my mom. I enjoyed spending time with her in the kitchen, watching, trying things, and learning from her. And I have a few favorite dishes, ‘locro de zapallo,’ which is a sort of pumpkin stew with corn and fresh cheese, and ‘rocoto relleno,’ which is a hot red pepper stuffed with ground beef, boiled egg, and melted cheese on top. Also, from desserts, my mom’s ‘arroz con leche’—a rice pudding topped with cinnamon.
In both Central and Kjolle, your cuisine is heavily inspired by Peruvian biodiversity. Explain to us the process of sourcing flavors from Peru’s ecosystem and the significance these ingredients bring to your dishes.
The Mater Iniciativa and its team, in addition to other social and cultural projects, are in charge of identifying ingredients of ancestral and historical, biological, and nutritional value, in the geographic spaces to which they approach. With this information, I, as a cook, together with my team, focus on the product, its textures, colors, and flavors, and how to use them, in the ideal way for me, to create a dish. I create dishes that respect the product as such, highlighting its fantastic natural characteristics.
Peru is home to some of the best restaurants in the world, yet for so many Americans, Peruvian cuisine is quite unfamiliar. Tell me, what makes the flavors of Peru so unique? And, why do you believe that Peru has become an epicenter of Michelin-star establishments?
(Michelin guide is not yet present in South America, only in Brazil, there are no Michelin star restaurants in Peru. In Peru are however quite a few belonging to the Worlds 50 best restaurants awards ranking.)
I believe that Peruvian cuisine still has a lot more to offer, not only in terms of diversity of products and a much more nourished palette but also in terms of a variety of culinary concepts, for different tastes, to cater to different audiences global and local. I think what is interesting about being a country that is a reference in the industry is that it gives us the opportunity to offer this array of possibilities. Peru covers the north, south, east, the sea, the coast, the different Andean and Amazonian regions, and all their rich cuisines. So, we still have a long way to go in knowledge and exploration.
I’m curious about your restaurant Kjolle. What was it like to create something entirely of your own? Tell us about the concept and how it reflects your voice and vision as a chef.
I didn’t create it entirely on my own, definitely not. It’s my project, but it’s teamwork. Kjolle’s concept revolves around highlighting the mega diversity of ingredients from the four regions of Peru, valuing ingredients from the sea and the coast, through the Andes, to the Amazon. In one dish only you can taste different ecosystems of Peru together, a coastal product, and an Andean fruit, for example. It’s free and has no marked geographical limits.
What do you hope visitors take home with them after visiting Kjolle?
At Kjolle, we seek to offer Peruvian products, art, and craftsmanship. Kjolle’s guests arrive with the expectation of taking away more than just a meal—they also expect to learn and try new things. The surprise factor is very present and is a protagonist within the gastronomic experience; there is art on the walls, colorful ceramic tableware manufactured by local artisans, hand-carved metal cutlery, furniture, and wood finishes from the Central Forest made in the. North Coast of Peru, textiles dyed by women of Warmi association, a Mater project, and other stories of local producers and collaborators, which elevates the culinary event.
In 2021, you were recognized as the World’s Best Female Chef. How have you found your voice in the kitchen?
I started in Central at the age of 21, and I worked my way up from assistant to section manager and then area manager, and ten years after, I became head of the kitchen. Hard work, a positive attitude, and healthy leadership gave me my place and marked the way to find my own voice. The award gives visibility to women and, at least where I come from, this is still important. There is a lack of recognition of women’s work. When I received the award, it generated a great feeling of pride in female strength in my country. Young women saw someone they could follow, a positive figure, that’s what’s beautiful and most important about these awards.
Photographed by Alexander Pérez-Flores
Styled by Lisseli Santos
Written by Maddie Dinowitz
Hair & Makeup: Micaela Linares
Location: Casa Túpa, Lima, Peru