Virgilio Martínez | A New Moon Rising, A Paradigm Shift

Via the 25th Anniversary Issue, Under the Silver Moon

Written by

Bennett DiDonna

Photographed by

Carlos Salazar

Styled by

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Much of humankind, for as long as we’ve known it, has quested for some version of hierarchical supremacy. The desire to be at the top, to be #1— while perhaps not in our nature—is intrinsic to our conditioned, lived experience. Of course, much of this questing has resulted in a proportionately distorted world of inequity, of haves and have-nots. It’s meant warring and bloodshed, the suffocation of indigenous languages and artistry, and a younger and younger culture of envy and addiction that has sociologists scratching their heads.

It asks, then: In the modern age, can you be at the top of your respective craft, yet champion the purer ethos and cultural-unilateralism of lost eras? Can you be #1 unselfishly?

Enter the New Paradigm. Enter Virgilio Martínez. At 46, the Peruvian chef and owner of Lima culinary destination, Central, has achieved the gourmand benediction of running the #1 Restaurant in the World—a recognition that sits atop a long list of accolades he has received from the World’s 50 Best, the Michelin Guide, and culinary kingmakers. But there is little evidence, be it in combing the internet, or visiting the astoundingly humble and low-key restaurant, that these accolades are the motivation for Martínez. Instead, he is motivated by the land, by community, by history. And while these ideals culminate in Central’s 14-course tasting menu, the restaurant itself is really just the tip of the cultural lightning rod.

Martínez is composed and wiry, and a bit camera shy. A former skateboarder, whose interest in cooking took him to the Le Cordon Bleu in Canada and the UK. As a journeyman chef, he spent a decade in the upper echelons of the culinary world in Europe and the Americas, before returning to his hometown of Lima. In 2008, he went on to found Central, creating a menu arranged around the altitudinal variations of Peru.

Beginning with seafood from the Pacific Ocean, just steps from the restaurant’s doors, to fruits and fish in the Amazon to tubers in the Andes, Central is not, as Martínez makes clear, “about perfection in the kitchen or being accurate with recipes.” Fine dining, as he continues, “is not about this excess of luxury— it is about the way we can transport people and transmit emotions and joy through beauty and art.

Central is undoubtedly rooted in Peru, and it is in its ingredients and terrain that Martínez finds inspiration. “[Recipes] don’t happen in the kitchen anymore, they happen in nature when we encounter new ingredients.” Martínez’s passion for regional knowledge and the country’s rich biodiversity was codified a decade back in Mater. The institute is made up of a multi-disciplinary team of chefs, anthropologists, botanists, and artists among others, working with communities across the country to document, protect, and empower local knowledge around food and craft.

This calling toward the land has continued in Martínez’s second restaurant in Peru, Mil, which doubles as the field outpost for Mater, and is where the photos for this story were taken. Breathtaking and intimate, Mil is located some 12,000 feet above sea level in the Sacred Valley, overlooking Moray, an Incan archeological site, originally used for farming and to study soil samples. Martínez also oversees culinary outposts in Tokyo—his wife, Pía León, runs Lima spot, Kjolle, and was awarded Best Female Chef of 2021—but it is here, in his element, nestled between Cusco and the hallowed ancient grounds of Machu Picchu, where Martínez is at home. Here, he engages with local communities and ingredients, on a unique quest to create something that both embraces the past and sets the tone for the future—what he and his team dub ‘The New Paradigm.’ We spent a little time in conversation a few weeks after Central’s recent #1 crowning.

In your opinion, what about the restaurant ecosystem most closely mimics ecosystems of the natural world?

There are restaurants that want to achieve by taking shortcuts, they go through trends or follow the hype. What’s natural is what is supposed to be the truth, and today this is something truly important for fine dining. We have been talking for many years about the importance and preservation of natural ecosystems and we know that the people who come to our restaurants want to see and experience this in a real way.

Natural ecosystems offer a source of inspiration for us. Absolutely everything that makes them up is integrated into a living system, making each of the components fundamental. When you create a team or when you create a restaurant concept that has a foundation related to the environment, what you are also developing is a living system in which each component has something to contribute and is equally important... That for us is our culture at work and in life. We are able to recognize that we are all valuable and have something to say, but at the same time, we are part of a whole that has a clear intention and objective. 

How have you built relationships with the people who grow the food you serve? How do you give back to the land?

Now more than ever, it’s important to be honest and coherent and build lasting relationships based on a bond that is forged with actions of trust and honesty. Preserving your values is the most important thing, and demonstrating it with actions.

I think our goal is to create a large community, where we acknowledge our differences and we respect each other. That’s the key, respect and looking after each other. Also, conversations and pacts we exchange with other people always need to be reevaluated and renewed, to shorten this gap that may exist between us and other communities. Being able to adapt and be open to other possibilities is something we value, and is part of practicing humanity.

We are in a position where we see how food is transforming our societies. We want to share another perspective to help us to progress together. We open a new window to consume food and we open another window to create a new clientele, new ways to consume food.

What have you learned recently through your work with the Mater that has surprised you?

Of course, the level of commitment and responsibility of the people who are working with us. The sensibility and the whole attraction that people have to different disciplines. Mater provides us with an interaction with different disciplines, from arts to science, anthropology and archeology.

Mater brings us closer together and connects and starts conversations that are very valuable to me because they take me out of my gastronomic world and make me look at the [interconnected] reality of things. We believe that what Mater achieves by interconnecting, bringing together, convening specialties, and simply looking in depth is extremely valuable and unlimited work, and that much more will come from this.

Central is the first restaurant outside of Europe or the United States to be named the Best Restaurant in the World. What message do you hope to share with the increased spotlight that has been placed on the work you do?

This is the result of things that we have been doing for years. We knew that there was an enormous potential in our lands and territories. We have been focused on the challenges we came across, and we have been very committed to our work, our duties, and all the deep knowledge that came in through groups from different disciplines that work with us. We feel that being in Peru is a great opportunity and a great advantage.

We are at the center of gastronomy, and also in the middle of beautiful nature and incredible people. Given that we have this attention now, the message that we would like to communicate is that Latin America has the potential to be a force, a spearhead, to open paths, and to be humble and simple because in this country gastronomy has stirred the economy in a profound way; and we believe that these are experiences that need to be shared so that more of that can happen. We wish that more paths open through synchronized management, designed as a community that has to do with promoting an entire region and an entire country.

How do you relate to the notion of resilience?

Within the reality of this country, I believe that the word resilience has a lot of meaning because we have a very heterogeneous geography, and we have a history that has been one of struggle, but also of adaptation, of the possibility of being able to adapt to the conditions that present themselves and to use the resources you have. As a society, we have been trained into this sense of resilience and we have to support each other through difficult times.

I consider that in my personal life history resilience has also been very present because I have worked and made sacrifices to be able to achieve the things that I have wanted and sought with determination. I believe that the ability to learn from mistakes, to not consider that there is a failure but rather a path for growth, comes from the previous history of this country and from being part of a region that clearly has used what they have at hand to survive. I believe that it is a spectacular quality of the human being and that we need to forge it in the following generations. 

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Virgilio Martinez, Flaunt Magazine, Issue 190, The 25th Anniversary Issue, Under The Silver Moon, Mil, Central, People