In today’s fast world we do not listen enough. And that is a problem for people in all walks of life. Virgilio Martinez, chef of Central, the restaurant in Lima, Peru says he finds inspiration from people. “I find inspiration by listening. We don’t listen enough but listening is very healthy. We listen too much to ourselves. As a chef, you sometimes start to take decisions without listening to people,” the Peruvian chef told Food and Wine Gazette in an interview at Chef’s Revolution in Zwolle recently.
Virgilio is the chef of Central, the restaurant in Lima that is the ‘Best restaurant’ in Latin America and 4th restaurant in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. The Peruvian chef is considered to be one of the most influential chefs in Latin America if not the world and is known for using modern cooking techniques to make the best use of Peruvian ingredients. He is also heavily influenced by the landscape and ecosystem. With Peru’s dramatic changes in its terrain in a relatively small radius of 100 kilometres, there is direct access to the country’s products from various altitudes ranging from the coast to the Amazon.
“Nowadays, life goes so quick that you need to take many decisions. In a restaurant you need to take decisions every single second and you can start to become a dictator if you are not careful. That is why its extremely important to listen and find inspiration from people.”
Virgilio did not take to cooking immediately. He was a passionate skateboarder and only stopped after breaking his two shoulders. He decided to study law given his brother is a lawyer. But skateboarding was an art and he felt that he needed to do something similar. Cooking seemed to be the right vehicle for him to show his artistic side.
The Peruvian chef, however, soon discovered he needed to leave his country. “I started cooking around 20 years ago and at the time we did not have much hope about our future. We had terrorism. We were struggling with lots of issues, with crime. Lima was not a nice city, we did not have a gastronomic identity because of the influence of French and Italian cuisine and we were forbidden from going to the Amazon.
So Virgilio travelled to Europe and during his travels he did not want to return back to Peru. “On a trip back home some 15 years ago, I realised that things were starting to change. I realised that food was becoming important and we were once again able to go to the Andes and the Amazon because it was safe.”
“I started to realise that I needed to go back to my roots. I was seeing that through the stories of our ancestors, we were getting back our pride of being Peruvians. And I also saw this revival in food. It was amazing to see this variety of food so it was time for me to go back to Lima.”
The start was not simple for the Peruvian chef who was trained and got used to the discipline in various European kitchens. “In Latin America, we have this cliché that we are not organised and are too relaxed. In Europe, I worked for very strict chefs and learned to work very hard. I understood how to organise a kitchen so when I came to Peru it was not difficult because I had the disciple to work. But that first year, I realised that I was a European guy in Peru and it was wrong. The discipline and my idea of food was very western.”
To combat this he travelled in Peru, one of his passions, to try and connect back to his roots. He travelled to different places and that opened his mind to what he wanted to do. “I was truly convinced that I could become a chef that cooked Peruvian food without feeling ashamed of what I was doing.”
Obsession can be very wrong. Obsession is not good
Despite the internationalisation of gastronomy he found a way to work and became enthusiastic about the richness of his terroir. “It was beautiful. We managed to find a way to work and we continued to discover new things. There is no way to stop diversity and what was great was that people were becoming more obsessed with food,” he said.
But is obsession good or bad, I asked him. “Obsession could be very wrong. Obsession is not good especially when you are proud of this obsession. A lot of people are looking for perfection but ultimately nothing is perfect. We need to work with our differences, with our problems. A dish is not perfect anywhere in the world. You need to communicate with producers. When people say this dish is perfect, it is still a construction but what is the story of the dish? Stories are beautiful and stories give our food not just the sense of place but also something spiritual.”
Virgilio’s cuisine is inspired by the incredible ecosystem and landscape of Peru. He himself says that with over 4,000 varieties of potatoes he has only skimmed the surface and has only discovered and used 10 per cent of them but he tells other chefs in different parts of the world to use their landscapes and ecosystems and to create their own identity. “Some people who see what we do say that this cannot be done in other countries. Its not a question of produce though. You might not have our 4,000 varieties of potatoes but you will have something else. You might not think there is value in an ingredient because someone might have told you so. You need to go and look at your surroundings and what’s in your ecosystem. Some tell me we don’t have the altitudes. But I tell them you have the lakes, sea, valleys, mountains, different places, just go for it.”
During his presentation at Chef’s Revolution he used a national root which is a natural gelatine. I ask him how he researches things and how he finds out what is edible or not? “Sometimes, this can take a few seconds, other times it could take years. Sometimes, the ingredient is too complex to understand and will require a long time to understand its nutritional or medicinal qualities. Sometimes, we go on expeditions and find that some communities of people are for example eating a certain algae which is a bacteria. Once we know that it is edible we can try it. Then we need to taste it with some friends from Europe because our stomaches are different. So we need to test it. But now I have reached a stage where I am not using any thickener which does not belong to the Peruvian territory. I can obtain sweetness using natural sources and this is an important message. It is a strong message against the industry of sugar, flour, bad chocolate or bad coffee,” he said.
It might be easy for Peru with its incredibly diverse ecosystem but what happens in other countries or regions? He tells me that Peruvian farmers were angry when France registered Peruvian potatoes and started to grow them in France. “But I don’t see a problem. I tell producers that this is a good thing. We have the DNA for potatoes. If they grow these potatoes they will not buy the cheap potatoes from Peru but instead they will buy the best ones,” he says.
Virgilio is aware that not everyone has access to great producers. And while Central is 100 per cent local, he knows that it is difficult in certain places to be 100% local. “What is important is that there is communication between producers and chefs. Not every region has high end restaurants so sharing is essential,” he says.
There is a lot of talk about wellbeing and teamwork in restaurants nowadays. How important is good atmosphere and teamwork in the kitchen, I ask him?
“At Central we have some rules. They are suggestions not rules but we suggest the approach. If the people are committed and have passion they automatically follow these suggestions. Since we have put them in place we see that the group has started to work as a team. They start to share more because they see everything as a suggestion.”
Restaurants have to deal with a lot of pressure
Virgilio says that in a restaurant ‘they have to deal with lots of pressure. I am not going to say that our restaurant during a service is heaven. It varies from heaven to hell. When you have an angry customer, you need to take decisions. But nowadays, there is no reason to go against a person or a team. If I have a problem, I first need to address it myself. The best we can do is to learn how to control ourselves. If you want to be a dictator, you need to be a dictator with yourself first,” he says.
Lists and the pressure they put on chefs and restaurants these days may add to the daily stress. “I would be lying if I say that it is not great to be in this position. “It is great because it gives you visibility. There is always pressure in a restaurant and if we do not get a type of pressure we will get it from somewhere else. You can get pressured even by the small things. So the list is just one type of pressure. We do not have to think about it. It is important but it cannot control our life and I cannot think about the list all the time.”
Virgilio does not believe that there is a best restaurant in the world. “For example, I do not think that I have the best restaurant in Latin America. Dishes and food is about emotions. An experience in a restaurant is personal, emotional. You cannot say that this experience is better than the other. It can be disrespectful.”
The Peruvian chef has recently become a father and he says the experience has changed his life. “Sometimes you want to feel more happy which is difficult because there is no happiness. But when I see my child, I feel happier. And then of course, that changes everything. Am I cooking differently? I don’t know but I feel happier. When people ask me for something, I am more positive, more helpful. I am starting to think more about others. If something wrong is going to happen in the restaurant, it is not going to be the end of the world. I will go home and have a beautiful baby who will say Papa and bring the smile back in my face. And that is great.”