Travel has a huge impact in the way we see the world. To experience new cultures, to see how people live and eat together, makes you grow as an individual. Sometimes when you always look to the outside world, you miss the beautiful things at home. This is the story of Virgilio Martínez Véliz, the world famous Chef and co-founder of Central Restaurante, currently ranked Number six in The World’s Fifty Best Restaurants list.
It’s 10 a.m. as we enter the discrete entrance of the restaurant, two blocks from the Pacific Ocean in the commercial district of Mira Flores, Lima. Luckily, we’ve beaten the infamous lunch crowds that pack the restaurant, though the sense of urgency is palpable in the air around the prep crew.
Virgilio meets us at the bar, greets us warmly and quickly picks his spot. He’s slim, with a good head of hair, which makes him look young for his age. His casual demeanour comes with a quiet sense of confidence, it’s not hard to imagine his past self as a semi-professional skateboarder.
Virgilio currently has other restaurants in London and Dubai. He recently opened his highly anticipated restaurant, Mil, in Cusco and moved his Flagship restaurant to a larger location in the Barranco district of Lima. He’s clearly a busy man at the helm of a growing culinary empire.
This was unimaginable to achieve in Lima, a few decades ago when Virgilio was growing up in La Molina, an upscale suburban district of the city.
Though it was a difficult environment, it had an upside, it lead to Virgilio spending a lot of time with family, especially on Sundays. This was where he first became curious about the kitchen.
Cooking instead became his way to see the world. Lima was increasingly more isolated and he wanted to find a way out. He’d started studying law in Scotland but his heart wasn’t in it. After learning he could travel the world, by working in kitchens, a dream began to form. A pivotal moment was when he picked up a copy of White Heat, the legendary book by Marco Pierre White.
Virgilio moved to Canada and shortly enrolled in Le Cordon Bleu School in Ottawa and London, before spending close to a decade living and working in cities like New York, Singapore and Bangkok. During this period, he was able to work in acclaimed restaurants such as Lutèce, New York and Can Fabes, Sant Celoni. He became a well-trained cook of modern European cuisine with a strong grasp of French culinary techniques.
Being in the kitchen finally gave him a place where he belonged. Virgilio had never been the best student. In a family of lawyers, architects and scientists, he was the artist. The kitchen provided Virgilio a canvas he understood and could master.
There was still something missing when it came to his art, something that Virgilio couldn’t quite place. It was only when he went back home to Lima to sort out his work Visa and started cooking with local ingredients, he realised what he had been missing.
He started working with the Peruvian gastronomy icon and celebrity chef, Gastón Acurio. Chef Gastón is widely accredited for taking Peruvian cuisine to the global stage, creating New Peruvian Cuisine by applying modern European techniques to Peruvian ingredients. Under Gastón’s guidance, Virgilio rose to become the Executive Chef at Astrid y Gastón in Lima and then helped establish sister restaurants in Bogotá and Madrid.
It was in Madrid where Virgilio started experimenting and putting his own ideas into the dishes.
The very nature of Central today is family. The restaurant was initially financed largely thanks to his father, Raúl. The architect of Central is his mother, Blanca. His Head Chef and Co-Creator of dishes is his wife, Pia. Mater Iniciativa, the research arm of Central, is run by his sister Malena.
Pia and Virgilio also have a 2-year-old son, Cristóbal, you can see the pride in his eyes when he starts to talk about him.
A few months after the opening of Central, the local municipality deemed the restaurant to be lacking the required permit to be used as a commercial space. They were forced to shut down. It was a big blow to Virgilio and his family, especially after the time and investment that went in to building the space and hiring staff.
The silver lining was they had time to reflect and focus on other things. It was during this time, Virgilio and Pia started to date. The time for reflection also gave Virgilio a chance to explore Peru, something he never had an opportunity to do before.
In the five months that Central was closed, Pia and Virgilio worked together to change the menu. They reduced the European and Asian flavours and began incorporating more local ingredients. There was a new drive to understand who the suppliers and producers were, and to experiment with the ingredients that they had.
This lead to the birth of Mater Iniciativa, a team of interdisciplinary researchers that include botanists, anthropologists and forest engineers, who work with the sole purpose of discovering and classifying the indigenous species found in Peru. It’s a project that had never been undertaken before, and their pioneering efforts have allowed Central to work with 80 varieties of potatoes and 120 types of wild plants.
The combined efforts of Virgilio, Pia and Malena brought about a tasting menu in 2012, where each dish represented an altitude and ecosystem within Peru ranging from 10 meters below sea level up to 4,150 meters. The idea was to show the incredible biodiversity of Peru and to highlight local and regional ingredients, which have been uses for centuries. The creativity and imagination caught the attention of the world and all of a sudden Central was flying!
A few days after meeting Virgilio, we went in as guests to eat the Ecosystem Tasting Menu. We were seated right next to the huge wall of glass that separates the kitchen from the ground floor dining area. We had an amazing view of the orchestra of chefs moving between stations. It was also incredible to see Virgilio gracefully move from station to station, conducting the entire symphony with barely a word.
It was my first time eating at Central. I was excited to see whether the tasting menu lived up to the hype and to be honest, the courses didn’t just meet expectations, they were works of art. More than just a meal, it’s an education and an experience that still lingers in my mind today. We asked Virgilio and his team to highlight their favourite dishes of this tasting menu.
The dish provides a shock like you’ve never experienced at a fine dining establishment. Having a plate placed in front of you decked with four vicious piranhas, complete with their heads, and their eyes still staring, would catch even the most jaded eater off guard. Despite the Hollywood myths, piranhas are just as likely to be eaten as to chow down on you, they’re a mouth-watering, sustainable source of food from the Amazon.
To accompany the whole fish, we were given a thin strip of dried piranha skin placed on an orange crisp with tiny bits of cocona fruit, to help balance the saltiness of the piranha.
Generous briny portions of sea urchin, soft textures of razor clam with sweetness from thinly shaved pepino melon and the saltiness of seaweed really added a level of umami that was unbelievable. The pepino melon has similar texture to a cucumber but sweeter. With each bite I was transported to the sea, awash with a sense of calm and delight at each emerging flavour.
This dish brings together 4 types of corn in a way I’ve never seen corn served. We experienced crunchy and creamy textures, flawlessly complimenting each other with every bite. The sticky sauce made of corn husk, acted as a subtle sweet glue that kept the dish together. There was a light but indulgent feel, which you would never expect from corn.
I had asked Virgilio if there was one dish to watch out for and this was the one he picked out. The dish pays homage to the biodiversity of Peru, with 55 known varieties of corn available in the country, the possibilities are endless. In many ways Central would not have existed if Virgilio had not experienced the world through his work.
This is fundamental to what Central is all about today. The use of modern techniques to bring together flavours through discovery and imagination, to create a memorable experience that can’t be found anywhere else in the world.
TookTook Stories covers the people behind the most exciting restaurants, bars and hotels from around the world. Running a restaurant or working in hospitality is incredibly hard. It takes more than a few visits to really be able to judge a quality of the experience. This is the reason why this is not a review. We only cover places we admire, with the focus to learn more about the background of the individuals, their work and what drives them.