Elevating Tastes in Peru

A journey into the Andes with Virgilio Martínez, the Peruvian chef-cum-anthropologist ambitious enough to try to change what eating means, one beautiful potato at a time

WORDS Brent Crane
December 2018

Photography By Gustavo Vivanco Leon

The morning sun casts deep shadows on the farmland below the Inkaterra Hacienda Urubamba, a lodge-like hotel set among the rumpled peaks of the Sacred Valley, 9,500 feet above sea level in the Peruvian Andes. Cusco, the ancient capital of the Inca empire, is only an hour and a half drive from here, but we may as well be at the end of the world. Purple-blue tanager birds dart between the eucalyptus trees as Urubamba, the village below on the valley floor, stirs to life with the sound of rooster calls. 

I have been at the hotel for two days now, adjusting to the altitude and awaiting the arrival of Michelin-starred Peruvian chef Virgilio Martínez. At 9 a.m., he pulls up in a black van and steps out into the cool air. Unshaven and with a boyish moptop, he wears close-fitting khakis with a cozy navy sweater. With him is Francesco D’Angelo, a smiley dreadlocked anthropologist. Martínez extends his hand and grins coolly. “Nice to meet you, man,” he says. “Welcome to Peru.”

Chef Virgilio Martínez

Though only 41 years old, Martínez has already risen to the peak of his profession. Across four restaurants, two in Peru and one each in London and Hong Kong, Martínez blends the curiosity of an eager biology student with innovative modern cooking techniques and ingredients that range from traditional to offbeat and hyper-local. The result is a culinary style completely his own. He has been credited with, if not sparking the global appetite for Peruvian cuisine, keeping the fire burning strong. In South American culinary circles, and among Peruvians, he is a superstar.

The plan today is to head to Moray, a mysterious Incan ruin an hour or so up the valley, where he recently opened the Andean-inspired Mil. The highly anticipated restaurant, which melds his style with local high-altitude ingredients, has already garnered rave reviews. Under Martínez’s guidance, I will experience the restaurant—and it is, I’ve been assured, an experience. I hope, also, to come to a better understanding of what Martínez means when he says that, in Peru, “food is like religion.”

The road to Moray is a mesmerizing journey. We pass cornfields, plains of grass, thin pines and prickly miguey, the agave variety used by locals to make rope. We ride 3,000 feet towards the snow-topped mountains that encircle the valley—Chicón, Capacsaya, Huajayhuillca—their glaciers sparkling like jewels. As I window-gaze, Martínez slumps in the back—ruffled and tired-looking.

The previous day, he had delivered a lecture at a culinary conference in Cusco. A couple days before that he was in Los Angeles giving a cooking demonstration. Along with getting Mil up and running, he is in the process of moving his flagship restaurant, Central, in Lima’s posh Miraflores neighborhood, to a larger location in the capital’s bohemian Barranco district. He also just opened a restaurant in Hong Kong called Ichu. The past year, he says, has been the busiest of his life. “I’m trying to take things calmly,” he tells me. “Still, I really enjoy what I do.” Half an hour later, we pass through Maras, a colonial town with narrow alleyways of white-washed stone. Old women in tall bowler hats stand around and chat; a donkey hauls bundles of dried corn. I look back towards Martínez as we exit Maras onto alpine plains. He is fast asleep.

The exterior of Mil

As exhausted as Martínez may be, he can take comfort in the fact that the work is paying off. In 2013, four years after its opening in Lima—where he lives with his wife, Pía León, and their young son—Central gained a coveted spot on San Pellegrino’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. The restaurant, which he runs with León, features only a tasting menu, with each colorful and unorthodox dish symbolizing one of Peru’s ecosystems, organized by elevation and named accordingly: Amazonia (paiche, yacon, guanabana, lemongrass), Low Andes Mountains (pork, black mashwa, panca chili peppers, kiwicha), Sea Coral (octopus, crab, squid, sea lettuce) and so on. Two years after joining the Best list at number 50, Central jumped to number four. In 2014, it was named the Best Restaurant in Latin America. It held the position for the following two years (it is currently number two, behind Maido, another Lima hot spot).

With his ceaseless experimentation and a botanist’s desire to source obscure ingredients, Martínez has come to epitomize a boundary-defying era of Peruvian cuisine—a status made all the more remarkable by the fact that he only became a chef after a shoulder injury scuppered his plans of becoming a professional skateboarder. A natural introvert, he does not wear fame easily, and occasionally seems befuddled by all the fuss surrounding him. “It’s difficult because you can’t please everybody,” he says. “It’s still a new stage for me.” His younger sister Malena describes him as “low-key,” adding, “He keeps a low profile.” But that’s becoming harder to do with all the media (and selfie) requests. “I have to learn how to not get upset,” he says with a thin smile. You get the feeling, in fact, that what Martínez would really like is to be left alone in a kitchen somewhere, or foraging in a bog. 

Five years ago, he recruited Malena, a doctor, to run Mater Iniciativa, Central’s culinary research arm. About once or twice a month, a specialist team, often with Martínez in tow, ventures into the Peruvian countryside in search of new things to eat. Specimens are brought back to the lab and catalogued. “In Lima, Virgilio had the feeling that there was a lot we were missing about products existing elsewhere,” his sister says. “Peru is so diverse—he thought it would be important for him as a cook to really know more about other ingredients and other possibilities.” For Martínez, the trips are “also about having fun and enjoying the wisdom of a different culture.”

Outsiders tend to think of Peru in Andean terms, but the country is more than mountains. Home to the second-largest spread of Amazonian rainforest after Brazil, as well as swaths of dry desert, 1,500 miles of Pacific coastline and 90 different microclimates, it is a wellspring of opportunity for culinary discovery. “I’m talking as a guy coming from Lima, which is not a guy coming from the Andes or a guy coming from the jungle,” Martínez says. “We are different.”

So far, Mater’s researchers have categorized some 150 types of roots and tubers, 300 aromatic herbs and dozens of quinoa varieties, among other edible obscurities. Much of it goes onto Martínez’s plates. But there is more to the work than foraging. The country has 55 ethnic groups and Mater’s research hinges on consultations with the different communities about what they grow and eat, much of which has not been systematically documented. “At Mater we’re interested in products but also the stories behind products,” says Malena.

Employing unique Peruvian ingredients—boiled bark, edible clay, blue-green algae—has become a fixture of the Martínez brand, but he sees his methods as having a greater significance beyond branding. “It’s not just about, ‘Let’s be creative and cook tasty food.’ It’s way beyond that,” he says. “If we continue to have our things uncatalogued, not understood, we will lose our chance to grow with our people.”

Anthropologist Francesco D'Angelo (center) commiserating with local farmers.

If Martínez’s food educates Peruvians about the native riches at their disposal, it is also about furthering his own understanding of his homeland. He grew up in Lima’s Miraflores district in the 1980s, a time when a long-simmering insurgency kept nearly everything beyond the capital off-limits. “Really bad things were happening in Peru,” he says. “We weren’t able to come to these places because they were dangerous.”

After years spent working in kitchens abroad, often under the influential Peruvian chef Gastón Acurio, Martínez returned to find a recovering country that was newly explorable. So he explored. He spent a month with a Quechua family in the Andes. He roamed the Tumbes desert. During a two-week stay with an Amazonian tribe, a reaction to river ceviche caused one eye to swell shut for two days. Mil, with its intense focus on Andean culture, and its location among indigenous communities where local ingredients and knowledge are readily accessible, can be seen as a continuation of those gastro-cultural travels. The job for Martínez now, as he sees it, is to share his enthusiasm with others. “Now that I’m in this position, I’m trying to push chefs towards this direction,” he says.

“If you’re not inspired by our nature and our people, you have to come to these places.”

After an invigorating drive up a dirt road skirting a cliffside, we come upon Moray, the ancient Incan ruin: several gaping pits of concentric terraces, the deepest extending 98 feet down. Its original purpose is murky, but many believe it was a site for experimental agriculture, which makes it a fitting backdrop for a place like Mil. The restaurant is situated in a modest clay-walled building with a thatched roof. In fact, the only clue that it is something other than a traditional Andean home are three small silver letters by the doorway: Mil, meaning one thousand in Spanish, “for the thousands of ways to do and perceive things,” says Martínez.

The dining room itself is small, with just a few tables and large windows overlooking the countryside. By the time you look through the menu, you wonder whether “restaurant” is the right word for Mil. Martínez prefers to call it an “interpretation center.” What is up for interpretation, exactly, is a bounty of Andean ingredients crafted by Martínez and his chefs into a rotating lunch menu of eight exquisitely plated courses, or “moments,” which can take two or three hours to conclude. Much of the produce employed comes from within a few miles of the restaurant. The chocolate is made on-site (an undertaking Martínez calls “crazy”).  

"Extreme Altitude," a dish of black quinoa, lake blue-green algae, wheat, herbs and duck

Today’s courses include Andean Forest (lupinus legume, pork belly, avocado, rocoto pepper), Extreme Altitude (duck, black quinoa, lake blue-green algae, chicchipa) and Frozen Cordillera (wild muña, mint, tuber ashes). Martínez, as ever, is on hand to explain the significance and purpose of each ingredient. “There has to be a why,” he says.

Part of Martínez’s time at Mil today involves trying out new recipes that his team has devised in his absence, and a few are brought out during our meal. One, a dessert, involves a tunta, a small potato dried at altitude in the sun and colored candy-red with coye, a local herb used for dying clothes. It is laid over a granita of tumbo (banana passionfruit) with some sweet cream. I take a bite: sour-sweet and icy, rounded out by the starch of the potato. I’ve never had anything like it.

Martínez spoons some, chews it over, then riddles off in Spanish a flurry of comments to the servers (who are also cooks). “I was asking him which elements in this dish are over there,” he translates for me and points out the window. “He mentioned a few and I said to make sure you’re using more of that.” I comment that he had taken hardly any time in reaching his conclusions. “It’s better to think quick, not to waste time overthinking the idea,” he replies.

Outside, the rolling hillsides are cut into small patches of workable land. If you look closely, you will spot the occasional person, a Quechua farmer silhouetted in miniature against a pale green field. There is something almost meditative about this swirl of sensations: the tastes and textures of the food, and the land it came from visible just beyond the window. I mention this to Martínez and he smiles.

“The connection that people have to nature here in the Andes is totally different than elsewhere,” Martínez says. “They understand food as a way to heal.”

The day is growing hot as I hike with Martínez to Mullak’as Misminay, a Quechua village in the nearby hills, where he wants to examine local potatoes. Accompanying us is D’Angelo, the anthropologist whom Martínez employs as a liaison between Mil and indigenous communities, and Manuel Choqque, a local potato farmer. Martínez met Choqque while seeking out nearby producers during the run-up to Mil’s opening. “Manuel is a potato rock star,” he says, grinning at the short, sturdy 30-year-old. Now a consultant for Martínez, Choqque travels to Mil once a week to check on the hundreds of varieties of potatoes they grow in a small plot just downhill from the restaurant.

The upward slope and the thin air combine to make me wheeze as we continue our hike, so I am relieved when, 15 minutes after heading out, we arrive at our destination: a mud-walled farmhouse where Choqque stores dozens of potato varieties. Martínez, his iPhone out for photos, leans over and picks through the crates, holding samples to his eye like a master jeweler. “This one we call Pig Turds,” says a beaming Choqque, displaying a blackened little ball. Martínez takes the potato, looks it over, murmurs, and drops it into his fleece pocket, alongside others he likes. He will take them back to Lima that night.

The Mil team with Martínez gather around a huatia

Potatoes originated in Peru, but many of the types here are a far cry from the russet or the Yukon Gold. Choqque, beckoning, presents me with a smooth yellow finger-like tuber dotted purple. He halves it with a machete, revealing brilliant pink. He does the same with several others, relaying the Quechua name for each: Puma maki (“Puma’s claw”), Puka k’usi (“red pumpkin”), K’achun waqachi (“one that makes the daughter-in-law cry”). With each cut, his smile intensifies.

The following day, I travel alone to the Choqque family farm in Huatapa, a blink of a village on a narrow dirt road a half an hour from Mil. Choqque, whose father and grandfather are also potato farmers, has used his degree in agrobiology to develop 70 varieties of potato. We wander the land behind his house and, for lunch, eat bowls of potatoes oven-roasted by his mother, served with salt and eaten by hand. We drink cups of the oca wine served at Mil, fermented on site, candy-sweet. When a breeze picks up, it carries the faint smell of manure, along with birdsong and the occasional sheep’s baa.

At the end of the day, as the sun dips behind the Urubamba mountains, we eat potatoes again, this time in the fields, cooked in a huatia oven made from clumps of soil and then superheated with a fire of dried potato grasses (they started the fire with flint). Choqque’s brother, Elma, and sister-in-law, Margot, have prepared the evening meal, after a day of working the fields. Using his pickaxe, or pico, Elma smashes the huatia into earthy bits and distributes the hot potatoes. The four of us sit in the dirt around the smoldering rubble of soiled potatoes. The atmosphere is calm and genial, just a family dinner out in the fields. 

The spuds are blisteringly hot and, though you must pick pebbles from them, delicious—bittersweet and earthy. Sitting there among acres of potatoes and quinoa in the Andean countryside, Señor and Señora Choqque still wet with sweat, I better understand what Martínez said earlier about food being sacred. Taking out a bottle filled with cañazo, a liquor prepared with sugarcane and pampa anise, Elma unscrews the cap and splashes a little onto the soil. “First for Mother Earth,” he says solemnly, then smiles and takes a big swig for himself.


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