Peruvian chef Virgilio Martínez isn't your typical forager or farm-to-table acolyte. He doesn't run a tasting menu at his Lima restaurant, Central, just for the trend. Martínez is running an ambitious restaurant and research organization that aims to celebrate and catalogue the weird wild plants of Peru.
Dinner at Central Restaurante in Lima, Peru, starts at 25 meters below sea level, then soars up into the mountains, across the desert, and through the jungle—all in the span of 17 courses. It's a journey through the extreme climates, altitudes, and biodiversity of Peru, and diners flock from all over the world to explore the South American country through the eyes of chef Virgilio Martínez.
A burgeoning international superstar, Martínez is one of a small set of chefs worldwide who have pushed foraging beyond trend and into discovery. His efforts at Central have proven that Peruvian cuisine means much more than ceviche. It's the edible chaco clay of the dry Andes, and the indigenous Amazonian palm fruit called ungurahui. It's the white freeze-dried potato known as tunta or the fermented potato called tocosh.
But it wasn't always this way. In fact, Martínez had a more European inspiration in mind when he opened Central in March of 2009, fresh off a stint working in Madrid. "I didn't have a clear sense of my territory," he says. He had grown up in Lima, but the uneasy security of the time prevented him from traveling much outside of the city during his childhood. After a couple of years at Central, though, Martínez started taking occasional trips around the country just for fun and to see what was out there. He got to know producers in Cuzco and to understand how much the wilds of Peru had to offer. That discovery became the core of Central's own concept.
Martínez first launched a menu based upon his travels around Peru about three years ago, but the concept has formalized over the years. Virgilio's sister Malena Martínez, a physician, leads the restaurant's exploration arm, the Mater Initiative, which comprises an interdisciplinary group of geographers, historians, anthropologists, ecologists, chefs, and others who make about three trips a month to various regions of Peru for tours with local producers. These aren't just drop-in visits to grab a few samples and leave. They spend time with the producers and the locals of each region, where they learn that certain herbs are used medicinally and that only the chaco clay that's pure of color is meant to be eaten. "It's the whole context we're looking for," Malena Martínez says.
Though Virgilio generally has one or two specific products in mind to research on each trip, he says the team will sometimes come back with dozens of new herbs or edibles. Upon their return to Lima, they document their discoveries in the database that the Mater Initiative has created to better catalogue the biodiversity of Peru. Then the test kitchen gets to work.
There are four full-time team members in Central's test kitchen, with another three chefs who rotate in now and then to help experiment on the new ingredients using various cooking techniques. Some of those techniques and ingredients connect right away; others take time. Right now, for example, Virgilio says his kitchen has been working for seven months to figure out a way to serve the tocosh, a potato that has an incredibly strong aroma after fermenting in a river for several months. He's looking for a way to complement that aroma without completely removing it, since the smell, he says, "is part of the emotion. We want to keep the soul of the product."
The chefs at Central work on creativity every day, because they aim to change the tasting menu every four months, updating each course with new dishes representing the Mater Initiative’s latest travels. Virgilio explains that this isn't just about changing up the menu; it's also about capturing the spirit of each trip, catching the best ingredients of the season, and ensuring that a variety of regions and elevations is represented on the menu. "Every single menu is getting more difficult," Virgilio says.
But even as building a tasting menu that explores Peru from its lowest points to its highest peaks becomes more of a challenge, Central and the Mater Initiative are growing to meet it. Last year, the Martínez siblings brought on a former journalist named Peter Law to coordinate all of their expeditions, and Malena reveals that there's a plan in motion to move the Mater Initiative to a lab in Moray, an Incan research center just northwest of Cuzco, right in the heart of the territory they wish to further explore. That project is a couple of years off, but in the meantime, Central and the Mater Initiative are focusing on sharing what they've learned through both the formal database and a blog on the initiative's website.
"Peru is immense, and now we are maybe at the middle of getting to know it all," Malena says. "We want to look for more; we always will."