By Stacey Leasca
Updated: May 09, 2019
Robin Marchant/Getty Images for NYCWFF; Getty Images/AWL Images RM

Think you’re a badass for trying to sneak a 3-oz bottle of shampoo past airport security? That’s nothing compared to what one chef from Peru just attempted to get through LAX.

Chef Virgilio Martinez, owner of Central restaurant in Peru and featured chef in the third season of Netflix’s “Chef’s Table,” landed in Los Angeles earlier this week. The chef was in town to take part in the Los Angeles Times’ month-long food festival known as the Food Bowl. For the event, Martinez decided to bring along a local delicacy in is checked luggage: 40 frozen piranhas.

“I was extremely obsessed about bringing piranhas because we serve piranhas in the Amazon at Central, so I said, ‘Guys, why not take a risk to bring piranhas to L.A.?’” Martinez told the Los Angeles Times. “You probably have preconceived notions about piranhas because of movies but for me, piranhas, we go fish them.”

According to Martinez, he was caught while going through customs. When officers opened his bag they asked, “what’s inside?” Martinez says he simply replied, “Bones.”

Thanks to that answer he ended up in an interrogation room, where he was asked again why he’d attempt to bring the rather toothy fish into the country.

“I'm doing a special dinner with a friend who I really respect and I’m going to do a dish I really enjoy doing,” Martinez explained to officials, according to the Los Angeles Times.

After a five-hour interrogation, Martinez was ultimately let go.

“I told him that it was from my heart and showed him a few photos,” Martinez said. “I took my book and said, ‘Look, this is what I want to do with the piranhas.’ And he finally said, ‘Oh, wow, go ahead.’”

According to the Customs and Border Protection, “All travelers entering the United States are REQUIRED to DECLARE meats, fruits, vegetables, plants, seeds, soil, animals, as well as plant and animal products (including soup or soup products) they may be carrying.” The declaration must cover all items carried in both checked baggage, carry-on luggage, or in a vehicle.

Prohibited items that are not declared are confiscated and disposed of by agriculture specialists with customs, which is likely what happened to Martinez’s piranhas. However, more importantly, Martinez could have faced a civil penalty of $1,000 for failure to declare prohibited agricultural products. Luckily for him, he got away with it to cook the odd-looking but delicious fish another day.  

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