Foraging In the Andes: Redefining Peruvian Cuisine with Central’s Virgilio Martinez

Virgilio Martinez does not limit his craftsmanship to the kitchen. After opening his restaurant Central in Lima, the Peruvian chef was driven to modify his style of cuisine after critics compared Central to restaurants in New York City and London. While visiting family in the the Andes Mountains, Martinez fell in love with Incan agriculture and the vibrancy of the natives. By exploring and hunting for ingredients among the varying altitudes of the Andes, Martinez began creating authentic Peruvian dishes unlike anything seen before.

As a teenager, Martinez discovered that cooking would allow him to travel the world. Once he started working in the kitchen, he was immediately captivated. To Martinez, it felt like an art form which ultimately swayed his decision to solely devote his career to the kitchen. Martinez notes, “I was able to use my hands, my emotion. So it happened immediately. The first time I stepped into a kitchen I realized that this would be my thing, my passion.”

Although Martinez has spent time cooking in restaurants around the world, he says he owes his top-quality, Peruvian-style cooking to practicing under the wing of Gastón Acurio.

“I have so much gratitude to Gaston,” says Martinez. “I was coming from working in different cities in the world, so my vision and my professional preparation wasn’t so much Peruvian.”

Acurio ultimately influenced Martinez to stay true to his culture and to take Peruvian cuisine to new levels that no one imagined the dishes could reach. “He put me to work in Peruvian ideas, production, techniques and that helped me to understand what we have here in Peru.” 

Although the spotlight tends to shine on Martinez’s creations, the chef does not run his kitchen solo. With his wife Pia León, the couple transformed Central into an experience that culinary connoisseurs dream to try. Working alongside one another benefits Martinez’s craft. “Something that most of the chefs complain [about], it’s that we don’t have enough time for doing things out of [the] kitchen. When you go into your kitchen, you focus so much you can lose connection with your friends and family,” says Martinez who explains that having his wife by his side allows the chef to cook with comfort. “I’m so pleased and happy, because I have the chance to see my wife every single day and any time. And [it] is something amazing because we share our passion and grow together as a couple and also in a professional way.”

Central’s growth recently landed it on the World’s Best Restaurant list at the number five spot, recognizing Martinez’s success in sustaining Peruvian culture through his dishes. The chef’s most popularly referred to dish from this World’s Best hotspot is potatoes in edible clay, which singlehandedly showcases Martinez’s mastery of incorporating newly-discovered ingredients into Peruvian recipes; a balance between tradition and individuality.

This balance reflects Martinez’s niche in the culinary industry, a journey marked by creativity and one that he says must constantly be re-invented. “The routine, I think is our enemy, that’s why [we] to try to keep in constant change. The way we think, we work, the way we proceed with things,” says Martinez on Central’s growth since opening ten years ago. “I could say that last year was different than this year, and the next year will be also more different [than] what we’re doing now. And this is a big challenge, and it’s great to overcome the routine.”

This mindset, paired with Martinez’s guidance, allows the team at Central to aspire to achieve new goals. No matter how rooted Martinez’s heart is in Peru and the ingredients of the Andes, the chef encourages his team to expand their influence, looking to continue to share the brand’s philosophy behind Central, as well as the culinary personality that Martinez represents.

“We try to not get stressed about opening restaurants abroad, and this is something we try to keep as creative and fun. And we actually have fun, because we open those restaurants, with chefs that used to work with us in Central,” explains Martinez on his influence beyond Peruvian borders. The desire for expansion stems from the chef’s passion for sharing the philosophy of Central, all while keeping the Central namesake rooted in Peru, assuring that there will never be another Central, only Central-inspired hotspots. These expansions include Senzo in Cuzco, two restaurants called Lima in London, and another Lima in Dubai.

“We see this as an expansion of what is the philosophy of Central. Of course we will never open another Central…but we don’t have any trouble to open more places in anywhere in the world.”

Martinez’s cooking is more than just a part of his everyday routine. He notes his most personal accomplishments as, “Having a great team in Central, becoming a father or working with Pia, my wife, and [seeing] her as the head chef of Central–for me it’s something I’m really proud of.”

Martinez’s unconditional dedication to his craft is expressed through Central’s menu, and is what continues to drive restaurant-goers desire to experience the rare creations of this culinary symbol of Peru.

Photography by César del Rio, Jimena Agois, Daniel Silva and Gustavo Vivanco

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