A conversation with Virgilio Martinez

Words by Nicholas Gill

Illustration by Federico Taddeucci

Photos by Jean-Pierre Gabriel for Cook_inc. 23

The world has changed. While it’s still too early to say the exact economic impact of Covid-19 will have in Latin America, it is unlikely anything will return to the way it once was anytime soon.

Peru acted aggressive early. A shelter in place policy was enacted so suddenly that many were caught off guard. We had to personally help a notable Texas BBQ writer and his family find a flight out of the country. Lima’s Plaza de Toros, the oldest bullring in the Americas, has been turned into a shelter to protect the homeless from the virus. Hopefully, some of the damage from the virus will be mitigated because of these efforts.

The culinary community will undoubtedly take a hit. Aside of the immediate impact of being closed for several months, restaurants in places like Lima and Cusco, not to mention the small producers that make them possible, that rely considerably on tourism revenue will need to find ways to survive. Collectively, Peru’s food community will need to find a way to work together, like they have over the past three decades, but there are no easy answers right now. I reached out to my friend and collaborator Virgilio Martínez what he thought.

“Every single day there is a new scenario,” he says. “Whatever we plan in one day after two days we think something different.” Each time I’ve spoken to him he has been in good spirits and surprisingly positive, despite the situation. In the immediate, he is supporting his more than 100 employees at Central and his other three restaurants in Peru and not letting anyone go. Much of the produce grown in the Andes at the restaurant Mil will go towards the farmers and their families. When reopening does occur, the immediate focus will be on the more casual spaces Mayo and Kjolle.

Martínez says that this kind of fear and uncertain territory is challenging, but it can also be an opportunity. Peruvian cuisine has the chance to show another version of itself, beyond fine dining and ceviche. To explore the picanterías, traditional restaurants, in Arequipa and throughout the Andes. To do more research the food of the north coast and its unique climate and singular set of influences. To show more of the ingredients, but not in a context of being exotic.

It’s not the end of fine dining, he tells me, but it’s another way to understand at it. It’s an opportunity to connect people. He hopes people will be more thoughtful about where their food is coming from, about seasonality, about what is good. It still has a role to play, but fine dining can’t be as hollow as it has been in recent years. “It has to have a meaning now. A story to tell,” he says. “Not just a luxury you can buy. Innovation will come from the outside, not just in the kitchen, but from understanding our reality.”

He realizes he was probably focused on things that didn’t have much meaning for him or his restaurants. There was too much time on airplanes and not enough time in Peru. Sooner or later, there are bigger questions that will need to be answered. We are disconnected from where our food comes from and this pandemic has revealed just how inefficient that is. Not just for the consumer, but also for producers and for restaurants. We need to reshape our priorities, gradually, as the world recovers. For today, his objectives are clear. “Now, we have just one thing, the main thing,” he says. “To sustain Central, Kjolle, Mayo and Mil.”


Tuesday 5 May at 19.30 (Italian time) Vírgilio Martinez and Pia Léon will tell their experience in live streaming at the Sangue Na Guerla Symposium Delivery moderated by Anna Morelli.