By CJ Juntereal
Chef Virgilio Martinez’s restaurant, Central (in Peru), is number one on the list of Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants Awards for the third year in a row and is number four in the San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants Awards. But in the Philippines he doesn’t hold rock star celebrity chef status like Gordon Ramsay, or Jaime Oliver, or even Alain Ducasse. Still, when he launched his book, Central (published by Phaidon), at Shangri-la at the Fort, there was a small crowd of chefs, culinary students, writers, and food enthusiasts who gathered to hear him speak.
Martinez is a chef’s chef, someone whose journey and ideas are an inspiration to chefs who are struggling to find their own voices and cuisines. He took a roundabout way to becoming a chef, and at one point, he admits, he wasn’t even proud of Peruvian food, saying that he was a Peruvian guy cooking French food. Martinez worked in Lutece, and then restaurants in London, Asia, and Madrid, taking a year off in between to travel around Peru, before opening Central in Lima. He says that in the beginning his food was confused, because he was mixing European ingredients and Asian flavors as he tried to find his own way of cooking Peruvian food. It was when he had to close his restaurant for five months that he had a chance to think about what he really wanted. Eventually, he says in the introduction to his book, he decided to base Central’s dishes on altitude, with ingredients found together in the same regions. It was, he said during the book launch, because Peruvians don’t see their world in a horizontal way. They see it vertically, with ups and downs, because of Peru’s uneven topography. The varying altitudes throughout the country are the primary source of its biodiversity.
In the book’s introduction, Martinez also says that in Central they cook ecosystems. The plate communicates what is experienced in nature, and he makes sure that not only do the ingredients harmonize with each other, but that they are all from the same region. In an email interview with the chef, he said he wants diners to understand that Central’s food and approach are different. “We are 100 percent Peruvian and we work with our people, embracing our culture. But we are also looking for the unknown Peru. Peru’s huge biodiversity makes us work differently—we are more focused on natural ecosystems and using our diversity as a motivation for change.”
It isn’t easy to do. Martinez and his team have gone through great lengths to make sure that all the ingredients and products that they use are found naturally within Peru’s environment. Much of the media attention surrounding Martinez and Central in fact revolves around his many forays around Peru and the Andean system, to find ingredients in their native habitat and to learn their uses from the people in the communities he visits. He discovered that with so little formal information available, he would have to travel to find the ingredients; so Martinez and his sister also put up Mater Iniciativa. “Our Mater Iniciativa organization is how we manage knowledge about Peruvian ingredients from different parts of Peru. It is also the research arm of Central, developing cultural ancestral knowledge, social connections, and exploring the natural environment,” he explained.
Things are very different now from when he first started out, and Martinez’s experiences have changed his attitude toward food and cooking. He is happier now, and more committed to his path. “Times are changing quickly, and we’re changing, too. My experiences have changed me. I feel more committed to the restaurant, my surroundings, and my family. I’m enjoying a bit more the whole experience of being a cook. The connection I have with food, farmers, producers, territory, and my people is becoming deeper and more meaningful. I really see this as defining my cuisine.”
When I asked if someone from the Philippines, half a world away from Peru, would be able to cook recipes from his book (which is based on the recipes from his restaurant), he replied, “That’s tricky, because our ingredients and recipes are from specific areas in different seasons and stages. What’s most important about the book is to go beyond the recipes and cook the ideas.” Before I read the book, I had no idea what he meant.
Reading through Central, is like hearing Martinez’s voice in your head. As in his restaurant, the book is divided into altitudes. Each recipe comes with an introduction, more like a story, because Martinez describes the environment in which he found the ingredients and the ways he chose to use them in such a way that you can picture it in your head. And when you turn to look at a photo of the dish, it looks just like that image in your head—except that it is edible. Reading through Central gives you an idea of Martinez’s thought processes, a glimpse of the hugely diverse ecosystem and landscape that is Peru, and a sampling of the hundreds of unknown (to us) ingredients that are waiting to be used. The landscape photos show you Peru, and the food photos leave you with a burning curiosity to taste.
The Peruvian food that I know is simple—and feels familiar to me as a Filipino—ceviches, anticuchos (skewered, marinated grilled meats), pollo a la Brasa, lomo saltado (a stir-fried beef dish with potatoes and spices that reminds you in essence of bistek Tagalog), chicharrones. But these are not the recipes you will find in his book. In a Wall Street Journal article, Martinez once described Peruvian food as more than just ceviche at the beach. I asked him about it and he said, “Biodiversity is key. The sea, the coast, our mountains, and Amazonia—there is much more than just Lima food. That’s a very small piece of who we are.”
He sees that same potential in the Philippines, having previously been here to speak at Madrid Fusion 2016. “I had great market visits and saw fantastic culture and potential products. My goal is to share our work with the Philippines and I hope they like it. The world is so connected and we need to learn from each other.” Martinez noticed similarities in some of our local ingredients, and said that our local calamansi is similar to all the flavors of the Peruvian leche de tigre compressed into one tiny fruit. Leche de Tigre or tiger’s milk is the citrus-based marinade for ceviche.
As someone who has given a new voice to Peruvian food, and been instrumental in showing it to the world in a new light, Martinez had this piece of advice for Filipino chefs who are struggling to find their identity: “You have to play your game. As a chef this means transmission and communication of your culture. If you take that seriously, great things will happen. It can take time, and sometimes is confusing. But, I would say sometimes we have to take risks and think beyond the restaurant. Think of the restaurant as a platform and your message will be understood and enjoyed, bringing great things to your community.” Never forget, he said, that you are Filipino.
I will never be able to cook from Central’s recipes. But it is another one of those cookbooks that I love to own because it is more than just recipes. By writing this book, Martinez shows us how we can use all of our local, indigenous ingredients and creativity to make a better cuisine. He reminds us to take pride in what our countryside can produce and to seek out new or forgotten ingredients. Cuisine, he tells us, is a strong weapon to change things. Central is a cookbook that should get us up off our backsides to start exploring our countryside (okay, maybe not me, but there are hundreds of chefs and culinary students out there who could do just that). It’s a cookbook that culinary schools may find useful to have in their libraries—not for students to imitate the plating and recipes, but to arouse their curiosity about local ingredients and dishes from their hometowns and provinces, and to motivate them to gather long forgotten food memories from their elders. In other words, cook the ideas.
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Signed copies of Central by Chef Virgilio Martinez (Phaidon, 2016) are available through www.thekitchenbookstore.com at P2,695 per book.