Chef Virgilio Martínez of award-winning Central in Lima goes back to the source with today’s debut of Mil, his restaurant and lab dedicated to the ingredients and people of Moray in the Peruvian Andes.
Standing 3,5000 meters above sea level and staring down into the terraces of Moray, the ancient Incan ruins of Peru, chef Virgilio Martínez suddenly felt confused. This was 10 years ago, right after he opened Central in Lima and was producing “colorful food with global ingredients very much like other Lima restaurants,” he says. The Andes were already a source for most of Central’s ingredients, but he wanted to go to the site, since he never had the chance to as a young cook traveling the world, from Lutèce in New York City to Astrid Y Gastón in Madrid and Bogotá, nor as a skateboard kid coming of age in Lima. Though he originally meant to stay only in Cusco, meeting with potato and quinoa farmers led him to the green valleys of Moray.
Questions percolated—and bubbled over. He saw the same tubers he received in January also flourishing in August. “Why are we thinking about seasonality over altitude?” “Why aren’t we working in this way anymore?” “Where did it all go bad?”
“You get all the answers on the terraces,” says Martínez to me over the phone. “You get all the answers on the food, how it’s healing you and feeding your soul.”
Here, he ran into 45 different types of potatoes, caviar-shaped vegetables, lake algae and the people who tended to them. “It was a new world for me,” he says. “I decided to go back to Lima, but Moray was always on my mind.”
That inaugural visit transformed Central into what it is today: A groundbreaking restaurant that focuses on elevation rather than seasons and now consistently sits on the World’s 50 Best List. But Moray haunted him, leading him to three attempts at opening a restaurant in Cusco without success—until now.
Today marks opening day for Mil, Martínez’s long-awaited return to the village that’s confused, challenged and inspired him the most. Spanish for 1,000, the project is part restaurant, part lab, where he and his team will research and catalog native Andean ingredients through Mater Inciativa. This interdisciplinary group of anthropologists, biologists, nanotechnologists and more is focused on finding ingredients unique to Peru, and Mil will serve as a second operating branch for the group. So far, they have archived 55 potato varieties, 15 types of quinoa, more than 20 strains of corn and eight versions of Chuncho cacao, native to Peru. In the future, students from the National University of Saint Anthony the Abbot in Cusco will help gather more data. “This is only a starting point, says Malena Martínez, sister of Virgilio and leader of Mater Inciativa. “We have a long way to go.”
Martínez says they could stuff a hundred people into the restaurant, but he’s just limiting it to 20. “I want to make sure it’s good quality, no mistakes,” he says. You see that careful attention to detail in the tasting menu, where ancient Incan cooking techniques are deployed instead of tweezers, and simplicity is favored over flash. Take the tarwi ceviche. Tarwi, a local bean known as lupinus mutabilis, is served with passionfruit, avocados and marinated cuy, or guinea pig. Or the huatia dulce, the dessert course where root vegetables and tubers are cooked inside huatia, a stone oven, and dipped into honey or another sweet accompaniment. “We take people outside to grab this course from the hot ovens,” says Martínez. “It’s quite cool because you’ll be able to see the beautiful landscapes here.” So as tempting as it is to say ingredients are the star of Mil, it’s really Moray and its people.
Mil has been so long delayed—it was supposed to open a year ago—due to its commitment to the locals. When there was an irrigation problem in the region, nanotechnologist and Mater Inciativa member Marino Morikawa devised a water recycling system not only to supply their restaurant but also the 300 families in Moray who they have slowly befriended over the years.
“We don’t only get excited about all these ingredients, but getting to know each other,” Martínez says. “We’re aware that we’re losing our fields as well as our traditions. We have to defend our natural ecosystem.”
This is one of many projects for the chef—he’s moving Central this spring to a new location and supporting his wife Pia Leon as she opens her own restaurant, Kjolle. But his mind always wanders back to Moray.
“Before I used to explore the world to see different kitchens, experience different cultures and meet different chefs,” he says. “It’s funny now because I’m doing the same thing but in my own territory.”