"Restaurants in Peru are fueled by stories and emotions and great ingredients." — Virgilio Martínez, Central
Virgilio Martinez
Credit: Jimena Agois

For three years in a row, Virgilio Martínez's restaurant Central, located in Lima, Peru, was ranked as the top restaurant in Latin America by the World's 50 Best Restaurants organization. While last year the restaurant slipped to number two, Central continues to be the standard for modern Peruvian cooking, offering a whimsical, impeccably executed tour of the country's biodiversity. Martínez's work attracts food tourists from around the world, many of whom who book their trips with the sole aim of dining at the restaurant. This wasn't always the case.

"Even ten years ago, when I had just opened Central, we were a city where people would stop in transit to go to Cusco or Machu Picchu or get a flight to the Amazon," Martínez tells Food & Wine, noting that the first few years of running the restaurant were very difficult. "But now people are stopping in a beautiful area to eat, because we are receiving ingredients, traditions, and produce from all different parts of Peru: from the Andes and the coast and the desert and the plateau. The Lima gastronomy scene has evolved a lot."

Martínez, whose culinary ethos is inextricably linked with anthropology and biology, travels around Peru sourcing the country's native ingredients, many species of which are only used in small, isolated communities, so are largely considered unknown. (Along with wife Pia Léon, Martínez formed Central's research arm, Mater Iniciativa, which supplies the restaurant with foraged ingredients.) While the country has a huge amount of eco-diversity thanks to its rich and varied topography, Martínez can identify a unifying feature of the country's cuisine: "Peruvians cook with identity," he says. "Restaurants in Peru are fueled by stories and emotions and great ingredients."

And that is Central's main strength, when you strip away the accolades and extraordinary talent of its staff: The stories and emotions and great ingredients. One ingredient, in particular, has recently captured Martínez's attention, and that is the edible clay, or chaco, he's found used in communities in the high peaks of the Andes. He uses the chaco, often in baking, to add texture and flavor, sourced from the country's Puno region.

"In the south Andes area of Peru, we saw how people were taking these potatoes and covering them in clay and baking them," he says. Martínez has opted to use the chaco for desserts, using the ground clay to make powders and sauces. "There’s an earthiness, some mint aromas and some green tea," he says. "It's very delicate. We dry it and it looks very nice, like a very thin, gray powder. When we mix with liquids, there are no lumps, the texture is beautiful."

For one dessert, Martínez dries the chaco with stevia to make little rocks, which he serves alongside a green vegetable granita with sweet lime.

"It's a very Peruvian thing to approach the unknown," he says. "It's about meeting the unknown. It connects you to your memory. I can tell you probably have never tried clay, but if you tasted it, it would probably bring something to your memory. There is something you had before that reminds you of this."

Martínez, who owns two restaurants called Lima in London (and a Lima in Dubai), as well as the forthcoming MIL in Cusco, could talk about clay for hours; he's a zealot for nature, which, in itself, is the biggest unknown. "Every single plant has its own spirit or idea or philosophy," he says. At the restaurant, diners can experience the "idea" of plants by adding a medicinal plant infusions pairing to their meal.

Over the past five years, Martínez has delighted in the growth of Peru's culinary scene, which is certainly tied to the success of Central.

"When we opened in 2009, even Lima wasn’t really a place where things were happening," he says. "Nowadays you see things happening in Lima every week. I think of 20 years ago, when I left Peru and decided to travel. Our system was broken. The generation was hopeless about doing things in Peru. Now people are coming back to Peru and we’re getting more people from abroad. We now have people coming from different parts of the world—chefs from Korea, from Japan, from the States, from Italy—working under Peruvian systems in Peruvian kitchens. That’s pretty amazing."