Rising star chef Virgilio Martinez guides Vogue Living contributing editor David Prior through Lima’s bustling Mercado de Surquillo farmers’ market, and experiments with turning airampo, an obscure prickly purple pear, into a homemade salt. Featuring 4,000 varieties of potato, unusual animal breeds and hundreds of fruits and vegetables from both the Amazon and Andes, Mercado de Surquillo captures the extraordinary biodiversity that is the basis of Peru’s gastronomic renaissance.
34-year-old ex-pro skateboarder, has cooked in Santi Santamaria's acclaimed Catalan kitchen at El Raco de Can Fabe and was head chef at Gastón Acurio’s lauded Astrid Y Gastón in Madrid; he now runs Lima’s latest gastronomic hotspot Central Restaurante, where he employs 37 cooks. “I didn’t want to come back from Europe and cook classic Peruvian dishes,” explains Martinez. “I wanted to use our undervalued ingredients and try to help them realize their potential.” Martinez takes an intellectual approach to food and has established a study in the middle of the restaurant's dining room where he often sits poring over reference books among hundreds of salt, herb and cacao samples. The chef, who plans to open a gastrobar called Lima in London this May, reveals his favorite cookbooks and obsession with salt.
Where do you take inspiration?
Somewhere out of the kitchen, and that is usually way up in the Andes or deep in the jungle which are both only an hour’s flight away. It sounds very romantic, but when I return to the restaurant with new products I bring new ideas and the stories of the people I meet into the kitchen and try to translate what I experienced onto the plate.
Central Restaurante has a study in the middle of the dining room. Can you tell us a little about that?
When I returned to Peru after 15 years I had collected hundreds of reference books and other things that inspired me. Then when I started to travel around the country I was surprised by the diversity, quality and curiosity of the ingredients, so I needed a place to study and experiment with all the little pieces or samples I had found.
Can you recommend any life-changing food books?
White Heat by Marco Pierre White; The Lutece Cookbook by Andre Soltner; Las Primeras Palabras de la Cocina, published by Mugartiz; On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee; and, El Restaurant by Santi Santamaria.
You seem to have an obsession with different kinds of salt and chocolate.
One of my first 'high-end' experiences with food after leaving Peru was a piece of French bread with dark chocolate and sea salt created by the Roux brothers. It stayed with me. When I returned home the first products that really caught my attention were salt from the Andes or from the coast, and great quality organic cacao, which were always there but never valued. I decided to experiment with those products first and they have remained a 'central' part of our work at Central.
How many different kinds of salt do you have?
Check out our Facebook page for Virgilio Martinez's recipe for airampo salt here.