What Top Peruvian Chef Virgilio Martinez Has Learned About Surviving the Pandemic
The Covid-19 pandemic has brought many industries to its knees, and one of the hardest hit is the restaurant industry. Not even the greats are spared. “We made our decision to stop the direction of Lima London, Dubai, and Hong Kong,” shares Virgilio Martinez, the chef-owner of restaurant Central in Peru, which is ranked six in the World’s 50 Best list.
“We need to focus on our growth in Central, Mil and Kjolle,” he adds, noting that there are ways to look at the problems positively, that the “end” is where many often start from. He also reveals that, “there are upcoming concepts in Tokyo and Moscow under our Mater Iniciativa research group”.
After a four-month-long lockdown, which started in July, Martinez’s three restaurants in Peru and his casual concept outfit Mayo re-opened following the government’s “40 per cent capacity model”. Even so, capacity during the first two weeks was about 20 per cent, which he puts down as locals still fearing the spread of the virus. “But now, we can fill up to 40 per cent of the seats for Central.” He points out that Mayo, being more accessible, is like a gateway “because we needed to reconnect with the locals”.
Martinez recounts the impact of the virus on the local communities. “The Covid-19 crisis was terrible. We Peruvians have gone through tough times like the civil war and (endured) terrorism, but never have we experienced such a crisis,” he shares. “No one has a way to understand what the right thing to do is. The social impact is huge. Lack of values, egoism, loss of economies brought us more crisis; and no one could assure our wellbeing for the near future,” he continues.
But Martinez is not one to despair or be deterred. “During the lockdown, I focused on keeping the team together,” he explains. The other top concern was the mental and physical health of the team. Then there were dreams that he had set a few years ago, such as research projects in the mountains, a significantly large project in the Amazon, and the opening of restaurants abroad. And it was only until recently that groups for research and exploration with his Mater Iniciativa research centre were established. But these were put on hold because of the pandemic. “No matter what, we will try to keep the dreams,” he asserts, explaining that they would continue to review and new ways of achieving them.
To be sure, he has also gained a new perspective on life. His goal is no longer centred around “growing the dreams with the team,” instead, he has grown closer to his family, in particular his son. “I spent more time with my family, and when schools were closed, I taught my son. Family has become my strength now, more than ever,” he declares.
The family he cares for extends beyond his blood relatives, and they include the producers, farmers and fishermen from all over the country who have supported the company’s dreams. While communicating with the producers online, Martinez recognised how difficult the situation was for them as well. “Lima is a big city, we can (eventually) get back to work and take care of ourselves,” he explains. “But we need to think about the others, not just our workers and families; people living in the mountains of the Andes, or in the jungles in the Amazon.” He points out how ethnic groups have been suffering for many years, “abandoned and forgotten”, and that “the pandemic is hurting [them] more”.
Martinez has been supporting the Andean community for nearly 10 years. With Peru’s abundant bounty that stretches from the ocean to the Andean mountains, Martinez’s restaurant Central (in Lima) has been serving dishes that reflect the varying scenery and altitudes in the ingredients they champion. This is made possible by the ongoing research Martinez and his R&D team do.
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It is also the reason why he and his team were determined to open restaurant Mil next to Mater Iniciativa in Cusco, in the Sacred Valley, which is 3,500 metres above sea level. Here they could work and protect the area’s rich agricultural land, making sure the produce are in good shape.
Martinez has also been working with the International Potato Centre in Peru, as well as local farmers and breeders in the Andes for the last three years. This year, they harvested 224 new varieties of root vegetables, which he says have better flavour. A small number is being kept at the seed banks, but the rest of the harvest has been shared with 300 families living in Andes who are in serious need of food.
The team, with the help of local farmers, planted new seeds in October; the crop included “10 species of corn, 90 varieties of potatoes, 10 different root vegetables, two types of quinoa, and three kinds of kiwicha (a type of quinoa with rich nutritional content)”.
Martinez says: “During this period, I’m choosing to focus on agriculture rather than gastronomy.” And it has allowed him time to reflect on what matters most. “I hope we will not go through this crisis again, but sometimes I feel a sense of gratitude—to have time to check on things that I had no time for before. I also get to know more about myself, to know the mistakes and things that I should be better at.”
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Martinez admits that the work he is doing with the indigenous communities has given him and the team a better sense of what it means to be back, “to do the right thing, to see deeper values beyond gastronomy”. He is also becoming more aware about how we are hurting Mother Nature, and acknowledges that there is a need to design better systems to help humans co-exist with nature.
He is aware that these are difficult and uncomfortable decisions, as they may not be profitable initiatives. “But we would change for better—the benefits will come later,” he believes.
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Martinez intimates that the pandemic will change our interpretation of the meaning of luxury. “Rather than the luxury of brands, expensive tools and huge teams, humble ingredients and the dedication to details related to sustainability and connecting with more people would be the key.
“Beautiful interpretation of realities through food, with respect to nature are necessary for us to maintain our hopes, creativity and well-being, expansion of our awareness,” he adds.
As one of the key people to introduce indigenous Peruvian ingredients to the international fine dining scene, Martinez speaks from the heart: “Being sustainable has to be a way to thank and live, not just a concept, nor a trend to take advantage of... (it is a) responsibility and has to be part of the way we act, think and live”.