Peruvian pleasures are at an all time high. The culinary scene, especially, is dazzling the world – and the person everyone is currently buzzing about is chef Virgilio Martínez Véliz.
For The World’s 50 Best Restaurants – Latin America edition, two Peru based establishments took the top spots for 2017: 1st place being awarded to Maido (inventive Nikkei cuisine by chef Mitsuharu ‘Micha’ Tsumura) and 2nd going to Veliz’s Central Restaurante, which he runs with his wife Pía León. And as determined champions of cultivating indigenous Peruvian ingredients, their newest spot, Mil, opened at the end of February 2018 to much anticipatory foodie excitement. The research lab and restaurant is nestled in the mountainous heart of the Andes and is next to Moray, an Inca archaeological site, northwest of Cusco. At 3,500 meters (11,500 ft) above sea level, he explores and showcases the bounty from high-altitude ecosystems.
But perhaps the reason we adore him most? Despite mentorship under savants of sumptuousness such as Gastón Acurio (considered one of the godfathers of modern Peruvian gastronomy) and earning his chef training in the exalted Le Cordon Bleu in Ottawa and London, the man is simply so darned humble and likable. Even with the press branding him a “rising star” among the “new wave of Peruvian chefs,” Virgilio remains focused on his craft, honoring Pachamama (Mother Nature) by understanding and respecting the unique microclimates of his country, and working alongside community members to foster camaraderie within the industry.
We caught up with him for a profound discussion on his food philosophy and his community-minded culinary initiatives.
Please explain the food philosophy and concept at Mil.
The concept of Mil is about having an experience in high altitude Andean ecosystems, about connecting to the Andes and regions near Moray. We have a huge culture and a different vision of food, so we do eight “moments” which describe different regions in the Andes, always with local production and local ingredients that we sow ourselves.
What about the atmosphere of the restaurant? How does it complement or enhance what you’re offering to diners on the plate?
The space is magic, because we have a beautiful landscape by Moray, which are Inca ruins interpreted as once being a thriving agricultural hub. For us, it is a real and direct connection to a natural source.
How you are helping with sustainability and eco-friendly initiatives?
We work with an organization called SINBA (a no-waste company) which allows us to recycle organic waste for animal feeding and fertilizers. Also, we recycle the oil used in the kitchen and paper sheets we use in printed menus; and lastly, we decided to use linens to dry hands instead of paper towels for guest toilets.
This extends to the local community?
Although fundamental, the concept of Mil is not only sustainable in terms of food, we try to broaden the understanding in social and cultural contexts as well. Sustainability means that we have a good relationship with our neighbors: the people from Kacllaraccay and Mullak’as-Misminay. These are two rural communities that surround Mil and Moray in the district of Maras, Cusco. From the outset, our bond was forged from mutually beneficial opportunities, not just for ourselves. Any decision we make is in hopes of affecting the surroundings and community in a positive way – it means exercising responsibility for geography, history, and anthropology. As well, the aforementioned communities are given work opportunities with Mil. Veteran field farmers benefit from 50% of the harvest profits. In turn, we have also received donations of 55 varieties of native potatoes, ocas, mashwas, five ecotypes of quinoa, two different fava beans and tarwi (local legume), amaranth, and fruit like sauco, capulí and aguaymanto plants; it is hoped that through our research efforts, we will help these farmers grow better quality and nutrient-dense ingredients. Superior produce means that at the market, they can command better prices. For this component of the project, we have Celfia Obregón, the director of CITE-Papa , as a vital collaborator.
Please name some local suppliers you collaborate with.
We work with Cevercería del Valle (owned and operated by Juan Mayorga), that produces beers with local ingredients; Destilería Andina (owners are Haresh Bohjwani and Joaquín Randall) that produces distillates with ingredients that are being researched by Mater Iniciativa (a biological and cultural research center behind our restaurants); Flavor Lab Cacao (by Ivan Murrugarra) that is specialized in cacao genetic typification and Peruvian native species diversification. These are a few examples of local suppliers we work with who are committed in helping us make Mil an epicenter for culinary experiences.
Moray archaeological site
How does your food showcase Peruvian fare on an international stage? And related to this: how do you define or explain what Peruvian food is to visitors – especially those that are unfamiliar and are curious?
On an international stage, we have a strong new vision of what is Peru; and in the process, we are trying to relate to food in a profound way, as our ancestors did and experienced before us. We are trying to achieve that level of consciousness. Although we are still young, I feel we’re taking a mature approach. The world is changing – and Peru along with it, so we’re constantly getting inspired and innovating.
Are there any misconceptions or myths about Peruvian cuisine that you want to dispel?
Peruvian food is complex and diverse: it could be Amazonian food, Andean food, seafood, regional to global – we have many culinary touchpoints due to our cultural influences (e.g. Chinese, Japanese, Italian, Arab, etc.). To me, the link that binds everything together is our rich biodiversity and the variety of ingredients we can work with and source from in our own backyard.
Where do you dine on your day(s) off from work?
I love to go to Isolina for Peruvian tavern food; I recommend La Mar restaurant if you want to eat incredibly fresh seafood; I also like Fiesta restaurant for traditional Peruvian cuisine.
In light of your title, Best Chef in Latin America, do you feel there are any pressures or expectations to live up to? How to you alleviate any anxieties related to this?
I don’t think about being “the best chef”. There is no pressure for me because it is not my focus – but rather it’s about leading, cooking, testing, tasting, exploring and maintaining my curiosity. I spend my time thinking about food, enjoying it, and sharing it with people.
What does the future hold for you? Where do you see your culinary initiatives in five years time?
Central will be relocated to the Barranco neighborhood. Also, my wife, Pia León, is planning on opening her restaurant named Kjolle. And lastly, we will continue to work on developing Mil with the interpretative research centre and restaurant components.