Chef's Table (2015–…): Season 3, Episode 6 - Virgilio Martinez - full transcript

Magnificently creative and a true visionary, Peruvian chef takes us on a trip through Peru to help us understand his ideas, inspiration and his history as a chef.

[Virgilio] In Peru,
we always have this sense of the unknown.

An unknown territory.

The unknown Amazonia.

There is lots of things
just waiting for us to discover.

Discovering these new things
that people have never seen before...

that's my obsession.

-[in Spanish] I won't die, right?
-[Malena laughs]

You'll probably clean out your parasites
for your whole life.

-What? It's edible, right?

You have to take it seriously.

I told you. Only five drops,
or it will make you purge.

You've been warned.

[opening theme playing]

[Gastón Acurio] A few years ago,
I went to Virgilio's restaurant in Lima.

I was with my friend.

He was a hugely traditional
Peruvian friend...

and he was passing his dishes

because he was expecting
traditional Peruvian cuisine,

like a suckling pig or a...

or a goat, a roasted goat...

waiting for that moment
that never happened.

And he was like,
"This is a terrible restaurant."

But it was my fault not explaining to him
that he wasn't going just to eat.

He was going to experience
something new.

Honestly, I don't know
what you would call what Virgilio does.

I mean, there's not...

To say it's avant-garde or something
is to kind of put a label on it.

It's not something you can pin down.

So the best way to understand
what Virgilio's doing

is to understand what exactly is Peru.

It's one of the most biodiverse places
in the world.

You have the Pacific, one of the most
abundant fishing grounds on Earth.

You have the coast,
which is entirely desert.

Then you have the Andes,

some of the highest mountains in the world
outside of the Himalayas.

And then the Amazon.

Every region is completely different.

What Virgilio's doing
is he goes into these remote places.

He's seeing all of these ingredients
that were within that ecosystem,

and he figures out a way
to put them on the plate together.

And that dish becomes a painting
of that landscape.

Through these plates,
you get the sensation

of being there, in that part of Peru.

Virgilio's a dreamer.

He's dreaming of a potential
of what Peruvian food can be.

[Virgilio in Spanish] Hello, hello.
Good morning. How is everybody?

[indistinct chatter]

-Hi, Pia.

-How are you?
-I'm good.

-Everything's okay?
-Yes, yes.

[Pia and Virgilio speaking Spanish]

[indistinct chatter]

[Virgilio in English]
From the bottom of the sea

to the top of the mountains,

in Peru, we have many, many, many
different levels and altitudes.

So, at Central, we want to show you Peru
in a vertical way.

You are here in the restaurant,
and you're eating a dish

that comes from 4,000 meters
above sea level

and you're experiencing the Andes.

And then you're gonna go down
to the sea...

going up to the valleys...

and then you're gonna cross
to the Amazonia.

You are going to 17 ecosystems
in one experience.

At one point, you can be, like,
a bit dizzy, yeah? [chuckles]

But that's very important.

Just not to see the ingredients.
Just not to see the landscape.

Just not to see one region of Peru.

For us to understand Peru...
we have to see the whole thing.

[indistinct chatter]

[Malena in Spanish] We need the coffee?
[Virgilio] Yeah.

-[Malena] The berries?
-Yes. Let's look at everything.

I'll put them here.

[Virgilio] Thanks.

[Malena] Did you pull out the snail?

No, but I'm going to. [stammers]

But that's sad.

He's hiding.

Ah, no, no!
Leave him in there.

[Malena in English] Virgilio has always
been very curious about everything.

We are brother and sister,
and he's only one year older than me.

So we were really close
when we were kids.

Virgilio was very hyperactive,

so he really struggled
with following rules and being structured.

He... he really struggled with that.

[Nicholas] Just knowing Virgilio,
and just imagining him

sitting in a classroom all day,
that's... that's not him.

Virgilio is that adventurous soul
and explorer.

But when he was younger,
exploring wasn't a part of his life.

Peru at that time was dangerous.

There was war.

It was unstable.

Every region of Peru

was completely closed off from each other
for... for years.

It was a fractured society.

[Virgilio] When I was a kid,

every single region of Peru
was a tiny bubble.

And I was living in this bubble of Lima.

We had no idea about the Andes.
We had no idea about the Amazonia.

I was actually forbidden to go there.

Because of the terrorism,
the economic situations,

there was a lack of hope.

And I felt trapped.

So I was always thinking
about going to some other places...

like Europe...

America, Asia...

And I wanted to visit
every single place in the world.

That was my dream.

A few years ago,
I went swimming in Marcona,

which is in the south of Peru.

It was a beautiful scene.

I was able to see

all these little crabs walking on a rock.

We saw the whole ecosystem of this rock.

If these ingredients are sharing, uh,

same soil, same environment,
same ecosystem...

I thought that if we put them together
back in our kitchen, it could work.

[Nicholas] Virgilio's first dish
on the menu,

it's called Spiders on a Rock.

Virgilio's cooking an ecosystem.

There's an entire ecosystem
living on this rock.

The crab, the limpet, the algae...

You put these things together,

these things that are living together
on the rock,

and there's something in the DNA
of these ingredients that, naturally,

the flavors go together.

At Central, every dish on the menu
is one ecosystem...

giving you that sensation of being there
in that... in that moment.

[Virgilio] At the age of 18, my friends
were going to university in Lima

to be a lawyer, an engineer,
or an architect.

But I wanted to experience
something different.

For me, I felt like Peru
had nothing to offer.

I knew that I had to travel,
and through a friend,

I learned that I could travel
by working in kitchens, cooking.

Because you don't have to speak
the language,

you can stay in the kitchen
peeling potatoes and washing dishes.

So, I left Peru.

The first time I stepped in a kitchen,
it was an amazing experience.

I saw the kitchen,
and I got this huge energy.

The noises...

the people...

working with my hands, my mind...

Whatever was happening there,
it was really something new.

I realized that this is my habitat.
This is my people.

This is the place
where I really want to be.

At the beginning, my goal was to travel.

An excuse was working in kitchens.

From an excuse,
it turned to be my passion.

[in Spanish] Look, Andrés.
This one is no good. See?

These two are attached,
so they're not useful for us.

You can throw them back.

But look, this one is perfect.

It's green, crystalline
and perfectly round.

Malena, how many do you have?

A few.

[Virgilio speaking Spanish]

[Nicholas] Up on the mountain,
in the Andes,

these little balls of green sunlight
float on the surface of these lakes.

Little spheres of green algae.

It's almost like a caviar,
but it's bacteria.

No one uses that
in a fine dining restaurant.

But Virgilio does.

[Malena in Spanish] Is this the hoje tree?
[man] Yes, its resin is medicinal.

-Can you eat it?
-It will take you to your grave.

[Nicholas] Virgilio finds these things,
like a tree bark with a resin in it.

It's not even an ingredient.

One village might use that thing
for headaches,

or to clear the kidneys.

Different medicinal uses.

When indigenous communities see that
he's collecting these things to cook with,

they don't understand it.

[Malena in Spanish] Is the root consumed?
[man] Hmm... No.

-No. It's used for a tambo, a house.
-[Malena] Ah, yeah.

-Where you live and sleep.
-[Malena] Okay.

Virgilio's cuisine is not
always about cooking food that is tasty.

Sometimes there are dishes
that are uncomfortable.

But Virgilio feels it's important

that you have a taste
of all of these ingredients

to understand
these different regions of Peru.

[Malena in Spanish] Over here.
We found some of those really thorny ones.

We'll have to figure out how to identify
these because we also saw them in Ancash.

I'll take these down.

[Virgilio] Andrés, what have you found?

Look for some of the white ones...

because we haven't used those before.

[Virgilio in English] At Central, we have
a truly unique approach to our menu.

We use 180 ingredients,
and probably 50% of them are unknown.

So, to achieve something
that is really changing the rules,

you need a team.

[Malena in Spanish]
They call this one "chilca,"

which is odd,
because chilca is also the name

used for other plants
which are totally different.

So it's going to be difficult
to identify it.

Quechua is not written,
so you have to sense how to write it.

[Virgilio] The way we hear it?

Exactly, which at least helps us
to register it.

[Nicholas] Malena has
a science background.

She brings this entire scientific method
to all the ingredients of Peru

that no kitchen elsewhere in Peru
really has.

We are focused on bringing stuff
from different parts of Peru

and doing identification of species.

We are the research arm of Central.

[Virgilio in Spanish]
This is the one they call "anise"?

[Malena] Yes. And it actually grows
in different regions.

[Virgilio] Different altitudes?
[Malena] Yes.

I actually have some here to compare.

You can see that it's super different
at different altitudes.

[Virgilio] That's the same plant?

[Malena] Yes, it's the same species,
but from a different place.

[in English] This would be,
like, the first filter.

So the stuff that we see have potential,

we then bring to experiment
in the kitchen of Central.

[Virgilio in Spanish] This should go
straight to Central

so we can cook it right away.

The rest, keep here to study.

[indistinct chatter]

Okay, Pia, we can do it here.
This is sangre de grado.

[in English] Natural dye, yeah?
It's red.

[in Spanish] It comes from this tree bark.

It has an incredible color, right?

[Pia in English]
Once a product arrives to Central,

we try a lot of techniques.

All the team can participate in this.

We try, try, try. Virgilio tries...

uh, and finally, we decide...

what we can do
and to put in the menu.

[in Spanish] I'll say it again.
Two chickens, two mountains,

a small octopus, a pumpkin dish.

-How is table seven?
-[man] It's not ready yet.

-Give me four octopuses.
-[all agreeing in Spanish]

[Pia] I can't hear you.
[all] Got it!

[Pia] Thank you.

[Nicholas] Pia is Virgilio's wife.
She's in control of the kitchen.

And she's the structured one.

She's the one that puts
everything into action.

-[in Spanish] I'm here. What?

-What's missing?

[Nicholas] Central isn't just Virgilio.
It's very much a collaborative effort.

He needs people around him
to complement what's he doing.

He has Malena and Pia to kind of
bring structure into the restaurant

so he can be a dreamer and explore.

[Virgilio] Pia is in the kitchen with me.

Malena's working with me
in the Amazonia or the Andes.

As a family, we work very well.
They understand me.

And without Malena, without Pia,
I think there's no Central.

[Virgilio] I don't know if I like it.

[in Spanish] I like it
because of the colors,

but the flavor not so much.

[speaking Spanish]

[Virgilio in English]
When I was working abroad,

in those days, I was told that
if you wanted to be a chef,

you had to work in well-known restaurants
doing classic cuisines,

from French to Italian to Japanese.

So, for six years, that's what I did.

Then one day,
I went back to visit family in Lima.

I start to notice
all these beautiful Peruvian ingredients

everywhere in the markets.

Quinoas, Peruvian potatoes,

maca roots, pacays...
all these ingredients...

And I was thinking,
"Now, I have to go back to my work

and peel the same potatoes,
peel the same fruits.

Do the same stuff all over and over."

In the kitchen where I was working,

there was no way to use
these "weird" ingredients.

And I really wanted to work with them.

I realized
that I spent six years as a foreigner

doing cuisines that did not belong to me,

and I had no idea about Peruvian cuisine.

For me, it was a call for...
for a wakeup.

-[Virgilio in Spanish] Can I try that?
-[man] Of course. Come in.

-But you have to sing.
-Hand over your weapon.

Over there.

[man] Here, I'm going to do it.

Watch me.

Like this.

Like that. Very good!

You learned.

Now you're a country man!

[Virgilio] That's beautiful.

-Authentic piscoronto.

[man] And this one's "culie."


[both repeating] Culie.

Okay. Culie. Write it down.

[indistinct chatter]

[Malena in English]
Peruvian territory is very diverse,

but we wouldn't be this biodiverse
if it wasn't for... for people,

if it wasn't for our cultures.

There are communities
in every part of Peru

which have all this knowledge
that we don't know about.

So, when we started making these trips
for research on Peruvian ingredients,

we wanted to dig deeper
and connect with these people.

In our search, we found that there was
a lot of stories behind every product.

Andean people, for instance, told us

there are more than
1,000 varieties of potatoes

in different parts of the Andes.

In Lima, we...
we barely know four or five of them.

And so, getting to know communities
was an enriching experience.

[Virgilio in Spanish] We love these.

We use them with a technique
your wife showed us.

Ours are not as good as your wife's...

-but we try, right?

[Virgilio in English] The real connection
that we are achieving

is the relationship with people
that are growing these products.

And those are the experiences
we want to get for ourselves.

And then, once we understand them...

we want to show our guests
what's behind these ingredients,

and to show what's happening with these
Andean and Amazonian communities.

That's the best way to share ingredients,

and that's the best way
to share our culture.

[indistinct chatter]

[speaking Spanish]

[Virgilio in English]
You know this big cactus?

It has these, uh, red fruits
with very red seeds.

-So these seeds actually dye clothes.


You go to the Andes, you see, like,
people dying their clothes, like...

very traditional way, like, with red,
uh, these red seeds.

So we cover the fish
with the red seeds...

-So this is a marinade?
-It's a marinade, yeah.

[man] So we asked a question
and the waiter did not know.

He's like, "Oh, I don't know.
We have to send the chef."

[Virgilio] You know,
I keep changing the menu.

I change the whole thing in one day.

So I keep telling them
that whenever they don't know something,

-they have to call me, yeah?
-[all laughing]

-Thank you very much.
-Thank you so much.

-It was beautiful.
-It was a pleasure. Thank you.

[in Spanish] How are you, friends?
Everything good?

[in English] I was cooking in London
in an Italian restaurant

when I started
to hear about Gastón Acurio.

Gastón Acurio is a huge revolutionary
in a global way.

He was the best Peruvian chef.

He started to become
a huge inspiration to me.

I knew that I wanted to learn from him...

so I asked Gastón Acurio
to give me a job.

He gave me a position,
and I started right away.

[Gastón] When Virgilio was working
at my restaurant in Bogota, in Colombia,

he was very young,
but he did an amazing job.

And I saw that he was going
to become a leader.

After two years,

we had this amazing proposal
to do a restaurant in Madrid.

So I said, "Virgilio, it's your time
to go to Madrid.

It's your time to become a chef.

Do you want to do it?"
He said, "Yes, of course."

[Virgilio] I was very happy.
I was doing Peruvian cuisine.

I felt gratitude to be working
in his kitchens.

Gastón Acurio brought me
to this Peruvian world.

And he taught me
all about very classic Peruvian cuisine.

[indistinct chatter]

[Virgilio in Spanish]
The heart... Peluche?

[Virgilio in English] After four years
of working with Gastón Acurio,

I wanted to cook something new,
something very creative.

[Gastón] As a chef in Madrid,
he was being very successful.

He became very popular immediately.

People start telling me that he was
much more creative than me.

So, I went to Madrid to see my restaurant.

I tasted arroz con pato,
which is a traditional Peruvian dish.

It was completely changed.

I told him to pull the dish back.

You need to put more this,
and that, and that.

And I left.

[Virgilio] I was dreaming about creating
a new Peruvian cuisine.

And I couldn't do this in his restaurants.

I felt there's a moment
that you need to play the game.

And there's a moment to play your game.

And clearly,
it was time for Virgilio to play his game.

[Virgilio] After ten years
of working for different chefs,

just cooking their minds, I needed to do
100% what I really wanted to offer,

100% of my hopes, my feelings.

I knew that I wanted
to have my own restaurant

to do Peruvian cuisine in my own way.

I had to grow in my own country,
with my own dreams.

[indistinct chatter]

[in Spanish] A thin one...

Like this...

Like this.

No, lay it down.

No. It's not done that way.

It's done this way.

This one is wrong.

[Virgilio] Sorry,
my sister keeps screwing it up!

[Malena laughing]

[Virgilio in English] I experienced
the making of a huatia in the Andes

a few years ago...

at 4,000 meters,
on top of the mountains.

It has this spiritual meaning
for the people in the Andes.

They adored the soil as a god.

This practice is a way to say thanks

to the Mother Earth
for the harvest for the season.

Huatia is an oven
that you make with hot rocks

and a bit of clay, a bit of soil.

Once you have this oven very hot,
you break the whole oven...

and you end up just cooking the potatoes
on the ground, or even underground.

Huatia, for us, as a technique,
is very important to incorporate

in our techniques
that we are doing at Central.

It has all this sense of cooking

with whatever you're finding
in these altitudes.

And it was all the time in our minds,
"How can we replicate this at Central?

How can we do it?
How can we do it?"

We are not allowed to make a hole
in the middle of the restaurant.

But we can make our own little oven.

We bring potatoes and tubers
and the herbs, the soil,

even some rocks from the Andes.

[Nicholas] He can't bring you up
to the mountain during the harvest,

but he brings the mountain
back to the restaurant.

The huatia gives this unique flavor
to the potato.

It's the essence of the land.

You get a little bit of the earth
inside of you...

giving the diner
that connection back to the land.

It's something very beautiful.

[woman praying in Quechua]

[blows and continues praying]

Now we can eat.

[Virgilio in English]
When I came to Lima to open Central,

I wanted to create the next step
for Peruvian cuisine.

I wanted to communicate Peru
in a way that people never seen before.

[indistinct chatter]

But when people came to the restaurant,

most of the people said,
"It's great. It's fantastic.

You make me feel like I'm in London,
I'm in New York."

I felt there's something wrong.

People shouldn't be saying that.

People has to say that, "You make me feel
like I'm eating in Peru."

I realized that my biggest difficulty
was... was me.

I was confused about what type of food
I was going to serve.

I was very influenced
by ten years of being abroad.

I was doing European cuisine
with this Peruvian touch.

There was something missing...
this lack of identity.

I realized that, yeah,
I had to do a few changes.

I decided to travel one year
to do some research about Peru.

I was looking for inspiration.

When I went to the Amazonia and the Andes,
there were all these beautiful landscapes.

I started to feel some connection.

I realized that Peru
is so much more than Lima.

Then I spent a week
with a family in the Andes.

It was near Moray.

The first time I went there, I was like,
"This place is amazing."

[Nicholas] When you go to the Moray,
you see these perfectly circular terraces.

Hundreds of years ago,

Moray was being used
as an experimental farm.

The Incas were testing different crops

to see how a plant grows different
at one terrace to the next.

And it's the only place like this.

After seeing these terraces,
I was so obsessed.

And then we started to talk to people,

and I learned
some Andean philosophy of life.

While most people see the world
in a horizontal way...

people in the Andes
have another way to see life.


They actually see the world
in different levels and altitudes.

They see the world in a vertical way,
not in a flat, horizontal way.

That was it for me.

It really changed the way
I was thinking about Peru.

So, I returned to Central.

And I told Pia...
"I have this idea.

We're going to conceptualize
the menu on altitudes,

on different levels
and different ecosystems.

We have to focus the different dishes
on every single altitude.

It's just not to see the landscape.
It goes to another level.

I want people to feel
all these different parts of Peru."

Motivated by this concept,
I brought Malena to Central

to give me all the scientific support.

So to achieve our first menu of altitudes,
I had to change a lot.

I knew that I was going
to lose some guests,

and I actually lost lots of them.

But I was so obsessed
about achieving this idea,

I had to follow my heart.

[Nicholas] In 2012, they designed
a menu based on altitude.

You see this menu,
and you see it list these 20 plates,

listed out by altitude.

No one had ever laid out Peru
in quite this way ever before.

Seeing this country in that way
had a big impact.

everyone starts to pay attention.


In 2013, Central enters the 50 Best list.
That's a big deal.

People from around the world
started to come to Central

to experience Peru through his menu.

And then in 2015, he went to number four.

He jumped ahead of Gastón even.
And no one was really expecting that.

Central became more
than just a restaurant.

It's a symbol of Peru.

[Gastón] Virgilio's menu makes you feel.

It makes you think.

It makes you discover

in areas that you thought
you already discovered everything.

You feel that, sometimes as a chef,
"Why I didn't think of this before?"

Things like that, you know.
So it's... it's great.

[indistinct chatter on TV]

[Virgilio chuckles]

[in Spanish] He's sitting up!

-Little Cristobal!
-Little Cristobal!

[in English] It's funny to think
about the future of Cristobal.

Actually, it's fun to think about...

uh, Cristobal being a chef. [chuckles]

But he's, like, five months old,

so I'm just trying to focus
on what's happening now.


[exclaiming happily]

[Malena] Virgilio has a lot of plans
in the horizon.

In his family,
I think he wants to be more available,

like, be more a family guy.

And at the same time,

he's still very curious
to dig deeper into cooking.

He wants to keep moving around,

searching for the undiscovered ingredients
in every part of Peru.

[Virgilio] Since I came up
with the idea of the altitudes menu...

we've been discovering these new things.

And after four years...

I realized that...

we know nothing.

Yeah, we know a little.
That's it.

And I'm still learning a lot.

This is a work in progress.
This is just the beginning.