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Business News/ Opinion / Blogs/  HUNGER GAMES: Travel at the table

HUNGER GAMES: Travel at the table

At Central, recently voted #1 among Latin American restaurants, a young chef digs deep into Peru's natural heritage and makes us wonder at what can be

Cold Cultivation: Scallops, loche squash and tumbo, a member of the passion fruit family. Premium
Cold Cultivation: Scallops, loche squash and tumbo, a member of the passion fruit family.

We were early. The restaurant opened its doors only at 8pm for the dinner service, but it was just past 7pm and getting uncomfortably cool on the streets of Lima for two women who had nowhere else to go. Cups of espresso had been consumed and the forthcoming dinner discussed – all based on hearsay – and now we couldn’t wait to get our toes inside the door.

The restaurant itself is so inconspicuous, you’d pass it by without a second glance. There’s no signage upfront, only a glass window lit by a ghostly red light in the deepening dusk, next to an imposing door. As we continued knocking – our knuckles making little impact on the solid wood, alas – a window was thrown open upstairs, a head popped out and a voice with accented English apologized profusely for keeping us waiting. Moments later, the door swung open, but only a few inches, to reveal a slim young man with scruffy hair and intense eyes, who ushered us in and escorted us to our table.

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Chef Virgil Martinez

As Chef Gaggan pointed out in a conversation with me soon after breaking into the top 20 – a first for an Indian restaurant anywhere – a number of factors come into play in such lists, not the least being that old mantra of restaurateurs everywhere: location, location, location. As pivotal, perhaps, is timing.

“I was one of the thousands of young Peruvians who left the country when it was in the grips of terrorism unleashed by outfits like the Shining Path and Túpac Amaru," said Chef Virgil, 37, when we sought his backstory. “I landed up in Canada and enrolled in Le Cordon Bleu, graduating in 1998. For the next 10 years, I travelled around the world, working in restaurants in Europe, Singapore and the US."

Somewhat like India at the turn of the millennium, when Rahul Akerkar’s Indigo redefined fine dining in the country, Lima at that point boasted of only one restaurant of note: Chef Gaston Acurio’s Astrid y Gaston. While other eateries were churning out tired variations of a remote European ideal of fine food – Peru, like much of Latin America, continues to be deeply influenced by Spanish culture, though, for the finer things of life, it looks to France – Chef Gaston was discovering indigenous fruits, vegetables and meats and melding them with the Chinese, Japanese and Italian influences of Peru’s history.

It synched perfectly with Chef Virgil’s own vision for the future of Peruvian food. But the cautious young man first spent a couple of years as executive chef with Astrid y Gaston. Legend has it that it was an epiphany atop Machu Picchu that finally pushed him to take the plunge with Central, located in Lima’s trendy Miraflores district, in 2010. “At first, there were zero customers," he told me. “It was hard, but I had conviction in my beliefs."

The beliefs were somewhat unique. While determined to make the most of Peru’s cornucopia of produce, the Central philosophy approaches the country not regionally (like, say, “North Indian" or “Kathiawadi") or religio-socially (“Syrian Christian" or “UP Kayasth"), but vertically. This allows the chef to tap into the flora and fauna of particular altitudes, from the deepest parts of the Pacific to the highest peaks of the Andes and into the darkest Amazonian rainforest in a single sitting.

“Because there is so much geographical diversity within small radiuses, our ancestors would have had to master fishing in the sea as much as foraging in the forest," said Chef Virgil. “I travel all over the country myself, seeking out what local populations eat, investigating undocumented ingredients, mining their anthropological, biological and nutritional context. This is an ongoing project we call Mater Inciativa. It takes months of work before a new dish is placed on the table."

So what was on my table that night? Not so fast, first there was the guided tour through the kitchen – with the whiteboards and purple potatoes – up to the rooftop farm, where the restaurant grows herbs, shrubs and even quinoa on an experimental basis

And, then, finally, it was time for dinner. Seventeen courses – gasp not, this was the tasting menu, called Elevations – that begin at a depth of -25m (a deepwater algae amuse bouche) and climb up to 4200m (comprising fresh and dried potatoes; cushuro, a pearl-like lake cyanobacteria and mullaca, a fruit of the physalis family). In between, there were other wondrous dishes, including a brilliant cold soup using cactus milk; calamari with sargassum, a microalgae; a little yellow cube fashioned out of a tuber, turmeric and coffee, and a beef dish with sheep milk and kaniwa, a quinoa cousin. To wind up, there were three separate desserts, including one that fuses coca leaf – a mainstay for anyone travelling to Machu Picchu – and coffee with cherimoya, a custard-apple taste-alike.

As you’d imagine, each dish was artistically plated, using rocks and stones, slate and wood, so much so it was often tough for me to tell which part of the dish was edible and which should be best left alone.  Some of the flavours, too, I’ll admit, take some getting used to (and I spent some time wondering if that was beef heart I was eating) while some, like the clam and sweet lemon dish or the octopus broth with olive crisps, tickled all the right tastebuds rightaway.

My greatest takeaway from the evening, though, wasn’t in my tummy. It lay in the idea that, at the table, I had undertaken a journey of discovery. On a trip with a limited budget and restricted days, Chef Virgil’s menu allowed me to travel from mountain peak to seafloor, touch forest flowers and taste wetland wonders. It made me appreciate anew the bounty of nature and the colonization of our tastes by the conventional. But principally, it made me think – about travel and food, yes, but also about courage and non-conformism.

That no. 1 spot? It’s well-deserved.

Central is at Ca. Santa Isabel, 376, Miraflores, Lima, Peru. Reservations are recommended. This visit was facilitated by

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Published: 16 Sep 2014, 04:56 PM IST
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