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Fourth best restaurant in the world: luxury Peruvian food at the heart of it all

Interview - September 25, 2015

Virgilio Martínez Véliz, Chef and Owner of Central, sits down with United World to talk about his restaurant, his inspiration and the secret to his success.


We want to know the story behind this successful venture. How did this all start?

We opened Central almost 6 years ago. I have always wanted to have a small restaurant where I could develop a gastronomic concept with which I could feel comfortable, but I did not know the power of Peruvian gastronomy and the impact it has on our society and everywhere, on multiple disciplines.

Generally, gastronomy around the world has an increasing positive connotation. This cook movement has reached high levels, in an organic and authentic way.

And that is just beautiful. When you feel it, you do not see it as a trend. Many would consider opening a luxurious restaurant a trend, a way to be glamorous, etc. to receive good gastronomic critics.

It is very subjective. You can feel and live this, so there is no way to be subjective and think you come to Peru to be luxurious. Things are very real here.

When we opened Central, we realized the real luxury was to discover the country and its wonders, the wonderful territory it has. We began to travel a lot.

We are where we work the most, we prepare boards, legends, make authorizations, have meetings, etc. Why? Because we realized that we have to travel 3, 4 or even 5 times a month as a group to find new products, new stories, and learn more about our culture.

This did not use to be valuable for us. We just used to get foreign trends, that is how I thought it worked. And now, we look for tradition, and native products.

So the concept of Central began to twist and change towards our roots. We began to make exploration trips, and find emotions in our own land, our people.

That was unknown to us. We did not use to appreciate that or give the value it deserved. That is the origin of Central´s emotions, which are the real soul of the restaurant.

It is about finding our roots and always be curious to see that there is a lot to discover, that we are working with less than the 5% of what we have.

Peru has a great impact on the world, and I am very modest when I say this. Many recognized newspapers write things like 'Peru conquers the world with ceviche,' but it is not really that way.

Peru started to be known in the world through potatoes, tomatoes, quinoa, etc, and cooks had nothing to do there. The importance of tradition on this land and the respect of people who maybe are not in Lima, but somewhere we do not know, is so strong that we should understand it.

So now we have brought all this through Central, so you can somehow understand what is going on here and there. That is why we have to travel a lot. This is a disciplined job, we have to follow schedules, communicate it, as I am doing here with you, and be in the kitchen.

I cannot be travelling all the time and not be in the kitchen. So it is a little bit of everything.

I feel we are building our own language and the concept of Central. The esthetic and the ethic of the restaurant begins to have our own style. And we are working our way, which is the best that can happen to this project.

It does not depend on anything and on any comparison. Sometimes, comparing restaurants is horrible. So we work, do what we have to do, and that is what we focus on. Everybody is making their reservations.

Those things have become the main concerns now. Many people are coming, we have to keep surprising them. To us, the most important thing is people. 50 people come for lunch, and 50 for dinner.

They must have a unique experience trying new things they have never tried before. That is our main focus.

Which are the international chefs you have been inspired by?

I have been inspired by many chefs. In Spain, Andoni Luis Mugaritz was an inspiring chef to me. I like his work philosophy. In New York, André Soltner. Here in Peru, Rafael Osterling, Gastón Acurio, Pedro Miguel Schiaffino, they are all models to me.

I know a lot of chefs, and I see something beautiful in the chefs community. Apart from this chefs trend that is taking place now, there is something that people do not see: chefs which have a clear concept.

Among colleagues, we feel it, and we respect it a lot. I like cooks when they respect their land, their people. I learn from them, I learn techniques to respect my people, my land, and my products, make my staff more technical, and train them the right way. I admire cooks who love their land. That is the most touching thing to me.

What is the happiest part of your creative process?

There are different stages. Our creative process begins when we decide where we are going and why. For example, when we go to Los Andes to look for certain products.

Why? Because we had the idea of doing some research on algae or llama milk, for example. The most emotional part is when we see the product in its natural state. We take pictures and thus record the landscape.

We go with these two guys here, and sometimes with my sister. We take notes, pictures, and interact with local people. We go to wild places. That is a very good process, pure nature, mainly because we come from the city.

To me, trips to nature are the most beautiful trips. Then, there is the pressure of bringing all that here and make it an experience. Then we make a testing menu. It is a 18-20 step process that involves everything that we made. We change this every 3 or 4 months.

What is the best thing a customer has said to you?

When they tell me they are happy, that is the best. Sometimes, there are people who even cry. What is better than that? They may tell you the food is tasty, you have a great technique, or how young you are, but that is pure ego.

So I have to think beyond that. If somebody is crying, that is awesome. For example, a couple that is celebrating their 50-60 years old, and they hug everybody before leaving. That is what we have achieved.

We are also receiving critics, because we are more risky now. People used to come and be in Central for two or two and a half hour. Now, they stay three or four hours. That means they stay longer.

Those 3 or 4 hours may start great, but the experience has to increase during that time. That is difficult to handle. Then, people's expectations. They may have come all the way from Australia, so everything needs to be perfect.

There are a lot of things to handle regarding logistics. For example, they say 'I do not understand why there are so many vegetables here,' well that is part of our idea of feeling the landscapes, that feeling of being in Los Andes, and that is not necessary through a meat steak or a big fish.

We are taking some risks there. If you get a little bit conceptual, you can be a little bit more elitist, in the good sense of the word. In the sense that you only have the best things, because you think it is ethical and sustainable.

That is not necessary the tastiest thing. We are going through the most difficult paths, and this may sometimes take you to make some mistakes or to a path that may be wrongly understood.

We are changing the plates all the time, so sometimes they ask 'Where is the plate I ate some time ago?' We take those kinds of risks. In some other fields, you may say 'If this works this way, just leave it this way.'

People see we are constantly evolving, and that is what works. Next time you come, the story will have changed. That is what we aim to, what people should see.

There are people who understand it, people who like it, people who do not understand it, and people who do not like it.

And we respect that. And that is good, too. Critics are also good. We do not think we are perfect, we want everybody who come here to leave happy. And that is really difficult, because we are dealing with emotions and that is a more complex path.

And what about Central in London?

This Central has to be in Lima, because what we do here is totally different to what we do in London. In London, we do not have access to what we have here in Peru, we cannot do exploration trips, or research trips, or anything like that, so it is a different system.

The London restaurant is simple and casual. Both restaurants work ok, they are very clear modern cooking messages on Peruvian cuisine. In London, this is this way, and should remain unchanged.

That does not happen here. One day it is like this, and the next day, everything is different. Why it is like that? That is how Central works. London is that way because I do not cook there.

Here, I cook with my wife, she is in the kitchen too. So I have the control on how the kitchen works. Of course, when I have to travel, my team of seven is in charge, apart from all of the other cooks.

And we do not have that there in London. And we do not want things to be different in London. Of course, the London restaurant is much better financially.

But conceptually, Central here in Peru is much more satisfactory. It requires much more energy.

What would you say is the reason you are here today? What has been your source of inspiration?

I do a little bit of everything. My wife is always with me, and that is fantastic. Pía manages the kitchen, and sometimes manages it all. My wife, my sister, too.

And as I always say, Central would not work if our country was not in the position it is today. In my generation, when I was a teenager, there was chaos and despair. By then, I thought I would someday leave Peru.

I wanted to move abroad. Now, we do not feel like that at all. We have no luxury, but people are very positive about their present and future. And that is good, too. I think that all that is a plus.

Eyes are on Peru because of its gastronomy. Eating is natural. Now, we are drinking coffee, but it is not any coffee, it is roasted coffee from Cajamarca. All this interaction that we have with food is very strong.

That is what I mean by gastronomy. You feel these things in Peru. They are very authentic and real, and that is something really positive for us. We surround ourselves with positive things.

We have not become big consumers. We are not consuming everything, just specific things in a country with great diversity. And we are seeing it now.

How does it feel to be the fourth best restaurant in the world?

It feels great. We never thought it would be so fast. These things are subjective. We do not think we are objectively the fourth best restaurant in the world. This helps a lot for attracting people to the restaurant.

This helps a lot to place ourselves in the world's eyes. That is what we wanted, but we did not know it would be so fast. We feel the responsibility for people's expectations, but we like it. It is something that we wanted.

But we did not work for it. We made it, and that was great, but it is not a pressure for us. If we achieved a great result, it is because of what we did. We have to take it that way, it is the healthiest thing for us.

Otherwise, then you get confused. But it is great. Do you know why? Because of the team. Global recognition is not something usual for Peru. It is important, of course, but it will not change our lives.

We will not get crazy or think we can change the world. We do know we can change our own world, our little world. Yes, we can change the world though cuisine, but we are not the protagonists.

We are just a way to spread what is going on in Peru. We are taking something beautiful and spreading it. Yes, we are achieving short-term and clear objectives.

People are coming to Peru to eat, they make reservations. Students knock our door because they want to work with us. People from Japan, or Hong Kong, tell us they want to stay here for three months.

That is awesome, this has not happened in Lima. And it has happened so fast.

I think that in this fast-changing world, you can not only win over investors through incentives, but also through the stomach.

Sure. We sometimes do not realize what we achieve in this restaurant. But the fact of pleasing people with food, surprises, and love, is very valuable for the same reason you are mentioning, the world is changing very fast.

We are so disconnected because of our phones and all this stuff, we are connected but so disconnected at the same time. But in a restaurant, you are connected, you have face-to-face conversations with people.

You leave your phone, relax, and leave aside your daily concerns for three hours. The importance of sharing meals today is stronger than it was years ago.

We used to talk about tradition and family, but we used to have more time to share. Now, we have Internet, Facebook. Instagram, and TV attacks. We spend our time on fashion, movies, daily concerns, etc.

And something good about this restaurant is that we are not very luxurious and make you feel sumptuous. We do not have that kind of attention, and we love that. We do not want to do that at all. And it works. It is the new luxury, simplicity, authenticity, to show ourselves just as we are and not pretend.

We just leave that to other disciplines. Not to other restaurants, but to other fields. In gastronomy, things tend to be more simple and clean. That is the path we are looking for.

What is your favorite restaurant?

Wow. Now, there is one that I love, Al Toque Pez, in Surquillo. It is great. I always go there.

People always recommend restaurants and say something about them. If you had to recommend your own restaurant, what would you say about it?

That you will somehow eat our ecosystems. That is what I say to people. We have a lot of ecosystems, and bring them here. You will feel and eat all of our ecosystems.