23 July 2014

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Starter for 10: interview with Virgilio Martinez


virgilio martinez_lima_2012 - Virgilio-Martinez_resized.jpgAt the start of the year, Square Meal tipped Peruvian food – and South American cuisine in general – as one of the big trends for 2012. May will see the launch of Lima, a London venture spearheaded by Virgilio Martinez, whose Lima-based restaurant, Central, is a big deal in his native Peru. Square Meal caught up with Martinez to find out what Londoners can expect from his new restaurant.

Why do you think South American food is tipped as the next big thing?

Peru has a lot to offer because it has a lot of influences: Japanese, Chinese, Italian and Spanish cuisine. Also, Peru is a microclimate: the diversity of produce is amazing. For example, we have so many varieties of potatoes.

Everything is very natural: in Peru you see a respect for nature – we’re always referring to pacha mama [mother nature in Quechua]. The idea comes from the Inca civilisation and it’s still very vivid.

Lima will be launching hot on the heels of Martin Morales’ Ceviche, in Soho, and just ahead of Brazilian-Japanese City newcomer Sushisamba. Are you worried about the competition?

We feel very optimistic about all these openings; it’s very positive and it creates awareness of South American cuisines. We’ve been working very hard at Lima to show our own identity and we’re looking forward to visiting all the restaurants. Hopefully we’ll all support each other – we’ve already been in touch with some of the restaurants via Twitter, and we know the people from Sushisamba personally.

Which Peruvian dishes will foreigners really like and which would be harder to sell?

Peruvian food is highly influenced by Asia, and Britain has a big Asian restaurant scene, so people should like a lot of the dishes we serve. They’ll love ceviche, Peruvian comfort food, and tiraditos – a cross between sashimi and carpaccio, served with a ceviche sauce called leche de tigre.

Guinea pig is cooked in the highlands of Peru, with potatoes – that dish would be very weird for British people. We’re not serving it on the menu!

You studied for a law degree but gave it up. Why did you swap?

It was a big mistake to go to law school. My father is a lawyer and my older brother, too, but when I was studying it, I wanted to give it up. I was studying and working part-time in a kitchen, but there was no opportunity to learn to cook properly in Peru. I decided to learn how to cook, so I gave up university and worked for chefs around the world. What amazed me was returning to Peru and seeing my country with new eyes, as a world undiscovered.

You’ve travelled a lot – which were your favourite countries?

Every country has its own charm. But I love Thailand – especially the street food there. I love Barcelona, too: the feeling about food there is the same as in Peru.

What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever eaten?

I ate a cobra heart in Thailand. It wasn’t nice but it was an interesting experience. As cooks, we have to try as many things as we can. The sensation was amazing.

Which typical characteristics of British people have surprised you and what do you miss about your own country?

What I like about the British is their open-mindedness. People here are keen to try new experiences and new food concepts. Creativity and the opportunity to try new things are very important to cooks.

In Peru, people are very noisy – but in a good way. I miss that. People here are more formal and they behave more politely.

How do you relax?

Lima is a very hectic city – there’s a lot of noise and people. So when I’m in Lima, I go into the mountains to read. When you spend 18 hours working in the same place, you need to relax. I go with my girlfriend and we get far away from the city. I read cookery books – at the moment I’m reading Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking.

What has been your biggest kitchen disaster?

Once I forgot to switch off the gas in the kitchen of my restaurant in Lima, and I nearly burned it down. I live one block from the restaurant, I remembered in time and came running back.

What is your idea of food heaven and food hell?

I love eating lentils, octopus, sweetbreads... and my guilty pleasure is too much chocolate. To be honest, I don’t really hate anything. One thing I tend to eat just to be polite is tripe. It’s the texture that I don’t like.

What has been your proudest career moment?

When I realised that my parents were so excited about my success. To see my parents sitting at a table in my restaurant and seeing how excited they were was a very touching moment. When your parents tell you with tears in their eyes that it’s great food, it’s very emotional.

This interview was conducted in spring 2012.

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