Shamans, doctors and pro-skating: behind the scenes with chef Virgilio Martinez

Virgilio Martinez in the kitchen.
Virgilio Martinez in the kitchen. 

There are chefs who forage, and then there are chefs who hire shamans and create research centres to ensure their Amazonian discoveries don't kill customers.

Virgilio Martinez, the forward-thinking former semi-pro skateboarder-turned-chef, is a driving force behind Peru's rapid rise to one of the world's great food cities, and will arrive in Australia next month as part of The Age Good Food Month presented by Citi, before also heading to Sydney.

Martinez, 38, scours Peru, from the dry, lofty heights of the Andes (home to Macchu Pichu) to the rivers of the Amazonian jungle, for his menu at Central, in Lima, ranked  No. 4 on the World's 50 Best Restaurant List.

Central in Lima, Peru serves up otherworldly dishes.
Central in Lima, Peru serves up otherworldly dishes.  Photo: Supplied

"Peru is a country with more than 4000 varieties of potato, 80 types of corn and 14 kinds of quinoa – it's huge," says Martinez. "It's difficult to communicate all of that diversity, so we have to research and investigate it."

Neighbouring restaurants Maido and Astrid y Gaston also made the World's 50 Best Restaurants list, and Mistura, a relatively young Lima-based food festival showcasing the country's cuisine, drew more than 400,000 local and international visitors in September.

Martinez hired his sister, trained physician Malena Martinez, to establish the Mater Iniciativa, to lend scientific cred to his work and, after he poisoned himself a few times, ensure that all the discoveries are fit for human consumption.

Colours of the Amazonia dish at Central restaurant in Peru by chef Virgilio Martinez.
Colours of the Amazonia dish at Central restaurant in Peru by chef Virgilio Martinez. Photo: supplied

"We go into communities and stay with them, eat what they eat and talk to the local shamans, who are the community leaders. Some of them are very knowledge, but lots of them are full of shit, so we need know: is this totally edible? Is this poison?" he says.

He crafts each new dish on his 17-course menu around an expedition, using ingredients from one area.

"For the Amazonia dish, we use the paiche, a huge jungle fish, with the sacha papa, which people used to call the flying potato. It's amazing to walk through the jungle and see these potato-like things hanging from the trees. It's slightly poisonous, so it has to be prepared the right way."

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The homage to the Andes uses coca leaves (more valuable than gold to the ancient Incans) and cancha corn, both grown at a staggering 3800-metres above sea level. Razor clams, harvested from 20 metres beneath the waves, are paired with sweet lemon and starflower to mimic marine soil.

Native Peruvian ingredients such as multi-coloured quinoas, kiwicha, cacao, maca and muna, also known as Andean mint, are becomingsuperfood fodder in Australia.But then there's pacay, a sweet, soft-fleshed fruit sometimes known as ice-cream bean tree, which he serves with murky black shrimp broth, and chaco clay, an edible clay Martinez uses to encase a wickedly rich chocolate sorbet.

During his visit down under, Martinez is keen build a New Zealand-style hangi with mate Ben Shewry, of Attica fame ("they do something similar in Cusco," he says), and explore the local cuisine.

"I'm seeing a lot of Australian native ingredients, and Australians are very proud to use them – there's definitely something good happening in Australia."

For event details and ticket sales see goodfoodmonth.com/melb

Events

Talk and Taste with Virgilio Martinez

The hottest young chef in Peru, Virgilio Martinez comes to Sydney for one day only.

Cirrus, Wulugul Walk, The Streets of Barangaroo, Sat, Nov 26, 1.30pm, $300 inc. cocktails, canapes, four-course lunch with matched wine and a signed copy of his book.

Ceviche and pisco pop-up, with Virgilio Martinez BUY TICKETS 

Pastuso's Alejandro Saravia is hosting Virgilio Martinez (Central, No. 4 on the World's 50 Best list), turning the Terrace Restaurant into an open Peruvian-style market where three stations will serve up nine variations on the nation's champion citrus-cured fish dish, ceviche, while the bar pours wines and cocktails made on pisco – pride of Peru. Drink, graze, meet Martinez and get a signed copy of his book, Central.

The Terrace, Royal Botanic Gardens, Alexandra Avenue & Anderson Street, Melbourne, Fri, Nov 25, 6.30pm, $100 all food and drinks; $145 including a copy of Central (RRP $85).

Virgilio Martinez at Attica 

The Lima-based chef behind Central (No. 4 restaurant on the World's 50 Best list) who works with shamans, doctors and Peru's native jewels will be plating his dishes alongside Ben Shewry's philosophically aligned, native-ingredient driven plates at this centrepiece dinner at Attica. Dinner includes a signed copy of Martinez's new monograph from Phaidon, Central.

Attica, 74 Glen Eira Road, Ripponlea, Thu, Nov 24, 6.30pm, $395. Further tickets to be released on 6/11/2016

For the full program and ticket sales see goodfoodmonth.com


The writer traveled to Peru as a guest of PomPeru