The Taste of Extreme Altitude
Imagine a dish harvested only from the sparse pickings and rarified heights of 14,000 feet elevation. In Lima, Peru, Central Restaurante offers just that along with an ascending scale of dishes from the ocean's depths, amazonian jungle, and Andean peaks—each unique to a specific elevation and ecosystem. “When you go up the mountains, you find different species, people, cultures, and different thinking . . . about gastronomy, nature, whatever. You see the world in altitudes — and attitudes — and our perspective has to change. All these different climates and landscapes, geography, cultures, and people are driving a new way to see our landscape, our environment,” says Peruvian chef Virgilio Martínez-Véliz, who strives to present this panorama of altitudes and attitudes in his menus at Central Restaurante in Lima, Peru. Martínez sources Central’s menu from Peru’s coastal waters, Amazonian jungles, and Andean peaks using traditional indigenous ingredients to reflect his country’s rich cultural, culinary, and agricultural heritage. Peru’s ancient but highly advanced agricultural practices put it on the map as one of the cradles of civilization.
"When you go up the mountains, you find different species, people, cultures, and different thinking . . . about gastronomy, nature, whatever. You see the world in altitudes — and attitudes — and our perspective has to change."
For the third consecutive year, the Peruvian dining guide Summum has named Central the best restaurant in Peru, with additional awards for best contemporary Peruvian cuisine, best sommelier, and fourth-best restaurant in South America. In April 2013, Central entered as number fifty in The World’s 50 Best Restaurants, as awarded by the British magazine Restaurant. In 2014, Central jumped thirty-five places to number fifteen, winning the "Highest Climber" award, and later that year was named best restaurant in Latin America by Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants. As of 2015, Central catapulted to the number four spot in The World’s 50 Best Restaurants.
Highest climber, indeed — Martínez’s signature carte du jour, Alturas Mater, or “Mater Elevations,” is an eighteen-course tasting menu with selections rising from Peru’s marine depths to its misty Andean heights, with specific elevations printed next to each item. Topping out on the list is Altura Extrema, or “Extreme Altitude,” sourced from a hypoxic 4,400 meters (14,436 feet).
“It has three main ingredients,” says Martínez. “One is a potato called tocosh that grows only in that area. The people soaked it in the Andean rivers, which caused fermentation. It is very watery, rotten, and smelly, but it was a way to preserve the potatoes for the entire year,” Martínez says. “The next ingredient is cushuro, a cyanobacteria that grows in the high mountain lakes because of the atmosphere, the soil, the altitude, lack of oxygen, because of many, many factors. That ingredient is important. The third ingredient is the herbs that grow at that altitude,” he says. “There are not many herbs or fruits, but we are getting a few herbs from there as well. It’s a dish that’s our main focus on the one ecosystem, because that altitude is unique. That particular dish is very interesting.”
To create it, he says, “We first drain the potato for two days, because it’s actually very smelly. Then we dry the potato, cover it with three high-altitude aromatic herbs — muna, huacatay, and paico — and bake it. A crust forms with the stems of the herbs, and the smell is nice; they [the stems] have a meat aroma. We remove it from the oven, then we add a sauce made from the tree tomato, which grows in the Andes. Next, we cover the potato with the cushuro. The potato skins are also dried and then put on top just to cover. Finally, we add some herbs, and it’s finished. This is just one course in the eighteen-course tasting menu and one of two vegetarian dishes on our menu.”
The taste? There’s the meatlike aroma from the herbs, the tang of the tree-tomato sauce and the cushuro — the flavor of which is “just clean, delicate Andean water, with an herbed, delicate taste,” says Martínez. “The texture is the most amazing thing.” But at the heart of the dish is the special tocosh potato. “It’s the pure essence — the real history — of the Andean potato, that hasn’t been transformed into something else,” Martínez says. “Of course, because of the fermentation, the potato itself has a transformation,” he says, but it’s an authentic, ancient Andean potato from that high altitude, untouched by hybridization.
Peru gave the world the potato, which in turn influenced the course of civilization globally after the Spanish introduced it in Europe. The potato entered history around 7,000 years ago in the Titicaca Plateau, which stretches across today’s countries of Peru and Bolivia. At elevations up to 4,572 meters (15,000 feet), the Aymara Indians developed and cultivated more than 200 varieties of potatoes, which formed the main basis of the Aymara Indian and Incan diet.
Chef and Explorer
Martínez could be classified as a kind of geo-paleo-gastronomist. With his physician sister Malena, he founded Mater Iniciativa, a research institute to catalogue his culinary findings from his gastronomic explorations. The two, along with a group of researchers, including an anthropologist, forest engineer, and other chefs, travel to different elevations and ecosystems in Peru collecting and compiling the histories of traditional indigenous plants, herbs, and fruits — including such oddities as edible clay and tree bark, also on Central’s tasting menu. Then they catalogue it all in a database. For now the institute is based at Central, but will soon move to Cusco, the cultural and archeological capital of Peru — and in ancient times, of all South America. Martínez already travels to Cusco several times a month to go higher in the Andes for his research and culinary collecting.
Growing up in Lima with an architect mother and a bank-lawyer father, Martínez was exposed to Peru’s culture and melting-pot culinary scene. He was an avid skateboarder in the city streets and always had a love of cooking and exploring various cuisines, including Japanese, Italian and Chifa, the Chinese-Peruvian food fusion that has been a national craze and institution since Chinese immigrants arrived more than a century ago. Martínez tried law school for two years but left to travel, eventually landing a cooking job in Canada. After that he enrolled in Le Cordon Bleu in London and graduated in 1998. He then cooked his way through Europe, Southeast Asia, and New York, finally returning to Peru to helm Gastón Acurio’s acclaimed restaurant Astrid y Gastón. Finally, in 2010, he opened his own restaurant, Central. Central’s chef de cuisine is Pía León, Martínez’s wife. After the two worked together for two years, they married on May 4, 2013. In addition to Central, located in Lima’s trendy Miraflores District, a stone’s throw from the Pacific Ocean, thirty-seven-year-old Martínez operates two successful London restaurants — Lima and Lima Floral — and is about to open another in Lima, called Nos. All of them focus on traditional Peruvian dishes with contemporary approaches.
“It’s all about the sense of place,” Martínez describes his approach. “When you have a dish we really want you to feel what’s going on in that location, in that area. It’s a real connection with the people, the landscape, the environment, the soil. It’s a challenge as well for us — it demands a lot of time to be in the same moment in that area. Sometimes we are kind of confused about where we are; we are not just chefs anymore, we are explorers, but we have the mind of chefs. It’s not just recipes anymore. Now we’re cooking ecosystems.”
"When you have a dish we really want you to feel what’s going on in that location, in that area. It’s a real connection with the people, the landscape, the environment, the soil."
Going to extremes — in his case extreme altitudes and ecosystems — Martínez muses, “It’s a huge change for us because we get deep knowledge about our own nature, about the way people live, tradition. Just the way the people in the mountains see life . . . It is just different, with gratitude to the mother earth — Pachamama — that’s in the Andes. In Amazonia, people live with an entire connection with the trees. It changes your attitude as well. So it is just not for going and picking things, it is about changing our perspective and adding some positive beliefs.” △