Peruvian Chef’s Latest Venture
Virgilio Martínez teams with Explora for culinary program
BY GAYLE KECK — Fall 2019
You may know Martínez from the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, where his restaurant Central, in Lima, floats in the stratospheric Top 10. Or you’ve seen his episode on Netflix’s Chef’s Table. Or maybe you read about him getting detained earlier this year at Los Angeles International Airport for bringing a duffel bag filled with 40 frozen piranhas into the U.S. (He and the piranhas were eventually released.)
I’m visiting with this talented chef widely regarded as one of South America’s best at the Explora Valle Sagrado lodge in Peru’s Sacred Valley, a couple of hours from Machu Picchu. He’s here to preview his new culinary program created especially for Explora, his first partnership outside of his own restaurants. For travelers who covet a hard-to-come-by seat at Central, an Explora stay guarantees sampling Martínez’s recipes via five rotating lunch and dinner menus. While meals won’t feature Central’s elaborate tasting menu, Explora’s cuisine will focus on the chef’s driving passion — local ingredients.
Martínez is particularly smitten with this part of his country. He opened another restaurant, Mil, not far away, in early 2018. “We’ve been coming here a lot in the past seven years, once a month,” he explains. “There’s so much diversity: 350 varieties of potatoes, local quinoa, different vegetables that you haven’t seen before. There are so many plants and aromatics here that completely change the way we cook.”
At his flagship restaurant, famous for its “altitudes” menu, Martínez sources each dish’s ingredients from a specific Peruvian ecosystem. But he clearly favors the Sacred Valley and its surrounding mountains. “This knowledge from the Andes is taking over our cooking,” he admits, adding, “This food doesn’t travel so much. We can’t do it in Lima.”
The chef has a mission to search out ingredients known only to locals, and to partner with small producers. “Here, the people adore the mountains like gods,” Martínez says. “They’re very related to nature, to the soil, to the lands. All our ingredients will be from the Sacred Valley. The idea is to support the local producers.”
In addition to Martínez’s network of local farmers, Explora is planting special varieties of corn on the property and, outside my lodge window, bushy tassels of purple quinoa sway in the breeze.
Any number of hotels would have jumped at the chance to partner with such a world-renowned chef. Why choose Explora? “They’re very related to explorations,” Martínez explains, noting the guided hikes and bike trips at the core of the adventure company’s all-inclusive program. It’s a good fit with his relentlessly curious nature. “They know the geography, the food, the products, and the producers,” he adds. “You have to know the guy who’s producing, because once you know him, you know how much effort he’s putting in.”
For tonight’s dinner, Martínez and his team have put together a special menu to highlight some of the ingredients on future Explora menus. It’s a gorgeous, delicious parade of items I’ve never heard of before — much less tasted.
I’m starting to realize the immensity of Peru’s biodiversity, and how narrow my own experience with food truly is. It’s as if I’d been looking at the night sky through a tiny window my entire life and someone just took me outside and showed me the vast, glittering sweep of the universe.
At first, I try to understand each element. There are jade-colored orbs of algae collected from an Andean lake perched at 11,000 feet. Thinly sliced and fried bumpy potatoes from Huanta sport naturally ruffled edges resembling flower petals. A bright purple corn cake underlies a rich reduction of beef rib meat with a deep-fried huacatay leaf (a mint relative) on top. At some point, I surrender. I stop trying to understand what I’m eating and just enjoy, like a kid tasting everything for the first time.
The final course looks like a dark mountain, sprinkled with a white blanket of sauco (elderberry) flowers and set in a chartreuse bowl. It’s Quillabamba chocolate ganache spooned over dense, crumbled chocolate cake — an intense chocolate concoction that could be my new favorite food.
The next day, I visit Moray, an Inca site about 25 miles west from the lodge. Our Explora guide, J.J., explains that the series of descending circular terraces supported by stone walls were once the equivalent of an Inca greenhouse, sheltered from winds in its deep depression. Like the Romans, the Incas excelled at developing water works. Here at Moray, they channeled water from mountain springs to irrigate their crops. It’s fascinating to get a picture of the valley’s agricultural history stretching back hundreds of years.
A visit with a modern-day potato farmer proves that little has changed regarding cultivation methods, though. While some growers do use tractors, Manuel Choqque prefers the old methods. He plows using oxen and, as we arrive, we find his mother digging potatoes from the ground with a short hoe. Choqque, one of Martínez’s key producers, cultivates and crossbreeds native potato varieties. One of his goals is to create potatoes with increased antioxidants and other nutrients. He cuts open various spuds to show us vibrant red and glowing purple interiors, the colors evidence of antioxidants.
Choqque and his family have built a traditional oven called a huatia, constructed like a mini-igloo out of dirt clods and stones. We toss whole potatoes inside, over wood embers, and then attack the oven with a hoe to collapse it and cook the potatoes. Thirty minutes later, we’re digging out hot spuds, ripping them open with our hands, and dipping them in a sauce bright-green with herbs.
Choqque’s mother points out the different Inca potato shapes. There’s “hand of the puma,” which looks like a big cat’s paw; the appropriately named “snake”; and the “stars,” dotted with eyes. “This one,” she says, holding up the bumpy variety we’d tasted last night, “is called ‘the potato that brings your daughter-in-law to tears,’ ” because the bumps make it a nightmare to peel.
Cocktail hour back at the lodge is a chance to sip pisco sours and consult with guides about the next day’s activities. I like that a guide sits down individually with each guest to go over our daily schedules. The open-plan dining room, bar, and lounge area, with modern furnishings and airy, native-wood construction, has views of the mountains. Like the whole ethos of the lodge, it’s high-quality, but understated, with large photos of local scenes and splashes of color from handwoven blankets.
Dinner brings another opportunity to sample Martínez’s dishes, including alpaca, which reminds me of lamb; trout marinated in bright pink cactus fruit that I’ve seen growing throughout the valley; and a local duck leg served with a rich, risottolike mixture of Andean grains. That blend of quinoa and other grains with shreds of duck meat is definitely a contender for “new favorite food” status.
Fortunately for my waistline, Explora’s program offers hikes ranging from expert to easy. The altitude — more than 9,000 feet — adds an extra challenge, though, and takes some acclimation. On the plus side, Martínez says that extreme altitudes make plants struggle to protect themselves, much like wine grapes grown in challenging soil. That makes for deep, intense, and concentrated flavor.
Salt of the Earth
On my hike the next day, an easy downhill trek of about 3 miles, we visit Inca salt pans still in use today. Approaching from above, our group turns a corner and spots the afternoon light glinting off hundreds of small pools of evaporating salt water — a spectacular sight. Our guide explains that the area was once a sea, so salt is trapped in layers of the surrounding rock and gets carried out by a spring. The water then flows into terraced pools lining the small canyon, carried by gravity and an intricate irrigation system. As the sun drops lower, the pools reflect reds, pinks, and golds.
Mesmerized, our group ignores the guide’s urging to move along so we can finish our hike. With the last photo finally snapped, he tells us it’s too late to continue; the sun will soon set. Before hopping in a van back to the lodge, we hopeless dawdlers pause at a small stand to buy little bags of the local salt. While I can’t take back any of the many boggling Peruvian ingredients I’ve sampled, I will be able to sprinkle a little Sacred Valley magic on my food back home.
Details: Lodge rooms from $1,112 per person for a minimum two nights’ stay, all-inclusive. 800-838-9120; explora.com
World-Class Dining in Lima
In June of last year, Virgilio Martínez moved his Central restaurant to a new site in Lima’s trendy Barranco neighborhood. Then that August, his wife, Pía León (who ran Central’s kitchen), opened her own restaurant, Kjolle, in the same building. Here, the culinary adventures you can expect at these two headline-grabbing dining spots.
The print on Central’s circular menu spirals around, listing 16 courses, including the altitude from which each dish was sourced — spanning from 4,350 meters (Andean grains, including choclo corn and kiwichas, like mini-quinoa) to -25 meters (scallops and sea lettuce). You may feel like you’ve spiraled down a culinary rabbit hole, as presentations both wonderful and bizarre appear. A dish of percebes (goose barnacles) arrives perched on a bed of barnacle shells. A single, perfect potato emerges from an earthen crust. A morsel of piranha skin lays atop fearsome piranha heads. Many courses have multiple components, and it’s wise to confirm what can and can’t be eaten — and in what order. It’s a meal to reward the adventurous and terrify the timid. There’s nothing like it in the world. Tasting menu, about $180. centralrestaurante.com.pe
Named for a high-altitude plant, León’s restaurant offers flexibility, with an a la carte menu or nine-course tasting option. Rather than sticking to single ecosystems, León uses similar ingredients to Central’s but may mix, say, Andean and Amazonian components in the same dish. With each course, servers deliver a sample of an unusual ingredient in the raw, so you can better understand what you’re eating. From warm bread, made with roots resembling miniature turnips, to crispy triangles of pork jowl with cocona, a yellow Amazonian fruit, to a dessert with gel made from the mucilage surrounding cocoa beans, meals are fascinating and delicious. Kjolle is as formidable a match to Central as León is to Martínez. Mains from about $21; tasting menu, about $125. kjolle.com
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