(Virgilio’s quinoa and seed sampling during Master Chef classes in Melbourne, Australia; via my iPhone)
The World’s Top 50 Restaurants was announced on Monday and I’m particularly thrilled. Spain dominates. Just the more reason I must go back pronto and indulge in the cuisine a leading group of 600 deem to be the finest in the world. There’s no doubt I’ve had amazing food every time I’ve been to Spain, but nothing on the caliber of the starred places. In fact, the most memorable has been eating fresh, piping hot churros with oozing, melting dark chocolate at a churro bar in Madrid, around 1 am. That was in 2007. But I’m not excited because Spain did its thing. I’m excited because as a growing chef and master foodie, I’m lucky to have enjoyed a marvelous dinner at Pujol, one of Mexico City‘s top restaurants and no. 17 on the list, this past November, and more affective is having privately dined with two of the chef/owners on the list — Joel Robuchon being one, of course, and Virgilio Martinez of Central in Lima, Peru. Oh, and I’ve chatted a bit in person with Magnus Nilsson of Fäviken in Sweden, clutching no. 34 on the list (his book is gorgeous!).
Before I get to Spain, though, my sights are set on Peru, where a young 35 year old Virgilio tops the cake at his stucco style Central, locking in no. 50. I’m keen on making this happen for a few reasons, all which are justified and simply meant to be when you consider the dynamics.
As you may know, I’m working with Sargento Cheese as a tastemaker and recipe developer this year where I get to explore a culinary trend as assigned by Rick Bayless. Not so coincidentally, I was given Peruvian cuisine. I’m Latina, tasked to cover Latin food. Seamless relationship, right? In the last 2 months I’ve become quite acquainted with their food and culture. I had existing knowledge, identifying some of my favorite foods yielding from their rich heritage, but nothing like the wealth of delicious information I’m finding. I’ve already interpreted a few recipes and still digging into my creative space to design original plates that tantalize and introduce us all to this global gem.
That’s exactly what their food is… A gem hidden in the Andes and beyond. Pink salt. Ubiquitous portions and varieties of quinoa. Cheese sauces. Fish. Japanese influence.
Interestingly, my most intimate encounter with Peruvian cuisine was far away from my own kitchen. On the other side of the world, to be exact.
Early last month, I went to Australia to jaunt their land while wining and dining through their massive Food & Wine festival. On the agenda on one particular day was a sold out experience of hour-long classes with master chefs from around the world. My sis and I got to pick 3 sessions to attend that day. I looked at my options and without giving it much thought, checked off Virgilio’s session. I’d heard very little of him so I felt it was the perfect introduction to his work.
(Virgilio via my Instagram)
The ballroom was packed to the rim with attentive attendees as curious as I. We all pierced our ears to the fore of the room and watched his every move. He talked very casually of his fiancée and executive chef, Pia, who was holding down the movement of his presentation. He chatted intently about his love and passionate affair with his country’s food and how he envisioned it playing a role in the global scene of fine food. He made it very clear his was a mission of paying homage to centuries old traditions and ingredients which are only now picking up momentum.
According to Virgilio, Peruvian food has always been exotic and super popular. He’s not exactly sure how it’s garnered international acclaim recently other than it being plain old awesome food.
His talk and demo focused on old traditional ingredients, techniques, and methods. He introduced us to a legend rooted in cacao. His video presentation merged Peru’s tree life with their rich cacao seeds which yield a lovely homage to the land caretakers. He was very impassioned about preserving their history and helping the world and Peruvians alike understand and appreciate the diverse composition of his food.
We all got to try pretty petite samplings of a beautiful dish made of Peru’s esteemed yellow potato (I think I’ve touched on their bounty of ver 500 types) with black quinoa and pretty edible flowers. He briefly teased us with one of his popular dishes made with arapaima, chia seed, sacha inchi oil, and Amazon fruit. I’m familiar with chia and Amazon fruit, but the sacha oil was new to me. I looked it up and learned it’s extracted by pressing seeds and flesh of the fruit of the pracaxi, a tree native to the area surrounding the Amazon river.
(Virgilio’s sampling of yellow potatoes with black quinoa and borage flowers via my iPhone)
I had my helping and like a little greedy child who’d not eaten since dinner the night before, helped myself to my sister’s and one other writer who passed in anticipation of dessert. My sis pinched my wrist and told me act like a grown up. She ever-so-kindly reminded me I’d also had three shots of the yellow tiger’s milk with maca root he’d demo’d 20 minutes prior. Surely, she missed the memo: I was sitting 3 ft from this fine young thing and essentially was spoon fed his famous food.
Plus, I was working. Eating and reviewing is what I do.
(Virgilio discussing the different corn varieties used in Peruvian cuisine; via my Instagram)
His entire demo was a simple one but completely gorgeous, not missing a single detail. Kind of like him. It’s a double score attending a superb $300 class with a wildly popular chef whom not only makes sexy food, but is pleasing to the eye, too.
I could have looked at him just a bit longer after his demo.
Oh, wait! I did! One of the other journalists on the trip, Alejendra, whom ironically sits on the prestigious board that determines the top 50 list, is friends with Virgilio, and kindly invited sis and me to a private lunch.
Que, que?? I scrapped the 3rd session of the day and headed off to Dainty’s, Melbourne’s best Chinese restaurant. I’d dare say it’s the best, more authentic, most divine, most delicious Chinese I’ve ever had. No competition stateside, for sure. I’ll share the experience later since we spent 3 hours with a most hilarious Chinese native host.
Our lunch tryst was well-spent talking food politics, the business of food writing, rating restaurants and chefs, and naturally, the food we were enjoying.
Seeing I was sitting right next to Virgilio, we snuck in conversations about my work with Sargento and how perfectly timed our meeting was. Could the stars have been better aligned? He was genuinely interested in my exploration into his food and offered any kind of help I needed.He was even curious to see how I’d incorporate cheese into one of his recipes. I see a welcome challenge. Oh, I also mentioned how imperative (more like badly) it is I attend Peru’s Food & Wine festival this fall. Well… as lucky as I would be, he just kind of let me know he sits on the visiting guests committee for the festival and would make sure I was there.
Yeah, his words. Over fabulous Chinese food. In Australia. On a beautiful day. While sharing a plate of searing spicy chicken.
The afternoon really couldn’t have gotten any better, but it did. I’ll save that for much later this summer. But, imagine me and Pia hanging out in Lima, shopping for cute flats we can frolic in after a long day in the kitchen
(Pia, me, and Virgilio after a delectable Chinese lunch)
Little did I know just 5 weeks ago I’d be writing this little story about a chef whose restaurant is all the buzz, pedestaled among the world’s finest. And how knew I’d be in personal contact with a world renowned chef whose cuisine is the very crux of my culinary expansion this year. And is just a email or text away.
Instantly, my job just got much easier.
Our long afternoon ended on full note with accolades dished out to Dainty, our humble host and owner of her self-named restaurant.
I made new friends, my sis ate more than she bargained for, and I left a really happy “colleague” of Virgilio Martinez.
Lima, Peru, next.
If you had lunch with Virgilio, what would you love to know about his culinary life? Is there anything you’d love for him to make for you? I’ll share with him if you share with me!