Interview: Virgilio Martinez on his Dubai debut
Peruvian cuisine has been in the global spotlight for a few years now, and Dubai has been no different. At 2016’s Caterer Middle East Food & Business Conference, it was predicted that no less than 14 Peruvian concepts would be open by the end of the year. It’s in the shadow of this Peruvian emergence that celebrated chef Virgilio Martínez opened his first restaurant in the Middle East, with Lima Dubai in City Walk Dubai.
Martínez tells Caterer Middle East that this trend was seen in London a few years ago as well. “In two years, I saw about 12 or 13 Peruvian restaurants in London, and this is happening in Dubai. It’s not a trend, Peruvian cuisine has been around for years. The thing is, the world never discovered this part of Latin America.”
He adds that opening a venue in Dubai has happened at the right time, with Lima being the concept among his portfolio (which includes Central, Lima and Nos) the one best suited for global expansion. He says: “Many friends and chefs have come over here; there’s something happening here, it cannot be denied. The city is growing and growing, and gastronomy is growing with the city. For us, I wouldn’t say it was easy, but it was quite nice to have the opportunity to come to promote our ingredients.”
Eight chefs in the 14-strong kitchen have previously worked with Martínez, and he says the opening of Lima Dubai has delivered an opportunity to promote not just Peruvian food, but show the region what the culture and cuisine is all about. The team will be headed by South American chef Diego Sanchez, who has previously worked in Dubai at Grosvenor House's Toro Toro. In preparation for his role heading up the kitchen of Lima Dubai, Sanchez worked alongside Martínez at Central in Lima, Peru.
The rest of the team has been picked for their attitude with Martínez saying he loves having a team that gets along. “When you’re in the kitchen and you spend so many hours together you have to get along. There’s no shouting in our kitchen, there’s no crazy thing like you see on TV with chefs yelling. We try to avoid these very disrespectful things, and I want to see very calm, dedicated people – who don’t have to be Peruvians. Peruvian food is very global so people from all over the world are welcome to be part of this dream, to have Peruvian restaurants in different parts of the world which never happened before.
“[Having a mix of different cultures in the kitchen] is important because you have different perspectives. We are not just doing traditional Peruvian cuisine, we are innovating, so it’s good to have people from different places.”
Martínez explains that he wants to share the changes seen in the Peruvian cuisine landscape over the last decade to the diners in Dubai. “The kind of Peruvian cuisine that people are aware of is the melting pot of Incan culture and Spanish and Italian, Japanese, Chinese — the mix of cultures that happened organically over 500 years, but that is one part of Peruvian gastronomy.
“There’s way more: the whole business of ingredients and the culture. All this deserves a place to be showcased, and cities like Dubai are great to do this,” the chef adds.
Talking about ingredients, it’s clear that Martínez is passionate about the topic. Just before the opening of the restaurant, he posted on Instagram about Andean potatoes that would be served at the outlet. I ask him about ingredients that will be used at Lima Dubai, and he comments that having the opportunity to bring products from small producers in Peru to the UAE is what he’s looking forward to.
“I happen to be born in one of the most bio-diverse places in the world, which is Peru. You can be by the sea and then in one hour you can be up in the mountains, and then in another hour you can be crossing to the Amazonian jungles. That’s just amazing not just in terms of geography and landscape but amazing in terms of ingredients,” he says.
“I go and meet the producers, and not just take whatever they have — for us it’s a matter of trying to understand how they cultivate and forage items. Our job is to work with these producers, find ingredients and then promote them wherever we go.” Martínez does assert, however, that he’s keen to work with local ingredients from the Middle East where possible.
The Dubai venue is the first Lima outside of London, where the restaurant was awarded a Michelin star shortly after opening, the first for a Peruvian restaurant. The Michelin star has been retained for five consecutive years. At the time of going to print, Martínez’s restaurant, Central Restaurante in Peru, was ranked fourth in 2016’s World’s Best 50 list — with the new rankings set to be announced on April 5 in Melbourne, Australia. Does this lend itself to creating tension or pressure for Martínez or his team, I wonder?
He says it’s not something he obsesses over. “When I start to think about what we have achieved in the past few years, it’s a result of our work, so we just continue to be focused on that. Of course, at some point you start to feel like you want more and feel more ambitious, but you don’t have to let these feelings affect you or your team.
“We have been pushing ourselves [so far] because of our passion — that is the best motivation, not how much we can achieve. Things have to happen organically and that’s how things have been happening in my life. I want to continue this way.”
And there’s a lot on the cards for the chef. There’s the move of Central from one district to another in Lima later this year, where diners will also be able to access a space headed by Mater Iniciativa (the biological and cultural research project spearheaded by Martínez and his sister Malena). The current head chef of Central, Pía León, who is also Martínez’s wife, will open her own restaurant next door. “We’ll be competing,” he laughs, then adds: “It’s amazing, I really love working with her. We’ve been doing this for eight years. Now it’s time to move on and do something different. She will be back in to Central of course. I’ll miss her!”
Also on the cards is the opening of a food and interpretation lab by Mater Iniciativa in Cusco, Peru, dedicated to ingredients and innovation. He reveals: “Our next huge project is going to be a lab on top of the mountains in Cusco, which is going to see a lot of disciplines working together – researchers, scientists, designers, architects.” The lab will work on researching and registering ingredients in their place of origin.
Martínez explains: “I think the project is quite amazing because we live in a place where we know very little about how many ingredients we have in Peru — so we are working on registering ingredients in their place of origin, getting inspiration from them, and finding out if they are edible, if they have some (special) properties.” He adds that this project would serve as a solid base for innovation, and help the culinary sector in Peru go back to its roots.
The Michelin-starred chef always brings his conversation back to the bigger picture, thinking about nature, and preservation of natural eco-systems. Martínez is keen to bring about change, through his various projects, and he concludes: “Being a chef is great; I feel so lucky to be in this position but I’ve learned there are many things you can do that are really important to be part of something that is ambitious of real change.”
Top quotes from Caterer’s Food & Business Conference 2017
On opening a restaurant in the UAE, Lima Dubai…
“Why not Dubai? Dubai has been growing a lot; I came here seven years ago and it has changed a lot. I’ve seen many restaurants opening and many restaurants closing too unfortunately, but it’s a good destination because it’s so multi-cultural.”
On chefs keeping an eye on front-of-house…
“We try to break the barrier between front-of-house and chefs, so most of our kitchens are all open. Chefs have a look of what’s happening with the diners, whether they are enjoying or not and then we discuss afterwards with the front-of-house team. For me, that’s a philosophy of hospitality.”
“We have more than 4,000 varieties of potatoes and I have seen only 400 in my life. I’d be very happy to see 40 varieties of potatoes here.”
On Dubai being ready for a Michelin guide…
“Yeah of course. You have many good restaurants here, and I’ve seen so much energy and positivity with what’s happening with restaurants and chefs. These guides or lists are very good for exposure.”
On the pressure of winning stars and being in lists…“Now we learn not to think about that, that happened [winning stars] because of the work that we were doing and we just have to continue with that and do better. That kind of pressure is not healthy.”
On the inspiration behind the ‘altitude’ menu at Central…
“We were doing tasting menus but they were based on European or American influences where I used to work before. We knew that we were living in one of the most bio-diverse places in the world, and we decided to make a menu inspired by Peruvian bio-diversity.”
On current challenges for the food industry…
“Thinking about food waste, and how I’m going to feed that many people on the planet – that’s going to be a concern. We are not just cooking for 100 or 200 people; 100 is nothing, 200-300 is nothing, 500 is nothing. We have to think about the people across the world.”
On his journey into the F&B industry…
“I wanted to travel and I had to get a job to survive [after which he decided to take a job in a kitchen]. I then realised I wanted to be a chef. I was supposed to be a lawyer in Peru and then I left university to work in restaurants and travel.”