In the second part of her story on eating and spending time in Cusco, Peru with chef Virgilio Martínez, staff writer Lauren Barragan gives us a closer look at who the chef really is. In her first piece, we got to hear about the experience of dining at Senzo, the chef’s Cusco outpost that focuses on food sourced exclusively from the region. Here, we get to know a little more about what drives the chef and how he handles fame, celebrity status, and a whirlwind lifestyle. Serenity is in the mountains.
By Lauren Barragan
When one thinks of Cusco, there are a few first things that come to mind. Machu Picchu, the Sacred Valley, and beautiful land surrounding you in every direction, all with a deeply rooted story of the locals’ history. It is here that a beautiful story can be told through all of the resources Cuscqueños have embedded in their rich, lush soil.For Chef Virgilio Martinez, this is the foundation and principle of his latest talked about restaurant, Senzo. Senzo is one of several namesakes that Martinez has staked and transformed into an epicenter for people from all over the globe to come and try to get a piece of the experience. There are many great chefs who can create a beautiful dish that is both aesthetically pleasing to the eye, as well as enticing to the senses. Martinez has managed to check those both off in all of his restaurants, from Lima’s hot spot that never dies down, Central, to his international and first Peruvian Michelin star awarded Lima in fog city, London. However, Senzo has something that the other metropolitan beauties cannot ever replicate–it rests within the very corazón that is Peruvian cuisine: Cusco. And there is no question when you have tasted your first bite of a Martinez masterpiece on a plate, that it is, without a doubt, channeling all of the mystical beauty and timelessness that is Cusco. To be fair, here is the disclaimer. The man behind the curtain is about to be revealed for what he really is. This chef is anything but the typical hyped up, spotlight consuming, too-cool-for-school chef that one easily runs across in this industry. Chef Martinez, in fact, upon meeting, seems very much more like Virgilio; a Peruvian every day person, just like you or I, with a passion for the land and a huge heart for anyone who shares his love of food. While in Cusco, he was kind enough to take the time to meet an eager food enthusiast, with no known name and not even so much as a business card to hide behind. I walked into Senzo, a non-Spanish speaking gringa with a passion for good food, admiration for anyone who can create it with soul, and not much more. Back home in California that wouldn’t take you far, aside from being the equivalent to a chef groupie, which means little to nothing. However, this chef is no ordinary chef. He is his sous chef. He is his prep cooks. He is his hostess that greets you at the entrance. He is his farmers that pluck the very food you eat from the earth, leaving their fingerprints upon your meal. Virgilio is as true as they come and I was so very lucky to spend a day with him and get to know the man behind the chef coat. Upon arriving in Cusco, I happened to catch Virgilio Martinez on his one day in Cusco, away from the bustle of Central, to check in on his restaurant and “reconnect with his inspiration” as he referred to it. Within mere minutes I was asked to accompany him and his good friend to spend the day in the Sacred Valley. Just like that, they both welcomed me with open arms. It was a no brainer of course, taking me all but the two and a half seconds to compose my internal excitement, to say yes. And just like that we were off. Chef Martinez sat with me on the drive, telling me about Mater Iniciativa, an initiative started by he and his team, in an effort to explore the vast world of undiscovered or long forgotten ingredients that are resting in every corner of Peru’s mountains, ocean, valleys and rivers. His team is comprised of other chefs, anthropologists and specialists in botany, medicine and nutrition, to name a few. He sat talking to me about everything native, from rare edible flowers that grow rapidly in Peru and nowhere else, to cushuro, a beautifully fresh tasting bacteria that grows in lakes of the Andes at high altitudes. His goal seemed very clear: to expose as much of the riches that were hidden in Peruvian soil, as possible. While Chef certainly has seen the world and probably has access to any ingredient wanted, near or far, he remains true to his identity. He doesn’t cook anything out of the boundaries of his home. And he doesn’t pretend to be anything he’s not: Peruvian, to the very core, and proud of it.
It wasn’t just hearing a knowledgeable chef talk about rare-to-find ingredients. It was being educated by an enthusiast with so much love and pride in his heritage, that it literally poured out in the words he used to describe such treasures from the earth. He shared with me some of the Cusqueño history, from the ancient Incan ways of testing their agriculture at different climates with the brilliant engineering that you can see in the ruins of Moray, to the struggles many endured during the more recent history only three decades ago, where terrorism took a chokehold on the country. And through all of the melodic anecdotes he shared with me, amidst the most serene of backdrops in the lush Sacred Valley, the thing he conveyed, or at least the message I got most from him was this: Peru has persevered. Peru has withstood the tests of time, of change, of war, natural disaster, empires risen and fallen and perhaps scariest of all, modern development that threatens the preservation of a vivacious culture and history. Yet it’s because of people like Virgilio Martinez, who stay true to their land and the people that make it, that no change great or small has been able to touch Peru. Its culture is as deeply rooted as the rare ingredients that Virgilio and his team discover when working in the field, searching high and low for unnoticed foods of their ancestors. In many ways, when listening to his stories of findings, one can’t help but see the parallel these edible discoveries have with ancient fossils that fill in the missing puzzle pieces of ancient cultures past.The team that Virgilio Martinez works closely with extends not just within his kitchen on the line, but to the fields where every ingredient is harvested. He and his team have begun a new exchange with the farmers who work in the Andes harvesting. In addition to coming to learn from them and harvest with them, the kitchen team then shows their gratitude by sharing their culinary knowledge in teaching the locals how to prepare these ingredients, in an effort to boost the diets of local Peruanos, who up until now, have not really had the exposure nor means to eat in a healthy and sustainable way. Virgilio seemed to be incredibly humble in sharing this, expressing that he and his team are the ones who are lucky to be included in learning the farm workers skills directly from them. It’s very clear, that despite a Michelin star, several successful restaurants, traveling the world to cook with the best and endless press spotlights, these things have had no impact on his ability to maintain his modesty. Virgilio is the kind of guy that has everything it takes to be the best, and hold his place at the top for a very long time, leaving a legacy on each plate. And yet he is exactly the kind of guy who rocks his tattered skinny jeans, rips open a bag of coca leaves offering them to a complete stranger and invites them into his home, his kitchen, and for a brief time while you’re in his presence, even into a glimpse of his world everyday, from past, to present, to future. I feel so incredibly lucky to have seen the source of his inspiration through his eyes and alongside him in the beautiful Sacred Valley. And anyone who wants to see it as well, can just taste it in a plate that he creates. Because it’s transparent and pure and has all the heart that the very majestic mountains of Cusco themselves possess.