Virgilio Martinez Veliz, recently named best cook in the world by Chef’s Choice 2017, is a man driven by his passions. Growing up with an architect mother (who he relies upon to design his restaurants) and a bank lawyer father, Virgilio skated the streets of Lima testing his skills and tasting the foods – Japanese, Filipino, Italian, Chinese, Chifa, (Chinese -Peruvian fusion) Peruvian and many others. He started by grinding rails, but now grinds herbs.
His evolution is an extraordinary one. Once a member of the ‘legendary’ skateboard team, “Choncordia”, he broke his shoulder while skating in California. It healed and then he broke it again while riding in Peru. He gave up riding, but can still do a 360.
He decided to go to law school, and for two years he studied, until he realized that he was drawn to food; excellent food. He wanted to travel, his sister says he never was able to sit still. “He has so much energy.” He worked at a restaurant in Canada, and, as he says, he realized that he could work peeling potatoes, or he could learn the language and work as a chef. He completed two Cordon Bleu schools, one in Ottowa and one in London.
He worked in Gastón Acurio’s restaurant in Madrid, but Gastón realized that Virgilio wasn’t a follower, but a leader. Gastón says, “People started telling me that he was much more creative than me. So, I went to Madrid to see my restaurant. I tasted arroz con pato, which is a traditional Peruvian dish. It was completely changed. I told him to put the dish back. “You need to put more of this and that and that.” And I left… I felt there’s a moment that you need to play the game, and there’s a moment that you need to play your game. Clearly, it was time for him to play his game”. Gastón suggested that Virgilio open his own restaurant. (Reference)
Virgilio returned to Peru, and eating his native food, he realized how little he knew about Peruvian food. He began searching for ingredients used in the areas of Peru, the ones that were known to the people, but were underutilized. His sister, Malena. a physician, worked with him to create Mater Iniciativa , an institute that cataloges and gathers plants and other edibles from around Peru which is also known as an ecological research center. (Reference)
Women are an important part of his success. He works with his wife, Pia Leon, a chef in her own right, his sister, his mother, and Karime Lopez Moreno Tagle . Virgilio realizes that his success is founded on his team and they work with him to create dreams. (Reference)
Virgilio opened Senzo in Cusco, and became familiar with the residents and life there. When he decided to move to Lima, he changed the course of his cooking. He was unhappy that people compared his food to that they had in London or Paris. He wanted them to enjoy Peru. “I went to the Andean community I usually visit near Cuzco that produces potatoes and heritage potatoes, wild herbs, and other tubers,” he says.”We slept at homes belonging to belonging to Acomayo residents, and they really looked after us: we cooked together and went foraging.” (Reference)
Central, Virgilio’s restaurant in Lima, has been named the 5th best restaurant in the world. The menu offers food of Peru… using altitudes to determine each course. From sea level to the high Andes, the food arrives with natural ingredients shown off to reflect their environment.
Virgilio says, “We as chefs don’t see Peru as a dining destination; we see it as a place where you can feel food, culture and people sharing and being happy. That will continue to attract people to experience something which is authentic and very emotional. No special effects, no marketing needed. We need to protect our ecosystems, our geography, food, produce and people”.(Reference)