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A culinary expedition with Peru's intrepid top chef
By Moises AVILA, Luis Jaime CISNEROS
Lima (AFP) July 8, 2016

As a teenager on the streets of Lima, Virgilio Martinez aspired to a life of extremes, hoping to become a professional skateboarder.

When a fractured collarbone sidelined that dream, he swapped the skateboard for the cutting board.

In 2009, he opened his flagship restaurant Central in Lima -- currently ranked as Latin America's top eatery and fourth globally by The World's 50 Best list.

"I've always had the urge to do intense things, and the first time I set foot in a kitchen, I realized I was going to be a chef," Martinez, 38, told AFP.

"The kitchen is our gym. This is where I train to improve."

His 28-year-old wife Pia, who gave birth to their son Diego Cristobal six months ago, runs Central's kitchen.

Martinez calls Pia his "leader in life and leader in the kitchen."

With his $120-per-person tasting menus Martinez, takes guests on a journey through Peru's most remote ecosystems.

In a cozy lounge with some 15 tables, diners can eat crab meat served on marine rocks from five meters (16 feet) below sea level.

"You can be eating from a marine ecosystem or products that come from more than 4,000 meters above sea level," Martinez says.

He has expanded to own two restaurants in London and another is slated to open in Dubai.

- The science of culinary art -

In Peru, home of the potato and quinoa, he wants to give other native ingredients a place of honor.

His favorite Peruvian ingredients include ocas, mashua and ollucos -- all varieties of tubers -- and choclo, or giant corn.

"The food's transformation does not need to be so significant. The connection to the producer is the most important, the quality, and everything behind the produce," Martinez said.

Now he wants to develop his art into a science.

"Our obligation is to discover and research, to have cuisine that is always evolving and innovating," the chef added.

"I think we're on the way to developing (culinary) laboratories and research departments in Peru."

- Elite dining in a poor nation -

At the heart of Central is the Mater Initiative, a gastronomic research group led by Martinez.

It partners with local producers, many of them living in poverty, which affects 22 percent of Peru's population.

"We cook for elites, people who reserve a table three months in advance, but the people who come have a duty to know the importance of a potato, a pepper, a fish" to poorer communities, Martinez said.

"How can a country have so-called 'cuisine' when there is malnutrition and hunger? One way to change this is to promote our own produce -- what we use is 100 percent Peruvian."

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