You may know Virgilio Martínez from the episode on Netflix Chef’s Table that dramatically explored the homeland of this Peruvian chef. The episode in question showed him to be a naturally curious forager, constantly on the hunt for new ingredients, then scientifically cataloging them for use in his restaurant. Or you may know him from his renowned restaurant Central in Lima, which hit number 6 on The World’s 50 Best list this year. Or you may have heard about his brand-new Hong Kong restaurant, ICHU (read Foodie’s review), opened in the recently unveiled H Queen’s building in Central. Or you may be quite uninitiated with this quietly charismatic chef as yet. Either way, he is solidly making an impact on the culinary world and giving the ingredients of Peru a platform on the world stage.
How would you explain your approach to cooking?
For me, cuisine is very linked to a story and culture, and it’s very emotional for me, so it’s not about the taste. The taste is not that important. Everything has to taste good, of course, but the story and the culture and the way you use ingredients are much better than taste alone.
What did you eat when you were growing up?
My family was all the time thinking about food, vegetables and ingredients. We used to go to the beach and be with the fisherman. We have a connection with local farmers.
Will you try to make that connection here in Hong Kong or bring ingredients from Peru?
It’s a very tricky thing, because most of the ingredients that are coming into Hong Kong have already been sent here, but we are pushing to bring a lot of Peruvian ingredients that nobody has seen before. We’re trying to push the boundaries of taste for people, because this is a city where there are many restaurants, so I think it’s a good audience to understand different palates.
Do you see any parallels between Hong Kong and Lima?
Yes, people are in love with food, and I think that’s important. And, you know, people are willing to pay a good amount of money for food.
Do you see an affinity between what you’re doing and traditional Chinese medicine?
Yes, that’s amazing – over here you have so much wisdom of ingredients and how food is healing. The relationship between food and health is important, and the same is happening in Peru.
What made you want to open here?
Hong Kong is such a multicultural city, which, for me, is amazing. It’s very inspiring to open a restaurant here, even though I know they close and open, and it’s a challenge.
Are chef collaborations around the world something you enjoy or would you rather be in your own kitchens?
Well, you know, I really want to understand that the food that we do is coming from Peru and we are trying not to have influences from different cuisines. I do respect a lot of chefs, but I don’t want to do their food. I understand that the food you serve has to speak about, in our case, has to speak about our land. And that’s my main inspiration. I used to work in Spain and London and New York, and I was trying to do French cuisine, Italian cuisine, but I was getting lost, because I’m Peruvian. And, you know, what is important about food is identity.
Your head chef here at ICHU is Korean?
He’s Korean, but he’s spent three years in Peru, and he became very Peruvian. It’s funny because he understands the Asian palate, and in a way he understands how we Peruvians think. I think he’s amazing and the perfect guy for here.
How do you manage your work-life balance with all your projects and a family?
Because my wife is a chef and we are all the time together, so I actually live at Central. So can you imagine every time I wake up, my first cup of coffee, I have it in the kitchen of Central. And, in the end, we’re searching for perfection all the time, so it’s difficult. You have to watch it for balance, and I have a kid, so you know I don’t see my friends anymore – I see my kid, and that’s my balance.
Semillas de cacao
Has your Chef’s Table episode helped people to better understand your cuisine?
A lot. Because at the beginning, my tasting menu – there’s only one menu – people didn’t understand that. It was 16 courses, and they didn’t understand the concept. So, for us, it was a bit difficult – we could manage – but after Chef’s Table, they put it in a very easy way, and it’s a very influential show.
Have you tasted anything you’ve loved here in Hong Kong?
Yes, of course! Pork, the duck, the dumplings and the soups. I like the hot food. In Peru, we don’t eat very hot food. For me, it’s quite amazing.
ICHU, 3/F, H Queen’s, 80 Queen’s Road Central, Central, 2477 7717, book online
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