Virgilio Martínez: "Allowing so much waste is a lack of respect"
He does not like the easy or the obvious, or the convenient. He gets excited about going out into the field and getting fully immersed. In contact with nature, and obsessed with exploring Andean ecosystems according to their altitude, he takes advantage of everything he reaches as a necessary condition to being creative. Among the leading figures in cuisine, not only in Peru and Latin American, but worldwide, the chef of Central is sensitive and responsible: not because he ought to, but because he wants to.
How do you take on the sustainable management of resources and their utilisation in Central?
We go out into the field to find many of our products, we make a great effort to bring them in their natural state: it makes sense to use them whole, if not to eat them, to decorate or prepare things. 20% of our cooking is devoted to research: part of the work is to see what is surplus or does not work to somehow use it on the next menu.
The coca leaf tree: we make a cream with the seeds, we cook with the leaves and we use the branches to decorate our establishment. With corn we are not only interested in the cob, but also the husks, tufts and hairs for infusions... And so on.
Why take the trouble?
Indeed the easiest way is to call a supplier to deliver to your door, fill up with regular ingredients and use the pretty, well-known or tasty part of them. However, we are excited about showing other possibilities.
How do you transcend the obvious use of a product?
By researching. For this we have used Mater, the initiative which takes us to isolated Andean communities to collect not only products, but also their stories. Recently, I almost inadvertently ruined a meal. We offered the inhabitants of a community dishes with rosemary, and the people were shocked. The men did not want to eat it because, for them, rosemary only has medicinal uses, in beverages taken by women during their menstruation. It was hard. But then you learn new things: until recently, we only used the root of an endemic mustard plant. Then we saw how in the community they soaked the leaves in nearby rivers, for two days, to refine the flavour and then use them in stews. Now we make dry structures with these leaves and serve them as a snack.
Should every cook take on these issues as part of an unavoidable ethical commitment?
It seems obligatory to me, but not by force, it comes naturally, because it is not only related to an issue of conscience but also with the need to be creative. If we limit ourselves to the conventional, and we do not seek to learn everything a product gives, we come to a standstill. At Central we try, despite being in a world where aesthetics and luxury and vanity sometimes prevail.
Why are you interested in these issues?
It gives me great satisfaction to get something extra from things we thought could not give any more. Then, we are sensitive cooks: we are interested in sharing the emotion we feel for our surroundings, passing on to others the concerns for the product, the value of going to the land; innovating with what for others would be "limited resources": branches with stems, leaves, flowers and seeds...
How can you make the diner appreciate stems, leaves, seeds and flowers...?
When we explain that we conceptualise our menus based on altitudes and ecosystems; we tell them where what we use comes from and explain that it is achieved meagrely... the appreciation changes, people understand and become aware.
Over time, haute cuisine came to appreciate perfect shapes as an aesthetic condition, regardless of the waste that this involved. However, at Central, you have achieved your own aesthetics: How do you reconcile these slogans?
We reverse the rule and show that what is perfect is precisely the imperfect. Along the way, we achieve aesthetics that is our trademark: we do not square off, there are no exact shapes, but rather points, uneven corners... we respect the beauty of the ingredients, showing the customer how an ingredient appears in its own ecosystem according to the season. I come from the French school, I was taught to cut perfectly, but I have gradually forgotten it. Allowing so much waste is also a lack of respect, especially in countries like ours.
Is "no waste" a fad? How can you be consistent between what you say and what you do?
These issues need to embraced, to see them as normal, but above all as correct. Taking this seriously will make what we do significant, and contribute with more and better resources in the future.
Can a chef generate important changes?
If we work under the logic of what is obviously right, I think so. What a restaurant does, uses or says can shape behaviour, but without losing perspective: small-scale, making small daily decisions that bring to life your philosophy of work and life. If you are consistent you can achieve important things.