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Heart of Diversity
Diversity isn’t just about celebrating differences in people, but also the abundance of nature – as Virgilio Martinez highlights through his work in promoting biodiversity.
Virgilio Martinez might think global as a restaurateur, but it is Peru that is in his heart.
He is the chef-owner of Mil in Cusco and Central Restaurante in Lima – the current best restaurant in South America. He is the chef patron of Lima, which has two locations in London and a third one in Dubai. In 2018, he opened Ichu Peru in Hong Kong, some 11,344 miles away from Peru by the way the crow flies. And with engagements and collaborations all around the world – including a recent appearance at the World’s 50 Best's thought-leadership series 50BestTalks in San Francisco, presented by Miele – Virgilio is definitely one with a very global presence. Yet no matter where in the world he might be, Peru is on his mind.
Every one of his restaurants serves modern Peruvian cuisine that highlights a wonderful spectrum of Peruvian ingredients. At his flagship, Central, you might be served discs of charred yacon roots placed atop a nest of carachama (indigenous armoured catfish) fins; strips of arrachacha root “noodles” swimming in a warm broth made with callampa mushrooms, dried tamarillo, avocado leaf and llama charqui (cured llama meat); charred mountain potatoes served with a shaving of dried alpaca heart. “I want you to be out of your comfort zone,” said Virgilio in his 50BestTalks presentation. But he does this not just to add a wow factor to his cuisine. The importance of showcasing these unfamiliar ingredients to his global diners goes beyond wowing them: it is about creating demand and value for the ingredient, and in turn impacts the people who care for it – the local Andean community who grow the ingredients. And this is a community that he works with directly through Mater Iniciativa, the non-profit organisation Virgilio set up with his sister Malena to study the cultural and biodiversity of Peru.
“I used to see many varieties of things – a great diversity of aromatics and tomatoes and potatoes in the markets,” he recalls. “I still see all these ingredients in the nature – in the Andes and the Amazon, but they just aren’t there in the markets now, (where the produce sold are largely homogenous). And that is quite sad. We need to go out and find them and promote them and consume them – things are not going to happen by itself.”
People, at the heart of it all
Unlike many chefs who speak of childhood growing up in farms and plantations, Virgilio – son of an architect mother and bank lawyer father – was not always so connected to ingredients and the complex ecosystem that nurtures it. It was only when he returned to Peru – after a decade away, first completing his training at Cordon Bleu in Ottawa and London, then working for some of the top chefs around Europe – that he realised how little he knew of his native cuisine.
Taking a year out of his cooking career to travel around Peru to learn about the food opened his eyes: “I saw how hard Andean communities were working to get the best food available to them, and at the same time I saw the waste in the supermarkets. The stark contrasts between the haves and the have-nots jolted me,” he recalls. He also saw how every ingredient is often not just a bounty of nature, but also the work of human nurture: “Food is linked to geography, history, anthropology, sociology… it is linked to the lives of so many people. I am talking about not just the lives of those who cooked it but also the people who grew it, the people who took care of it. When you see the story behind each and every ingredient, you realise how important biodiversity is.”
Virgilio cautions that with global trends becoming bigger and more influential these days, it is not uncommon for a person to be more familiar with foods from another culture than that of his own. So a youngster might be more familiar with hamburgers from a global fast food joint than a classic staple cooked by the grandmothers of his country; a proficient home cook in Asia might know all about French laminated pastry, but nothing about the traditional bakes of his own culture. “This is why I believe a lot on tradition and identity, and this is what I look at when I create dishes: I think about what my mother used to cook, I trace what Peruvians used to cook thousands of years ago,” he shares.
That said, Virgilio finds a silver lining in every phenomenon, and highlights that while it is good to consume local, it is also important to know what is happening in the world, because, “at the end of the day, we are all connected globally.” Rather than wall oneself in and look inwards, he has his sights set on the world: his work might be in promoting biodiversity in Peru, but he is taking his mission globally. It might take a while before we find yacon and callampa mushrooms – let alone piranha heads and alpaca hearts – in the pantry outside of Peru, but already his global following of diners and fans alike are adding these names to their food vocabulary. And that awareness is the first step to preserving and promoting an ingredient – and supporting the local Peruvian communities behind them.
Just as people are at the heart of Virgilio’s efforts in promoting biodiversity, it is people who drive Miele’s company culture of diversity. Apart from creating equal opportunity and respect for all, the company has also pushed forward in our endeavours – from empowering women to advance in their careers to schemes that allow our employees to maintain a harmonious work-life balance. The world is a global village made up of unique individuals, and we believe that tapping into this diversity is what enriches the company.