Last December, I had the privilege of dining at Central, the No. 1 restaurant in Latin America, and was proud that for another year, Lima was home to this honor. In a previous trip, Astrid + Gaston held that position, and their tasting menu The Journey was an unforgettably beautiful experience — a story, told in courses, of food and travels between Peru and Italy. The Corto tasting menu at Central, however, was something completely different. Earthy, raw, textural, and almost primal, the dishes prepared by Virgilio Martinez were about a pilgrimage across Peru, from the Pacific Coast, over the Andes mountains, and into the Amazon jungle. Dining here was a truly creative experience that connected me to the land in a profoundly intimate way.
Once again, I was happy to share my dining experience with my uncle, my partner in culinary and Pisco crime whenever I am in Lima. Naturally, we started with Pisco cocktails, and as we sat next to the kitchen, we would try to guess where our pilgrimage would take us next. To experience the tasting menu at Central is to experience the vertical ecology of Peru’s biodiversity that has been cultivated by the people of Peru since pre-Hispanic times. Plants, flowers, tubers, roots, and spices from vastly different elevations were the stars of each dish, and they were presented in a landscape that reminded one of their home. And course after course we became foragers, peeling off the layers of texture, colors, and flavors hidden in each microcosm of a plate. Starting with seaweed from 25 meters below sea level, climbing for coca bread at 1,250 meters above sea level, and climbing more for kiwicha from 2,875 meters above sea level, we were now in an expedition.
Our expedition at Central had caused such a profound impact, that I would be talking about it for days after we had returned back home to our world of traditional criollo dishes — Aji de Gallina, Seco de Cordero, Chilcano de Pisco, Carapulcra, Arroz con Leche, and more. While I grew up with these traditional dishes, and I am passionate about their history, I was inspired by what Virgilio Martinez and his research team at Mater had accomplished — dishes that were made with ingredients from Peru but which were unlike any Peruvian dishes I’ve ever had before. The dishes at Central connected us to the land, took us on an expedition, made us foragers, and ultimately explorers. In the kitchen, to the left of the plating station, there is a dark root sitting over a tree trunk, and next to that is the Mater office. A single tree can be seen in the back corner, growing through the floor, and into the ceiling, as a reminder that afuera hay más — there is more outside — and that it’s possible to fit a whole world onto a small plate.