Martinez’s trajectory from law student in his home town to culinary schools in Ottawa and London to restaurant gigs in Colombia, Spain, Southeast Asia and New York (where he did entry-level work for the legendary Andre Soltner at Lutece) dizzies the résuméreader. His path reflects the reality that, until recently, Peru was not where anyone serious about cooking as a profession was likely to train. “I wasn’t proud as I am now” of the country’s food, Martinez says.
In 2012, it’s impossible to ignore Peru. Its most celebrated chef, Gaston Acurio, who has 36 outposts in 15 cities around the world, is spreading the Peruvian gospel this year with, he says, restaurants “in the nicest streets of the nicest cities in the world,” including Los Angeles, Miami and Barcelona. (Washington is a target for next year, he says.) Mistura, Lima’s fledgling annual food fair, attracts the chiefs of chefdom, which this past fall included Denmark’s Rene Redzepi and Spain’s Ferran Adria. Ceviche has become the beet salad of appetizers: It’s everywhere.
For the next few hours at Central, my comrades in forks and I encounter one example after another of what Martinez, lean as lemon grass and Hollywood handsome, calls a modern take on the “hectic” food of his country.
To dine at Central, which changes its menu six times a year, is to taste-test much of Peru. From the jungle of the Amazon comes the white-fleshed fish known as arapaima and from the mountains in the Andes comes everything from butter to chuno, a popular frozen dehydrated potato.
Martinez isn’t shy about using things he’s fallen in love with on his travels, however; hence the splash of Spanish olive oil here and the whiff of kaffir lime there. Tagliatelle draped with rabbit ragu looks Italian and tastes . . . why, there’s orange blossom in the whip of chestnut-infused milk that hovers over the entree like a cloud. Dinner might close with some of the best gulab jamun I’ve encountered outside an Indian restaurant. Red and violet flower petals from the upstairs garden help.
Plan to ease into the evening with a cocktail in the jewel box off the entrance, and make it a pisco sour, the national drink made with grape brandy and whipped egg whites. But which flavor? Rosemary, ginger, Sichuan pepper and vanilla are among the infusions on hand. Potato chips stained with squid ink and offered in a little copper pot with what tastes like a glam turn on French onion dip are set out for snacking and offer a preview of what’s to come in the room next door.