For even the casual diner, it is no secret that Peruvian cuisine has become a big deal over the past decade, and in recent years the UAE has seen a number of excellent Peruvian establishments open their doors.
Now, the Michelin star chef of Peruvian cooking is launching a restaurant in Dubai. Virgilio Martínez is the chef/owner of Central Restaurante in Peru, which sits at number four on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. But for the celebrated 39-year old, who is featured in Chef’s Table: Season 3, currently airing on Netflix, a life in the kitchen was never the plan.
Martínez grew up in Miraflores, a middle-class neighbourhood in Lima, and he always wanted to travel. But when his career as a semi-professional skateboarder was ended by two consecutive shoulder injuries he saw cooking as an alternative way to see the world and escape the instability of Lima in the 1990s.
Starting out as a commis chef, Martínez learnt how to cook his way around the globe in Italian, French, Asian and American restaurants. After a decade he went home to embark on a journey around Peru to discover the cuisine of his own country.
“They were tough kitchens,” he admits. “I had a lot of difficult times, but I was trained in a very difficult atmosphere, so, going back to Peru after 10 years, it felt like freedom to come home to try to break the rules, once I knew the basics. It would be impossible to do what I’m doing now without those times.”
His Central Restaurante uses about 180 different ingredients, of which half are not used anywhere else in the UAE. Martínez and his team forage Peru in the Amazonian jungle, the desert, mountains of the Andes and coastline of the country just to find new things to put on the menu and new ways to represent Peru’s many regions.
But while Central is the grand culinary representation of ecosystems and varied climates of Peru, he, along with partners Gabriel and José-Luis Gonzalez, opened an offshoot restaurant, Lima in London, in 2012 as an expression of the food from his home city.
Modern, inventive and accessible, it won a Michelin star within two years of opening. It is a branch of Lima that opened in Dubai yesterday.
“Central is a tasting-menu with 18 courses, and each course represents an altitude of the country – from the sea to the mountains. At Lima, it’s like the food you get in the city of Lima itself. More casual and more traditional, but still with innovation, this is the modern cuisine that’s happening in Lima city right now,” Martínez explains. “I have contacts there, it’s where I now live and whatever is happening in Lima city I will put on the menu here.”
One thing that impressed Martínez as he prepared his latest launch was the ease of setting up an eatery in Dubai.
“We had problems in London when we opened Lima, from getting visas for the young chefs to importing my ingredients from Peru, but had none of those problems here – which was amazing,” he says. “It’s incredible how Dubai makes things easier for us, and I’m having really boutique products flown in – I spoke to my producer of potatoes in the Andes today and it’s fine to send here.”
As a result, this is set to be the real deal, with Peruvian food as authentic as you’re likely to find.
Sure, the carbon footprint for those ingredients flying the 14,735 kilometres from Lima to Dubai is going to make environmentalists weep, but the vast majority of ingredients for all restaurants in the UAE are flown in. At least with Lima, they’re things you won’t be able to try elsewhere.
“We’re bringing Andean grains, potatoes from 4,000 metres up in the mountains, an Amazonian fish called piache, different tubas and vegetables and fruits for cocktails. These things have been in Peru for thousands of years but have not travelled much before,” Martínez adds. Even the tables in the restaurant and other parts of the décor have been brought over, as well as, of course, the eight Peruvian chefs.
So why has Peruvian cuisine become so globally popular? “The whole nature of our biodiversity is huge and in Peru you only have to travel 30 minutes to an hour to see a whole different microclimate and eco-system. We’re growing different varieties of corn, potatoes, tomatoes, cacao and many ingredients but really, who doesn’t like tomatoes, corn, potatoes or chocolate, right?”
And along with the melting pot of styles, influences and huge range of ingredients Martínez believes it has been driven further by the modern superfood trend. “Quinoa, chia seeds, maca root. Things like that from Peru give the cuisine a mysticism. I go to the Andes, I see how people adore the soil, and when I’m in the jungle I see how people have a communication with trees and natural surroundings,” he says before adding with a smile: “It all makes the food desirable.”
Other Peruvian restaurants in the UAE
From the group that gave us Zuma, this restaurant offers good value high-end Peruvian dishes. The brunch is the best (and best-value) way to experience it, especially if you like a pisco sour on the side.
• Four Seasons Resort Dubai at Jumeirah Beach, 04 316 9600
There are no menus, instead the food is presented tableside for you to choose from and it broadly covers an inventive trip through Peruvian classic seafood ceviches, lobsters, lomos and traditional desserts
• Bab Al Qasr Millennium Hotel Abu Dhabi, 02 205 3000
Mayta By Jaime Pesaque
The much-travelled and celebrated chef brings his take on Peruvian classics presented in sharing portions, but also with some outstanding mains you won’t get elsewhere, such as his cilantro braised lamb shank with spiced pumpkin purée.
• Capital Club, Gate Village, Building 3, DIFC, Dubai, 04 437 6053
Peruvian chicken restaurant with chefs brought in from Peru. It’s an authentic menu and the picarones (sweet potato and squash doughnuts with sweet sauce) is a lovely dessert you may not have tried before.
• Umm Al Sheif Street, Umm Suqeim, Dubai, 04 399 9951
The 34th-floor lounge and restaurant has a lovely setting and a set menu for Dh245 that includes dishes including a queso helado dessert comprising sweet coconut popsicle with tobacco syrup, toschi cherries and white chocolate yogurt.
• Sofitel, Dubai Downtown, 04 346 9295
Chefs Percy and Gonzalo serve up the classics to the DIFC crowd with ceviches dominating the menu, but also some bigger mains like their fine aji de gallina – chicken breast strips, parmesan and yellow chilli cream.
• Emirates Financial Towers, DIFC, Dubai, 04 326 6333
Totora Cebichera Peruana
More of a party place than the others – including a stylised Inca-inspired rope bridge you cross to enter – this two-floor lounge bar/restaurant nevertheless has an extensive menu of traditional dishes and an all-Peruvian back-of-house team.
• Gate Village, Building 7, DIFC, Dubai, 04 399 9666
Garden Peruvian Restaurant
This home-grown concept from Peruvian chef, Edgar Hurtado has been given a home in the JW Marriott Marquis Hotel and it pretty much hits all the right notes, with ceviches, tiraditos, a pisco bar and a Patagonian toothfish main-course worth visiting for alone.
• JW Marriott Marquis Hotel Dubai, 04 414 3000