High altitude cuisine.
The highly acclaimed Peruvian chef Virgilio Martínez has just opened Mil, a restaurant of a totally new kind that’s located 3,500 m above sea level. It features a herbarium influenced decor, dishes baked in a traditional local oven made from earth and clay and a stunning view of Inca ruins. Get ready for a tasting menu that has had everyone on the edge of their seats since the start of the year!
To find chef Virgilio Martínez’s new restaurant Mil, you just “carry on up the mountain above the Inca remains near Moray
for about 500 metres”. And that’s the only address you’ll get. Some two months after it opened (in February 2018) our driver still has to ask for directions, but I’m willing to bet that this gastronomic gem hidden in a wild natural landscape won’t stay a secret for much longer. Why? Because forty-year-old Virgilio is none other than the chef and owner of the Central in Lima, an establishment that was ranked the 5th best restaurant in the world last year in the prestigious World’s 50 Best List. But I hear you ask: what is such a famous chef doing out here in the middle of nowhere?
A landscape on a plate
To find out we have to go back in time some 9 years. At Central, the menu is inspired by and its ingredients sourced from Peru’s remote regions and it’s like nothing you’ve ever tasted before. The dining experience could almost be described as geological, which is hardly a sexy word, but once the dish is on the table, believe me, everyone is gained by a sense of wonder. To give just one example of the dishes served at Central, there is a very organic reproduction of a Pacific cove ecosystem with a rock and a crab, with on top the seaweed that’s left behind as the tide goes out. For Virgilio, a dish = a landscape and each plate of food is the opportunity to discover an ever more remote region of Peru. And yet, despite critical success and a restaurant that was fully booked six months in advance, back in 2009 Virilo wasn’t totally satisfied. Something was missing: meaning. Something to connect these desires, desires that had become a need to pay tribute to his country, to its generosity and history. And so, Virgilio headed for the Andes, ending up in Moray with a family of local famers. While there, he visited an archaeological site - ten perfectly circular terraces, where the Incas supposedly experimented with different agricultural practices. And that’s when it all clicked into place and he finally understood why the inhabitants of the Andes don’t see life horizontally, but rather vertically, from top to bottom. In addition to preparing dishes like ecosystems, Virgilio decided to imagine a menu based on different altitudes. Back in Lima he started from scratch. “We lost a lot of customers but I had to see my idea through”, he remembers. “For me it became the only way to work”. And if it wasn’t long before success returned, by then the chef had already turned his mind to another project: opening a restaurant in Moray.
Moments to savour
Nine years later, in 2018, Virgilio’s dream has finally come true. MIL, his 20-cover restaurant that’s only open for lunch, serves a tasting menu of 8 dishes that take you on a grand tour of high altitude ecosystems. After sitting down near a window overlooking the amphitheatre-like ruins, our first “moment”— which is the name given to Mil’s dishes—was called Preservation in a nod to the local custom of conserving potatoes. "The technique consists in exposing the potatoes to a flow of
cold water and then putting them in the sun,
where they are freeze dried”, explains Malena Martínez, the scientist of the group with whom Virgilio opened the new restaurant, in addition to the adjacent Mater Iniciativa research centre. The centre works with the local community to document the plants, fruit and vegetables that grow in the area. They have already referenced 55 varieties of potato, 15 types of quinoa and 15 species of corn. Amongst the following “moments” were the Andean Forest and Diversity of Corn that features three different types of corn and “whose combination of creamy and crunchy textures is reminiscent of a great muesli”, the chef tells us. The highlight was without a doubt Extreme Altitude, which was our first experience of cushuro, subtly flavoured small, translucent, blue-green algae-like spheres from the waters of Andean lakes The tasting menu is like a bird’s eye view—and taste—of the Andes. All that remains is to thank Virgilio Martínez for these wonderful “moments” in his restaurant.