Owning the world’s best restaurant was never on Virgilio Martinez’s radar.
“I wanted to be a pro skateboarder,” the 45-year-old Peruvian chef told me from Central’s dining room. As we talked, the restaurant staff buzzed about, arranging seating and finalizing dishes for lunch service. Meticulous as ever, Virgilio bounced in and out of our conversation to make sure all the details were just right. “I wasn’t amazing at cooking. I had my doubts,” he said.
Nestled in a residential street corner of Lima’s Barranco neighborhood, Central currently dons the culinary crown as the world’s best restaurant, winning the title this June. Co-run by Pía León—herself a talented chef who also happens to be married to Virgilio—the restaurant is the first in South America to top the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list and the first one to be co-headed by a woman. Still, “restaurant” might undercut Central’s true mission.
“We’re a restaurant that is not trying to be a restaurant. We are more giving an experience,” Virgilio said.
Central’s tasting menu takes diners on a four-hour foray across Peru’s megadiversity, one that traces its wrinkled topography from below the sea to the Andean mountaintops. Each dish, named by an altitude, tells a story of a particular place and is accompanied by nonedible elements that recreate the ecosystem’s sights and smells. They use only local ingredients that hold cultural significance to the people and communities that live there—ingredients that fluctuate seasonally, but also are permanently elevating in altitude as the climate warms.
“You see, feel, hear, learn, teach, participate, discuss, and think,” Virgilio said.
The restaurant’s grounds are rife with lush greenery, and looping meditative music pervades the space inside its glass sliding doors—a quiet respite from the city’s bustling streets. Just feet inside the entrance is a stone table with divots, each one filled in with preserved Peruvian ingredients: fruits, quinoa, tubers, corn, potatoes, shellfish, and more. It’s not just decorative; it’s an itinerary for the next four hours.
The evening before our conversation, I tried Central’s “Experiencia Mundo Mater,” 14 courses that featured crabs plated in their own shells; scallops dyed ocean-blue using cyanobacteria; placemats created from the skins of the fish on the dish; a centerpiece of fresh Sargassum that wafted oceanic scents across the table; cacao prepared seven different ways, using everything from the outer rind to the central chocolate nibs.
Many ingredients were new to me—perhaps even new to fine dining—but to the people living in the communities where the ingredients come from, they are commonplace.
Contrary to some popular portrayals of Central, the restaurant isn’t discovering anything; they’re reimagining ingredients that their local community partners have used for generations. “We are honoring what they do. We always, in a way, ask for permission to produce an interpretation. We work together,” Virgilio said.
The restaurant isn’t discovering anything; they’re reimagining ingredients that their local community partners have used for generations.
Done hastily, the experience can ring hollow. Worse yet, it can feel extractive. “We needed to do something that was 100% coming from our real people,” Virgilio said. That’s why about a decade ago, he brought onboard his sister, Malena Martinez, who is just one year younger than him, to found and spearhead the research nonprofit, Mater Iniciativa, Central’s partner in culinary research.
“We explore, register, and interpret megadiversity, which is to say we do everything,” Malena told me. They research not only the cuisine, but also the biology, ecology, linguistics, and cultural anthropology surrounding each ingredient. “There’s a humanity that we want to be embedded in everything we do.”
Peru is home to countless Indigenous and ethnic groups, nearly 90 spoken languages, most of the microclimates in the planet, and “an unlimited number of species,” Malena said. “How can we transmit a message of diversity and also be careful and respectful to celebrate it the right way?”
Like each dish, the culinary experiment requires a thriving ecosystem of researchers, chefs, and community partners. “It’s not about a chef or a cook, whose mind is genius,” Malena said. It’s about the entire team—researchers, chefs, community partners, and service staff—all working together to honor every ingredient, to preserve the cultural stories behind them, and to make them feel authentically like Peru.
The Martinez siblings grew up just outside the urban hub of Lima. Their mother, who had a rural upbringing, was always urging the family to get outside, planting the seed for their future careers. “That was a very happy time,” Malena reminisced.
The two credit their parents for much of their personalities. From their father, a lawyer, they learned hard work and critical thinking; from their mother, an architect, they inherited a love for art and the natural world. In hindsight, it’s clear how they ended up at Central and Mater Iniciativa, but they took a winding path to get here.
After giving up his skateboarding dream, Virgilio followed in his father’s footsteps. He wanted to become a lawyer, only to realize that office work could never satisfy his wanderlust. Perhaps cooking would allow him to travel, he thought. “I knew I would end up being a cook after failing law school,” he said.
He quickly climbed the culinary ranks, studying at Le Cordon Bleu in Ottawa and London; cooking fine dining across Europe; and serving as executive chef at Astrid & Gastón in Lima, Bogotá and Madrid. Still, he bounced between kitchens, never finding a home where he could cook the way he truly wanted.
It was a stark contrast to his experience visiting home in Peru. Whenever Virgilio returned, he said he immediately felt his country’s pride for their food, culture, and agriculture. That was the starting point for Central—a place where he could cook in his most authentic form, travel around the country, and elevate Peru on the world stage.
“I knew this place was going to be a center of gastronomy… People will be drawn to places like Barranco, to come to Lima and Cusco,” he told me. Returning to Peru, Virgilio started Central in 2008 at just 30 years old.
While he was getting the restaurant off the ground, Malena was chasing her childhood dream of becoming a physician. Unlike her more meandering brother, Malena was dead set on a medical career since she was a kid. “I was studying all the time… my family always reinforced the fact that I was completely doctor material,” she said. It was only when she was supposed to do a medical residency in the U.S. that she realized that the career wasn’t satisfying to her. Ultimately, she pivoted.
As Malena left her medical career behind and enrolled in nutrition courses, Virgilio was realizing that something was missing from Central. For the restaurant to thrive, they needed to deeply study Peru’s native ingredients—what they were, how communities used them, and how the restaurant could translate their stories into fine dining.
“I knew I wasn’t going to be able to do it all by myself,” Virgilio said. They needed a fully dedicated research arm. It was in this stroke of serendipity, both siblings in a transitional state, that Central and Mater Iniciativa were truly born. Virgilio reached out to Malena, and the duo started Mater Iniciativa in 2013.
“Nobody did this before. Nobody cared about the cultural aspects of it, the social component, the geographical component [of food],” Malena said.
However, her background as a physician proved surprisingly useful in the new role. “My training as a doctor has shaped me to carefully listen to every conversation—to carefully take into account every detail of nonverbal communication.”
That careful listening shines through in the restaurant’s famous concept of an altitudinal menu. Together with Pía, the siblings conceived the idea based on how Andean people see their landscape—a perspective where up and down is more informative than left and right. The accolades soon followed.
In 2013, the year that Mater Iniciativa was founded, Central debuted at #50 on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, joining Astrid & Gastón as the only other Peruvian representative. It jumped to #15 the next year—2014’s highest climber—#4 in 2015, #2 in 2022, and finally, atop the list in 2023.
Along with Central, Peruvian cuisine became more renowned. This year, it’s joined by three neighbors in Lima: #6 Maido, #28 Kjolle (Pía’s solo venture which shares building space with Central), and #47 Mayta.
Fifteen years after opening Central’s doors, Virgilio’s vision that Peru would become a gastronomical center of the world was finally coming to fruition.
Amazonian Waters V.02, 190 Meters Above Sea Level: The 10th of the evening’s 14 courses is headlined by pacu, a freshwater fish from the Amazon that is a close relative to piranhas. Unlike their flesh-ripping cousins, pacu have human-like teeth and eat mostly fruits and plants.
Almost poetically, Central serves the fish submerged in a tangy bath of watermelon and lulo—a fruit that the fish might eat in its natural environment. “The story is sometimes so compelling that it is guiding the creative process,” Malena said. “That [story about pacu] was very clear, very straightforward, but sometimes it’s not that clear.”
Take, for example, the dish that preceded it: Mil Lab, 3,600 Meters Above Sea Level, named after Virgilio’s restaurant in Cusco, where Mater Iniciativa researchers work with local Indigenous communities to research, grow, and harvest Andean crops. The high-altitude dish included beef and native potatoes topped with strands of egg yolk and a generous serving of cushuro, a caviar-like cyanobacteria found in mountain-top freshwater lakes. With each bite, spheres of cushuro burst—a surprising pop that provides textural flare to the dish.
When the weather is dry, cushuro lies dormant, but when it rains it “grows like a weed,” Malena said. The cyanobacteria are rich in amino acids, protein, and iron, which stave off malnutrition. And every time it rains, women and children from the Andes harvest them to eat. “It’s like a game… This has happened for ages,” Malena said.
“For them, it’s not that amazing… It’s like seeing some carrots.” Virgilio said. “Why are you so excited?” Malena recalled their local partners thinking as the siblings watched the post-rain bloom in awe. But it’s precisely these ingredients—ones that hold significance to local communities but that inspire curiosity in diners—that the pair are seeking.
“We value the things that locally they consume. [It’s not that] we’re going to discover something and see something completely new,” Malena said. And consuming means more than just eating. It could be what their community partners are using as dyes, as medicine, as paint, or in any part of their culture.
Careful not to overstep or misinterpret, the duo always travel with a local guide. The partnership is an exchange, where Mater Iniciativa and Central learn from the local communities, and in turn, the duo help their partners preserve their legacy, Malena said.
Many communities they work with, especially those in the Andes, use strictly verbal languages, Malena told me. “They can’t really see a future in which their legacy is written or laid out in some accessible way… They really want to leave the next generation something to look up to, to celebrate about their ancestors.”
The siblings hope that by preserving ingredients, publishing books, and sharing cultural traditions with the world, they can help their partners leave a lasting mark. As younger generations lose interest in ancient traditions and as climate change alters lifestyles and wipes entire species off the map, Malena said, these records are desperately needed.
Around the world, rising temperatures are pushing species uphill. For a menu based on altitudes, that poses an unavoidable challenge.
On one hand, Central’s menu already changes with the seasons. Each week, either Malena or Virgilio travel to Mil in Cusco to research and develop new ingredients, and at all times, Mater Iniciativa has ongoing research around the country. With climate change, though, menu changes might become more dramatic—more permanent.
“Farmers know they have to climb higher in order to grow the same thing,” Malena said. To grow potatoes, Andean farmers have to go 150 meters higher than they did 50 years ago. In the Amazon, where dry and wet seasons are the heartbeat of agriculture, rainfall is becoming more arrhythmic.
“The things you remember your grandfather growing here—they won’t be available anymore… Eventually, you won’t have the land to grow the same things,” Malena said.
“We never think something coming from one altitude is always going to be there on the menu,” Virgilio said. If a dish is no longer sustainable, they might have to move up or down. “It’s exactly what happens in farm fields,” Malena added. “They have to adapt.”
“We’re creating something that really feeds your stomach, your soul.”
As climate change takes its toll, the duo hopes to attune people with the changes occuring right outside the restaurant’s doors. “The altitudinal menu is one of the best ways we’ve found to get this sense of nature in real time,” Virgilio said.
They also hope that by educating their guests on native ingredients and the people who rely on them, they can ignite a desire to preserve them. “We’re creating something that really feeds your stomach, your soul. You see our culture, our craft,” Virgilio told me.
Elevating and preserving Peruvian ingredients, culture, and cuisine have been the siblings’ goal all along. “If you don’t want something to disappear, you’ve got to know everything about it,” Malena said. If people know what they are preserving and what for, [conservation] is a natural thing.” Becoming the best restaurant in the world was never on the radar. And although they appreciate the attention the accolade has brought them, it’s not what drives them—not what fulfills them.
To the diners, foodies, and critics who want to come to Central just to taste the world’s best food, “They’re very welcome,” Virgilio said. But they urge you not to stop there. Ask why they started the restaurant in the first place. Ask about the nonprofit and the cultural research. Understand the legacy they want to leave behind.
Only then will diners get the full Central experience—and only then will the Martinez siblings feel fulfilled.