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Why Ditching Additives and Sweeteners Made Me a Better Peruvian Chef

Why use colourants when you can dye things with plants from the Andes?

The diversity of maize in Peru. Photo by Ernesto Benavides from Virgilio Martinez's book, Central.

At my restaurant Central, which is in Lima, we were trying to find ways to express Peru's nature and culture. Every time we were travelling around the country and exploring, we used to find that people were seeing Peru at different altitudes. We would spend time with different communities in the Andes or the Amazon and of course, they were cooking with ingredients from their own ecosystems. They weren't getting ingredients from different parts, they were just cooking with ingredients from their place.


READ MORE: Why Peru's Altiplano Farmers Eat Clay with Their Potatoes

We thought, "Why not just do a few dishes based on the idea of whatever grows together has to be put together on a plate?" We started to see that somehow that idea was transmitting lots of emotion and a sense of place.


Recolección de cushuro (Gathering of Cushuro). Photo by Jimena Agois.

Cooking with ingredients that you have around you is one of the best ways to help you understand your producers, your farmers, and your landscape.

Working with ecosystems in one of the most biodiverse places in the world is quite fascinating. It's a huge approach to the products and the producers, and the producers' stories and cultures. We give you something that goes beyond foraging. It's not just about taking stuff from the soil but is a strong way of connecting with people. You might be eating a meal at Central in Lima, but with one dish you are transported to the Andes. And then you could be having an experience by the Pacific Coast or you could be at the edges of the jungle.


Carachama y yacón (Carachama and Yacón). Photo by Jimena Agois.

For us, it's now an obligation. If we have to respect the ecosystem, we can't add anything that doesn't belong to that place so we don't use any artificial thickeners or sweeteners at Central. It took us about two years to remove all these powders and additives that probably made things easier but having this huge biodiversity helps us a lot.

Think about how many textures you can get out of 4,000 varieties of potato. And you can thicken things in other ways—like using gelatine from bark in the jungle. Why use colourants when you can dye things with plants from the Andes?


Diversidad de quinuas (Diversity of Quinuas). Photo by Jimena Agois.

When we travel around, we spend time with communities, learning how they use the products around them. It's important to build a relationship and make sure that you can work together. I cook with them but they're not used to what I do! Sometimes they love it and sometimes they hate it! When they love it, they write down the recipes or we'll send them from the restaurant with photos.


Amazonía roja (Red Amazon). Photo by Jimena Agois.

One of my favourite places is the Altiplano area which is in the south Andes. Over there, you find all these quinoas and all these other grains and seeds. Then you get these amazing varieties of potatoes. And then all these plants that you have no idea how to use. By Lake Titicaca, the landscape is beautiful, there are beautiful people, and amazing products.

But now we're in an era where we're losing our variety of species and ingredients. I think there's a bigger understanding about needing to preserve ecosystems. We're losing our natural ecosystems in Peru because of illegal mining of things like silver. That's affecting the communities. It's about creating awareness.


Arcilla de altiplano (Altiplano Clay). Photo by Jimena Agois.

I think the times when chefs were so proud of spending 18 hours in the kitchen are gone. Because of the voice that chefs have now, you just can't talk to people about recipes. You have to speak to experts and researchers to get more knowledge about things and then you can talk to people about issues.

READ MORE: How Not to Poison Your Friends with Homemade Ceviche

With Central, the cookbook, I think the philosophy is more important than the recipes. We have to think beyond the people who come to the restaurant. The recipes in the book are a formality. What I want is for people to get the idea and meaning of using your own stuff in your surroundings, and cooking with a sense of sustainability.

I don't expect people to cook the dishes at home. But you can replicate the philosophy.

As told to Daisy Meager.

Virgilio Martinez is head chef at Central, a restaurant in Lima, Peru. He also oversees Lima and Lima Floral in London. Martinez is known for his modern take on Peruvian cuisine and is the founder of Mater Initiative, a project documenting the produce and producers of Peru. Central, his new cookbook, is published by Phaidon.