Culinary traditions in Peru run as deep as anywhere else you might imagine, but it wasn’t until recently that the rest of the world began paying attention to what was happening food-wise in this South American republic. We’d hazard a guess that one reason for its growing popularity is Virgilio Martinez, chef and owner of Lima’s Central restaurant and a champion of Peruvian produce.
At Central – which debuted on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list in 2013 and currently sits sixth in the 2018 edition – Martinez and his wife Pia have built a gastronomic temple in honour of their local cuisine, drawing inspiration from the ecosystems and immensely diverse habitats of the country to create menus that amaze diners who flock to grab a seat at the restaurant’s tables. The couple have opened a handful of other more casual spots globally and, now, they’ve made their way to Hong Kong.
Ichu Peru is the latest restaurant to arrive at the arts-focused H Queen’s and will have Martinez’s long-time kitchen collaborator Chef Sang Jeong at the helm.
“Seven months ago, we sent three chefs from Lima [to] Hong Kong, and they will be cooking there. Chef Sang used to be one of my right hands, and he’ll be the one who is leading the restaurant,” Martinez tells me. “I have to trust my people, I trust my team.”
“I’ve been working at Central with Virgilio for the last three years and I’m very excited to lead the team for Ichu,” Sang says. As for what he wants to bring to the already saturated Hong Kong dining scene, the chef explains that he’s on the hunt for ways “to express the tradition and melting pot of influences that shape Peruvian gastronomy, to create authentic flavours and comforting dishes that showcase the country’s diverse geography from the land to the sea.”
While Central’s mission sounds somewhat similar to Sang’s hopes for Ichu, Martinez is adamant that the new Hong Kong eatery (which is set to open mid-August) is not simply a transplant of its Peruvian sibling. “Central is on the fine-dining side of things,” Martinez explains. “When we decided to open in Hong Kong, it was important to us that it was something casual, that it was traditional and modern at the same time. The Ichu concept is all about being very comfortable, in a family-style setting.”
Yes, the dining experience may be altogether more casual at Ichu, but the focus on premium ingredients that showcase the country’s impressively varied altitudes and terrains remains unchanged.
So, what ingredients and dishes can you expect to see when you visit the new space in H Queen’s? “Peruvian ingredients are quite global,” says Martinez. “We produce a huge selection of root vegetables, and a lot of corn and potato and tomatoes. You also need excellent seafood and fish, and in Hong Kong, it’s amazing.”
“We only need a few Peruvian ingredients which are key, like the hot chilli peppers, but of course in China there’s a huge amount of peppers,” he adds, laughing.
What happens, I ask, when you can’t find the appropriate ingredients on this side of the world? “Peruvian food is also based on adaptation and influences and diversity – diversity of ingredients and creativity. This is the DNA of what we do,” Martinez contends. “Actually, we’ve had a strong influence of Chinese cuisine in Peru too. It’s another way to connect to influences we’ve had before. It’s very common to see Chinese produce – for us, it’s quite normal to see ginger, coriander, pepper and things like that.”
I ask which of Ichu’s dishes Sang would recommend to someone new to the flavours of the country, who might benefit from a softer introduction to the cuisine rather than a full leap into the unknown. “One of the things Ichu’s menu will include is several varieties of ceviche; this dish showcases the freshest local produce and represents the simplicity that is central to Peruvian cuisine.”
Martinez immediately concurs: “You must take the ceviche, the raw seafood. Ceviche is the soul of Lima.” There you have it.
Read the full story in Prestige Hong Kong August 2018 issue