Staff prepare dishes at restaurant Central in Lima, Peru
World-beating: A dish is prepared at Central, in Lima, which tops a global ranking © Angela Ponce/Reuters

In a high volcanic corner of south-east Peru, the land is so barren that Nasa used it to test whether potatoes could be grown on Mars. But the vast desert of red dirt soon gives way to a lush river valley, where farmers live off an abundance of vegetables, and then plunges into a Pacific Ocean brimming with seafood. With its long coastline, snowcapped peaks and thick rainforests, Peru is one of the most biologically diverse countries in the world.

This variety translates into a rich array of ingredients — the country has more than 4,000 varieties of potato and 50 types of maize — some of which are spread out across a stone slab at the entrance of Central restaurant in Lima.

“We go from the heights to the sea,” says chef and restaurateur Virgilio Martínez. “With each bite, you are eating a bit of the country: the Amazon, the Andes, the Pacific.” Central topped the 2023 list of “The World’s 50 Best Restaurants”, hailed as “an ode to Peru, with a menu that celebrates the unique biodiversity of the country’s indigenous ingredients”.

Each of the 14 plates on the wiry chef’s $370 tasting menu “represents an ecosystem, an altitude”, he says. They drop from “Extreme Height”, at 4,200m above sea level — a dish made with several varieties of maize; kiwicha, a high-protein superfood; and leaves of camote, a type of sweet potato — to the “Warm Sea” of 15m below sea level, which is a deep-blue concoction made of murique grouper, razor clams and vongole.

The idea for that came from a dish that his co-owner and wife Pía León — ranked the world’s top female chef two years ago — was preparing at her solo restaurant, Kjolle, also in the top 50. There, she turbocharged Peru’s passion for tubers. A Kjolle staple is called simply “Tubers”: toasted yellow and red slices of olluco, a potato-like root, with a paste of oca, an Andean tuber. “We bring in humble — as in everyday — ingredients for local communities, and take them to new expressions,” says León.

Chefs Pía León and Virgilio Martínez standing with restaurant staff
Chefs Virgilio Martínez and Pía León (from right) with restaurant staff © Daniel Silva Yoshisato

A generation ago, the most exotic dish visitors to Peru were likely to encounter was ceviche: raw fish marinated in lime juice and chilli. This year, Lima toppled Copenhagen as the home of the world’s best restaurant and took four spots in the top 50 ranking — more than any other city. A cadre of Peru’s chefs are now the most feted in the Americas.

Diego Salazar, a restaurant critic and previously one of the Latin American chairs of the “50 Best” list, compares the chefs to Argentina’s footballing hero. “There is no other discipline in which Peru occupies that privileged place in the world. Today, Virgilio Martínez, Pía León, Mitsuharu Tsumura, are the Lionel Messi of gastronomy. This was not done overnight. It is the fruit of two decades of hard work, born out of the vision of one man, Gastón Acurio.”

As Peru’s superstar chef and undisputed trailblazer, Acurio led the culinary boom by fostering a movement that positions food as an instrument for national pride — making it an engine of tourism, the restaurant business, agriculture and fisheries.

When Acurio and his peers began to stir things up, a little over two decades ago, the country “had low self-esteem”, says Martínez, who once worked for him. At the time, Peru was reeling from a brutal war with Shining Path guerrillas and about a third of its people were living in poverty. Chefs realised that, by sourcing a variety of produce to help local growers, food could bridge gaps between the city and the countryside, the peasant and the increasingly demanding cosmopolitan client.

Cooking, argues Acurio, “is an agent of social change, a tool for wealth creation, peace and fraternity”. Besides the variety of its ingredients, Peru is a melting pot of cultures — from the descendants of the Inca empire and the Spanish conquistadors to the heirs of waves of Asian, African and European immigrants, each with its own gastronomy.

Chef Gastón Acurio attends the Feast of Dreams
Trailblazing chef Gastón Acurio helped position food as an instrument for national pride © Jeff Spicer/Getty Image/Atlantis The Royal

“Food has changed this country — there’s a sense of pride,” says Mitsuharu “Micha” Tsumura, head chef at Lima’s Maido, ranked sixth on the top 50 list. “Peru is a country full of mixing of ­foreign cultures. Peruvian cuisine would not exist without it, with the African, with the Spanish, with the Italian from Genoa, with the Cantonese, with the Japanese from Okinawa,” he explains.

“I will always be Nikkei, that is my origin. But I am not boxed into Nikkei cuisine,” he adds. Nikkei originally referred to the descendants of Japanese immigrants but now to a cuisine which blends Peruvian criollo with the Japanese style of fish and seafood. Dishes include Nigiris a lo Pobre (thinly sliced beef and quail egg injected with ponzu) and Tiradito de Toro (fatty tuna with spicy chalaca sauce).

“There’s nothing ‘classic’ here. We are making the Peruvians try things they don’t even know come from Peru,” Tsumura adds.

But, often, the creativity comes from going back to the origins. Based in the bohemian Barranco neighbourhood of Lima, near Central, is José del Castillo’s Isolina. Ranked as one of Latin America’s best restaurants, Isolina focuses on traditional Limeño dishes, such as duck with rice and coriander, and ceviche with deep-fried octopus. The clientele ranges from global foodies to the grandmothers of Barranco.

“Tradition cannot be changed but can be improved,” says the chef. Indeed, one of the traits of Lima’s chefs is that they rarely compete, instead focusing on developing and promoting the country’s cuisine. “Here, we understand that the recipe is compartir, no competir,” or to share, not to compete, he says.

Such camaraderie has been an essential ingredient in the rapid rise of Peru’s cuisine. “What we are trying to do with the Peruvian food is what the French accomplished over 200 years, the Italians over 100 years, the Japanese over 50 years — and we did it in 25 years,” says Acurio.

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