What did you do before you became a chef? "I was a skateboarder in Peru and wanted to go pro so I went to California. But I injured my clavicle and then my shoulder so I quit. I was skating 15 hours a day and spent a lot of money replacing my skateboard because I would break it once a week and they cost US$100 each. So I would find cheap but good food on the streets. My father, a lawyer, was against me being a skater, whereas my mother, an architect, understood me more. These days he has no reason to complain."
How did you get into cooking? "When I got injured, at 20 years old, I didn't know what to do. I started studying law but it wasn't my thing because it's very structured - I'm hyperactive. I got into cooking through my mother, who likes to cook. There were no culinary schools in Peru at the time so I went to Cordon Bleu, in Ottawa, Canada, and afterwards to London, Frankfurt, Madrid and Barcelona and Bogota before going back to Lima. I was away for about 10 years. When I opened my own restaurant, the menu was so confused because I cooked and ate so many different cuisines, such as French, Spanish, Japanese, Vietnamese … the first year was a mess. I took a year off and travelled around Peru and that's when I began to learn about the foods that our land gave us."
You started Mater Iniciativa. What is that? "It's where we get ideas for Central, by exploring ecosystems all over Peru. We travel as high as 4,000 metres above sea level. When you're up that high you feel very dizzy - I can handle 3,000 metres. We don't only forage for ingredients, but also ideas, life and people. We stay with the locals in their homes and build friendships and trust with them. You understand the relationship between the people and the Andes. They depend on the soil for their food. We now have seven people in the group who go four times a month to source ingredients. Before I would go whenever I had time, which meant after we finished dinner service, around 1am. I wouldn't sleep because we had to catch the flight at 4am and then walk for eight hours and deal with insects, rain and vegetation everywhere. When we forage we try to take as much as the locals allow us, and they tell us how to cook the ingredients. We get things like edible clay from lakes and bacteria, corn, quinoa and herbs. We have 30 types of herbs we've never seen before so I don't have to use things like coriander or parsley. Being with nature I learn so much more and appreciate the effort that goes into growing and harvesting these ingredients."
How did you meet your wife, Central head chef Pia Leon? "We met about seven years ago. I didn't have time to see her beauty then. It was difficult being the chef in the kitchen where she works and getting to know her. We have our discussions and sometimes shout at each other, but it's part of the creative process."
What do you want people to know about Peruvian cuisine? "We may plan our lives in terms of what we want to achieve but we don't know the future of our health; what will happen to our bodies. Good food is for your body and soul. It's important to eat healthy food, to have a balance, love nature and be creative. We push ourselves to be creative. Before, chefs were only in the kitchen, but now we have to come out and talk about the social impact of food. As chefs we have an obligation to be responsible because if we use one particular ingredient, someone may copy it or try to source it, too, and adversely affect the environment. There are still ingredients we don't know - we are playing with unknown things. But, by the same token, we are using global cooking techniques we learn from all over and bring back."
How do you manage your restaurants in London and in Lima? "Lima London [which has a Michelin star] is more a casual eatery - it is not like Central. It's more focused on seafood and light dishes. When people go to Central they know what they are getting. It builds expectations and I can feel the pressure, but it's my obligation to deliver beyond expectations.
"I'm learning to love this lifestyle. I travel a lot and as soon as I get off the plane I go to the restaurant. I work 16 to 18 hours a day and then I go home to sleep. Now I need to reduce my workload because my wife is going to have a baby and now I have a reason to go home; to spend time with my family."