Diner’s Diary
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From Central, Lima, to Central, Hong Kong, one of world’s top 10 chefs on his new Peruvian restaurant Ichu Peru

Virgilio Martinez runs the world’s sixth best restaurant in his native Peru, and he’s been ‘trying to do things’ in Hong Kong since 2014. He tells us what to expect from his venture at H Queen’s – shareable comfort food locally sourced

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 10 July, 2018, 12:46pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 10 July, 2018, 12:46pm

Peruvian chef Virgilio Martinez has been on the go lately. Three weeks ago, his restaurant in Lima, Peru, Central was named sixth best in the world at the World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards, held in Bilbao, Spain. Less than a week later, he moved Central to a much bigger location.

Now he is setting his sights on Hong Kong with Ichu Peru in H Queen’s, a new tower in the city’s Central business district that houses art galleries and restaurants. There have been a few delays – it was originally expected to open at the end of July, but will now open in late August or September.

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“I’ve been trying to do things in Hong Kong since four years ago,” Martinez says. That was when he collaborated on a four-hands dinner at Amber with Landmark Mandarin Oriental culinary director Richard Ekkebus.

He says that, since then, he has visited Hong Kong five or six times, on one occasion bringing his wife and fellow chef, Pia Leon, to try some restaurants.

“The city is changing all the time, with different concepts and different things happening,” says Martinez. He is familiar with the challenges of opening and managing a restaurant in another country, having opened Lima London in the British capital seven years ago.

Ichu Peru – the name of the restaurant comes from a plant in the Peruvian Andes that grows in extreme conditions – will serve Peruvian cuisine with Hong Kong characteristics.

“If you open overseas, you cannot replicate Central,” he says.

Expect comfort food in sharing portions, presented with a bit of elegance and modernity, Martinez says.

Some ingredients will be imported from the Latin American country, but for the most part the cuisine will be adapted to use locally sourced produce, such as corn, potatoes, tomatoes, and especially fresh fish and seafood, with which he has been impressed.

In the kitchen will be three of his staff from Central, headed by Korean-born Sang Jeong, who will run the Hong Kong restaurant and report directly to Martinez.

It’s chilled out. I’m not as obsessive about the plates and dishes – I’m leaving that to the experts
Virgilio Martinez

“Three years ago Sang Jeong came to Lima and he started working for me in Central and he has done well and become one of my right hands. He has travelled with me to do dinners and cooking demonstrations. When I see people in my team try to move forward, I let them go and do things with us. I have to trust them.

“We designed the whole menu with him and he is in charge. [But] if he creates a new dish, it has to go through me first,” Martinez says.

The interior of Ichu Peru is designed by Joyce Wang, who has worked on many other Hong Kong restaurant projects such as Mott 32, Spiga, Rhoda and Ammo.

Martinez says the restaurant won’t look like Central, but will have a comfortable atmosphere.

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“It’s chilled out. I’m not as obsessive about the plates and dishes – I’m leaving that to the experts. I wrote down a full list of requirements for the Peruvian experience because there’s not much references to Peru in Hong Kong,” he says.

When word first came out that Martinez was opening the restaurant with Bulldozer Group, a Dubai-based operation, red flags began waving frantically around the food and beverage industry in Hong Kong.

The company, started by Russian businessmen Evgeny Kuzin, Maxim Vlasov and Alexander Orlov, opened Seafood Room in Causeway Bay in 2016 with a big splash, but closed it after a year, having not had enough business to sustain such a large space on the top floor of Tower 535.

Concerned chefs in Hong Kong contacted Martinez to tell him about the restaurant group’s track record in the city. However, Martinez is optimistic he can make it work.

“I’m not one to judge them. We did our own research so I know about what happened with Seafood Room. It was a huge place so there was a big risk of failure,” he says.

“It’s challenging to work with people who have never worked with Peruvian chefs and expect success soon,” he adds cryptically. This is the first time he has worked with a restaurant group.

Nevertheless, Martinez believes that, with his London restaurant doing well, Ichu Peru’s chances are good.

Three years ago Sang Jeong came to Lima and he started working for me in Central and he has done well … We designed the whole menu with him and he is in charge
Virgilio Martinez

He says Bulldozer Group travelled to Lima three years ago, then took Martinez to see the space in Hong Kong and he liked it. “The restaurant group asked me to design a menu at first and I set up standards they need to follow – they are my ideas and direction,” he says.

“I signed a very good contract and, during the process, everything I asked for or told them has been done so far. I have to take a chance with the restaurant group. At Central I have people who are willing to travel to Hong Kong to help, so we have good backup in all aspects [of the restaurant operation].”

For the time being Martinez is enjoying settling into Central’s new space. Now in a more artistic and touristy neighbourhood of Lima, the restaurant will continue to serve the same number of guests as at the old location – around 30 to 40 people, but in a space four times the size.

“I have no rush to open in Hong Kong yet. It’s my second week opening and I’m happy in Lima. Even though there are delays in Hong Kong, I’m not complaining.”