Following two sold-out culinary residencies headlined by chefs Mauro Colagreco of the Menton-based Mirazur; and Gaggan Anand of the Bangkok-based Gaggan; Mandala Masters launched its third pop-up fronted by Peruvian chefs Virgilio Martinez and Pia Leon on Aug 5.
The husband-and-wife team are behind famed restaurants Kjolle, MIL and the Michelin-starred Central, which topped the Greatest Latin America’s Best Restaurant list from 2013 to 2021 and was awarded No. 2 by The World’s 50 Best Restaurants in July.
Named Meters Above Sea Level as the dishes on the menus are listed according to the altitudes they're grown in, the two-and-a-half-month stint features indigenous ingredients as the chefs’ are big on honouring Peru’s vastly biodiverse landscapes and ecosystems. Lesser-known ones include huacatay (black mint), Andean mushrooms and exotic tubers like maca and yacon root.
The powerhouse duo tells us over email how they got into cooking, why taking guests on a journey through Peru’s varied natural landscapes is their signature concept and why they did not find themselves strangers to Singapore's culinary culture.
What did food mean to you guys growing up?
Virgilio: It was an integral part of my childhood: I remember browsing markets and speaking to fishermen at the beach. Peru is a place where you can connect with nature easily and to me, cooking is all about relating to nature. Traditional Peruvian cooking has always been carried out at home and food is everywhere in my childhood memories. This fuels my appreciation and respect for good ingredients and healthy, beautiful, delicious and traditional dishes.
Pia: My mother had a catering business, so we always had people cooking all over my house. I experienced the world of professional cooking since I was a child.
Was becoming a chef always part of the plan?
Virgilio: It wasn’t initially part of the plan—I just wanted to visit different countries and get to know different realities. Then, I realised that cooking would be a good opportunity to do just that. However, I eventually decided I wanted to stay in kitchens, so I went to culinary school and then started recognising myself as a cook. This process took me a while as there were no culinary schools in Peru at that time and being a chef was not a career option. I created this option for myself.
Pia: I knew I wanted to be a chef since Day One. I went to culinary school as soon as I completed high school.
How did you guys meet?
Virgilio: We met in the kitchen of Central. Pia came to Central for an interview and she made it into the team.
The menus take guests on a journey through Peru’s varied natural landscapes and allows diners to sample indigenous ingredients from altitudes up to 3,850 metres above sea level. This is a signature of your restaurants. How did you guys come to develop high regard for these ingredients?
Virgilio: Although we put in a lot of research and creativity, it is mostly common sense: we are surrounded by mountains in Peru and also have the Amazon and the Coast. There is so much biodiversity in the area that it was obvious that we needed to take a different approach, and this vertical approach has given us the opportunity to understand the seasonality and ingredients in different regions. We have thousands of years of agricultural experience in Peru and South America and are lucky to have one of the most important pantries of the world because of the wide variety of ingredients available, so we needed to do this than just follow the West's way of organising food.
How do you guys foster tight-knit relationships with homesteads and farmers that you work with?
Pia: It is all about fostering these relationships as gastronomy and everything we do depends on what is farmed and what is part of our terroir. Plus, there are people who think they have no relationship with gastronomy but they in some way do as everything is interconnected. Through Mater Iniciativa, our research and interpretation centre, we get to know through different disciplines how can we connect with these people even better as they are the key to the whole foods world.
What do you think of Singapore and its food?
Pia: We’ve been visiting time and again for a long time now. We’ve gone to hawker centres and have tried many of the classic local dishes that are part of the melting pot of cultures—we love the culinary culture as it is similar to what we have in Peru. We find it very familiar and is why we have been coming to Singapore—for cooking with friends and to enjoy what the country has to offer. As such, when we received the proposal for the residency, it was natural that we said yes. It helps that the food in Singapore is amazing and there are strong flavours with plenty of ingredients. One can see the culture of the country in one plate.
How are Central, Kjolle and MIL differentiated?
Virgilio: The idea is that every restaurant has to have its own path of expression. To us, a restaurant is a platform to not only showcase the research and work we’ve been doing in the fields with local communities, but also connections we've had with the people of different disciplines. Of course, every restaurant has to represent something different, and Central is about biodiversity in our territory while MIL is about biodiversity in the Andean mountain range. As for Kjolle, it is more of a vehicle for Pia to express her and her team’s take on a cuisine that is modern yet very respectful to traditions and the origins of ingredients.
How does sustainability come through in your food?
Pia: We are asked about sustainability very often. I think we should try to define a new understanding of what it means to be sustainable. For us, it is common sense and being in harmony with the land. It is the desire to preserve and to look after what we have. We are very close to natural spaces and farmers, and sustainability is essential for everyone involved. For us, sustainability is something that must happen. There is no other way.
How do you guys balance traditional Peruvian food with modernity?
Virgilio: We don’t believe we need to choose between the two. We do contemporary cuisine but contemporary doesn’t work if you don’t think about tradition. We are rooted in tradition and understand we don’t have to change it. The modernity we inject is something that has to happen because times are changing and we have access to new knowledge and apply new techniques. However, tradition needs to be respected and we need to be mindful of the impact we have on our communities, our guests and the young chefs that work in our restaurants. It as an important aspect of our mentorship.
What's next for you guys?
Virgilio: Connecting with people is something we love to do and we are pretty happy with what we have with Central, Kjolle and MIL. Our territory is Peru but if you see where we stand in Latin America, we probably did stuff beyond our territory since ten years ago. Of course, we’ve been working in different regions like the Andes, the Amazon and even beyond the borders of Peru now, and these are very healthy ways to focus on new ideas, technologies and traditions. These are the main motivations for us to do something good.
Meters Above Sea Level will run till October 30 and operates Tuesday to Sunday with limited seats per seating. Make a booking here.