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World’s Best restaurant Central chef shres insights in Seoul

Extensive research into the soil, climate and ingredients essential: Chef Martinez

May 11, 2024 - 16:01 By Kim Da-sol
Peruvian restaurant Central's founder and head chef Virgilio Martinez speaks at a global symposium Nanro Insight held at Leeum Museum of Art on April 30. (Nanro Foundation)

Virgilio Martinez, founder and head chef of Peruvian restaurant Central, was in Seoul last week to share his insights on fine dining culture and offering exquisite experiences to diners.

His 16-year-old restaurant topped the World’s Best Restaurant 2023 last year. Sponsored by S.Pellegrino & Acqua Panna, the World’s 50 Best Restaurants has reflected the diversity of the world’s culinary landscape since 2002.

Martinez was in Korea to take part in Nanro Insight, a global symposium on Korean food which was organized by the Nanro Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to the globalization of Korean food. The foundation, a community of some of the most influential chefs and business operators in Korea's food and beverage sector, was established in 2022.

“I personally thought fine dining was a culture only for a few. But there are many different levels (to fine dining). So the approach I took was to conceptualize fine dining as an experience, not as a restaurant,” Martinez told the audience during an event held at Leeum Museum of Art in Seoul on April 30.

According to the Peruvian chef, his fine dining spaces in Lima and Cusco offer a wholesome gastronomic experience, an experience that lasts about six hours.

Visitors can take a look into where the ingredients come from by walking on a farm the restaurant has created which was inspired by Peru’s unique biodiversity deriving from the Andes Mountains.

“Eating food means experiencing the culture. Innovation doesn’t always have to start from scratch. We can begin with what we already have, like recipes passed down by our ancestors. There is a need to make collaboration by respecting the past,” he added.

While highlighting the message that people come to restaurants not just to eat food but to “fill the experience and heart,” Martinez said it’s really important to learn the country’s biodiversity and cultural context.

To this end, Central has its own food ingredients research center called Mater, where it has been continuing its extensive research into Peruvian soil, climate and ingredients.

“Through Mater, we were able to record data. Understanding the origin of our ingredients in both social and cultural contexts is very important. We have 4,000 kinds of potatoes and that has to do with rich Peruvian soil that grows so many diverse root vegetables,” Martinez said.

He emphasized the purpose of Mater’s establishment as creating a system for detailed, concrete knowledge of the country’s ingredients and sharing with the next generation.

Bobby Chung, CEO of MTP, the company behind various hit restaurants including Mongtan, speaks at a global symposium Nanro Insight held at Leeum Museum of Art on April 30. (Nanro Foundation)
Sue-kyoung Park, SMC Founder & Co-owner, the company behind Gold Pig restaurant, speaks at a global symposium Nanro Insight held at Leeum Museum of Art on April 30. (Nanro Foundation)

In another session, some of Korea's most influential F&B business CEOs shared their experiences in creating trendy, successful restaurants.

Bobby Chung, CEO of MTP, the company behind various hit restaurants like Mongtan, Chungkiwa Town, Sanchung Charcoal BBQ Garden, said he focused on making a brand that the public would like.

“The trend in the Korean F&B scene has shifted dramatically. It’s really important to track down the elements that people might like. Most certainly, the brand that people like contains the culture and consumer behavior of that time,” Chung told the audience.

Giving an example of his latest restaurant brand Sanchung Charcoal BBQ Garden, Chung said it was during the pandemic that he was inspired to create the brand.

“(During the pandemic) I witnessed many people feeling satisfied with camping contents. Their yearning for nature and having good food with company was very clear,” he said.

“It’s important to know what is the key concept you want to take as a brand, not just as a restaurant.”

Park Sue-kyoung, SMC Founder & Co-owner, said the popularity of her Korean barbecue restaurant Gold Pig Restaurant comes from storytelling.

Gold Pig Restaurant has been listed in the Michelin Guide’s Bib Gourmand -- recommendations for good quality and value food -- for six years in a row.

“Since its opening in 2016, the restaurant has never ceased to make every detail at the restaurant appealing. We constantly made our interior, plating and even an image on napkins unique, in line with the brand’s unique storytelling. We tell the visitors how to enjoy Korean barbecue in the most delicious way by choosing the right salt and ideal charcoal when grilling,” Park said.

Gold Pig Restaurant, frequented by global stars such as David Beckham, Blackpink and G-Dragon, has also expanded its business to different sectors by using its IP.

“We sought to create synergy with other business sectors to expand the influence of our brand. Because we can’t open restaurants everywhere, we thought it would be effective to sell our signature kimchi pork stew at convenience stores and even collaborate with a bedding company to launch Gold Pig duvet,” Park added.

Peruvian restaurant Central's head chef and founder Virgilio Martinez (second from left) speaks during a panel discussion at a global symposium Nanro Insight held at Leeum Museum of Art on April 30. (Nanro Foundation)