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Peru on a Plate: coloniality and modernity in Peru’s high-end cuisine

Perú en bandeja. Colonialidad y modernidad en la alta cocina peruana
Jorge López-Canales


As global dining culture turns increasingly homogeneous, there is a parallel interest in reconnecting with locality. Two global food movements codify this return to the local: the Slow Food and New Nordic Cuisine movements, both European in origin. I explore the characteristically modernist global-local ambivalence in the work of Virgilio Martinez, Peru’s most highly awarded chef, whose project of bringing together a culturally rooted Peruvian cuisine appears closely aligned to the New Nordic Cuisine movement. Drawing on a decolonial framework, I argue that Martinez’s desire to connect with Peru’s ancestral cultural roots, not uncommon amongst upper-class Peruvian chefs, is hindered by an epistemic divide dating back to colonial times. Further vestiges of colonial history are also present in Martinez’s taxonomic search for new ingredients and the visual focus of his aesthetic, both reminiscent of the Spanish botanical expeditions of the late 18th century. Martinez’s latest project, Mil Centro, a restaurant and research centre located in an Inca archaeological site, offers new possibilities. The participatory involvement of neighbouring Quechua-speaking communities could signal new openings.

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“Proximity, especially within a class hierarchy, can be a cultural liability much greater than foreignness. The intimate Other is always disdained, while the distant Other can be safely eulogized” (Ray 2016 : 86)


1Cosmopolitan dining culture has been turning increasingly homogeneous over the past two decades as a result of globalisation (Ray 2016). The privatisation of the Internet in the 1990s, the emergence of social media just over a decade ago, and international travel on a massive scale have galvanised a zealously modernist dining culture that celebrates experimentation and innovation. Though stating an unequivocal commitment to locality (Fitzgerald 2016; Leer 2016; Meyer 2004; Sammells 2014), this eminently visual food culture (Power 2003; Spence, Okajima, Cheok, Petit, & Michel 2016) seems paradoxically uprooted from local traditions. In response to this, a key discussion point in countries with established culinary traditions has been the balance between global innovation and local identity (Grosglik 2011; Karaosmanoğlu 2013; Mak, Lumbers, & Eves 2012).

  • 1 In this issue of the journal, Emma McDonnell explores the inherent coloniality in the discourses of (...)

2The case of Peru—a country with an unresolved colonial legacy—poses a specific set of questions around the translation of traditional foodways into the global idiom of gastronomy. These are questions of power and hegemony with an epistemological core I seek to explore in this paper. There appears to be a deep-seated colonial mindset in the way some of Peru’s most celebrated chefs have been exploring the country and reformulating elements of local cuisines while adopting a global outlook1 (García 2013, 2014). A number of successful chefs who define their cuisines as Peruvian have been building successful careers out of unapologetically experimental projects, a world away from what Sidney Mintz would refer to as a local cuisine, or “the ongoing foodways of a region” (Mintz 1996 : 96).

  • 2 In a Peruvian context, the term criollo broadly refers to Spanish settler society established in co (...)

3Yet, typically, the prevailing sentiment amongst these chefs, most of whom come from the local criollo2 elite in Lima, is one of genuine curiosity for Peru’s mega-diversity, and a heartfelt desire to connect with the country’s ancestral knowledge. More often than not, however, these chefs appear awkwardly unable to establish meaningful connections with the local people and their foodways. I argue that the missed encounter between Peru’s cosmopolitan chefs and Peru’s local Indigenous communities speaks of a deeper, structural barrier impeding communication, an epistemic crossing of paths dating back to the early days of colonial contact. Peru’s elite chefs, despite their efforts, appear for the most part ill equipped to think outside the sovereign mindset of the country’s metropolitan centre, for centuries accustomed to observing and defining rather than listening and understanding. In this paper I examine this complex dynamic through the work of Virgilio Martinez, a renowned Peruvian chef who has been exploring new avenues in his quest to connect the cosmopolitan city of Lima with Peru’s ancestral roots.


4Peru is riding the crest of a gastronomic boom that has been unfolding for the past two decades. The roots, implications, and possibilities of this boom have been analysed from various angles, from historical accounts of a celebratory tone (Lauer 2006; Valderrama 2016), to critical studies of the boom’s potential for effecting social change (Fan 2013), through to more frontal critiques of the real breadth, depth and inclusiveness of the boom (Cánepa Koch 2013; García 2013; Matta 2014). The spotlight is firmly pointed at Lima, Peru’s sprawling capital, home to one third of Peru’s 30 million inhabitants and traditional centre of political and financial power by the country’s criollo elites. In 2018, the UK-based group World Travel Awards named Peru World’s Leading Culinary Destination for the seventh consecutive year. The closely watched World’s 50 Best Restaurants list currently features three Lima establishments, all eagerly booked by a cosmopolitan clientele made up of Lima’s emerging middle class along with a growing number of overseas gastro-tourists. In line with current global trends, these restaurants have been showcasing local ingredients and preparations, while voicing their commitment to sustainability, biodiversity, and raising the profile of Peru’s small producers.

5An unequivocal commitment to locality and a growing awareness of the food chain behind each dish are part of the canon of contemporary urban food culture (Fitzgerald 2016; Sammells 2014). This inward-looking position is part of a broader response to the homogenising pull of globalisation, manifesting a tension referred to by some as glocalisation (Robertson 2017; Roudometof 2016; Smith Maguire & Hu 2013). In the words of Bruno Latour, it is “as if the metaphor of ‘roots’ had been turned upside down: the more ‘uprooted’ by the forces of modernization, the farther down identities are attaching themselves” (Latour 2017). As I explain below, the return to the local in contemporary dining has its origins in Europe, a fact worth highlighting to gain a better understanding of its broader historical import in a country like Peru, where the wounds of European colonialism are far from healed.

6European in origin, the Slow Food Movement and the New Nordic Cuisine are the two successive manifesto-inspired movements largely responsible for the locavorism that, to varying degrees, informs much of contemporary dining culture. The former is a 30-year-old movement whose response to globalisation has matured into a distinctive ideology, providing a vocabulary to articulate concerns with local foodways in the face of an increasingly industrialised food system (Andrews 2008). The latter could be considered today’s culinary avant-garde, an aggressively modernist, forward-looking and highly connected network of chefs, restaurateurs, bloggers and diners exploring the limits and possibilities of edibility. A brief survey of these two interconnected movements will help us contextualise the motivations behind Peruvian chef Virgilio Martinez, whose influential work is the object of this paper.

7The Slow Food Movement emerged in 1989 as a grassroots response to the opening of a McDonalds branch near the Spanish Steps in the heart of Rome. Today, it is a well-established global movement present in 160 countries. As stated in its manifesto, the movement is dedicated to preventing “the disappearance of local food cultures and traditions, counteract the rise of fast life and combat people’s dwindling interest in the food they eat, where it comes from and how our food choices affect the world around us” (“Good, Clean and Fair: the Slow Food Manifesto for Quality” 1989). The movement’s broader platform includes a denunciation of genetically modified organisms in farming practices, and strong advocacy for biological as well as cultural diversity. Today, the movement’s concerns are no longer the preserve of food activists but have been embraced by significant sectors of the food and hospitality industries in cities around the world in response to growing consumer demand for ethically sourced food. The rising popularity of slow food festivals and farmers’ markets are evidence of this development (Schupp 2017; Williams, Germov, Fuller, & Freij 2015).

8In close ideological alignment with the Slow Food Movement, the New Nordic Cuisine is emblematic of today’s experimental and forward-looking food world, starring the chef as the modernist hero who, to borrow from Marshal Berman’s critique of modernity, wields “the power to change the world that is changing them” (Berman 1988 : 16). Arguably the most influential food movement of our day, the New Nordic Cuisine set out its vision in the New Nordic Kitchen Manifesto written by Danish food activist and entrepreneur Claus Meyer, of Copenhagen’s NOMA restaurant. Signed by a dozen influential Scandinavian chefs, the manifesto prescribes the now canonical preference for local ingredients, stressing their purity, simplicity, seasonal freshness, sustainability, and ethical production methods (Meyer 2004).

  • 3 Held in Copenhagen each year, the MAD symposium is the main gathering of industry leaders and its e (...)

9Even though the Nordic countries are still the hub for this movement3, its global reach is now patent. Celebrated chefs of the stature of the Roca brothers of Barcelona’s El Celler de Can Roca and Alex Atala of Sao Paulo’s D.O.M. are part of a culinary avant-garde dedicated to exploring and reinterpreting their local food cultures by applying contemporary techniques and aesthetics. A special case worth mentioning is that of Danish chef Kamilla Seidler, who in 2012 was invited by Claus Meyer to lead the kitchen at Gustu, his new Bolivian venture in La Paz. Since then, Gustu has twice been named Bolivia’s best restaurant. Awarded Latin America’s Best Female Chef in 2016, Seidler commented that she sees Bolivia right now “like a very young version of the New Nordic movement” (Price 2016).

10An integral part of the New Nordic Cuisine’s appeal lies with its success in articulating current global concerns with the sustainability of the planet’s food system. Experimenting with alternative sources of protein such as insects and seaweed, and espousing local foraging as the most sustainable method for procuring food are two examples of popular motifs emerging from contemporary Nordic restaurant kitchens. As I will explain, the guiding principles behind both the Slow Food Movement and its more contemporary offspring New Nordic Cuisine are prominent in the work of Chef Virgilio Martinez, whose ongoing exploratory journey in his native Peru is closely aligned with that of his Nordic counterparts René Redzepi and Claus Meyer.

Theoretical perspective

11This is a cross-disciplinary contribution to the field of food studies. At its core, this study analyses the work of Chef Virgilio Martinez through the optic of decolonial theory, within a globalisation framework. To understand the mechanics of globalisation I adopt Manuel Castells’ thesis on the networked society, the one enabled by the electronic platforms that have been transforming our very sense of space and community over the past three decades. Bringing together decolonial and globalisation theories, I argue that Chef Virgilio Martinez is a globally connected actor whose overall project shows clear parallels to that of the New Nordic Cuisine, the Danish-based movement that, as I will explain, has its own regional questions to answer regarding cultural hegemony. I argue that despite Martinez’s commendable efforts to create an autochthonous modern Peruvian cuisine anchored in ancestral local knowledge, his overall project remains problematically tethered to the global rhetoric of modernity, progress and scientific innovation. The barrier he is yet to cross consists of the epistemic wall that since colonial times continues to divide Peru’s cosmopolitan criollo elites in Lima from the peasant communities in the Andes.

12The interconnectivity facilitated by the Internet, particularly since the more recent emergence of social media, has galvanised an already powerful culture industry, with food emerging as one of its central themes. These electronic platforms have dramatically increased the speed and reach of information exchange, helping propel what sociologist Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson calls haute food. Ferguson explains haute food as a departure from haute cuisine, which she sees as a vestige of early modern aristocratic society. Haute food is firmly focused on the future, maintaining a rather loose connection with tradition. Ferguson paints a dizzying picture of today’s future-oriented food world as a modernist vortex of jet setting chefs, consumers and producers, a seemingly infinite numbers of television programs, movies, websites and mobile apps devoted to food. This, along with the food talk from all of these activities and the imperative of innovation guiding the chef as the modern entrepreneur, has produced “an aggressively up-to-the-minute food world” (Ferguson 2014 : 183–184).

13Castells sees the emergence of worldwide electronic communities—like the one gathering around cosmopolitan dining—as a symptom of a new style of interaction that marks a point of inflexion in the way societies come together. Above all, he notes that spatial contiguity, the material foundation of the industrial city, is no longer the primary support for these communities. Instead, it is shared time that brings social actors together through what he calls the networked society (Castells 2009). And, Castells argues, it is these loosely grounded communities that constitute “the dominant social practices of the information age” (Castells 2009 : 441). Rather than locality, these communities share what Castells calls a space of flows, a space whose contours are being defined through a circuit of electronic exchanges, from a small number of nodes or hubs, by globally mobile and forward-looking entrepreneurial elites (Castells 2009 : 442–446).

14In the swift transition to a networked society, the conflicted encounter of progress and tradition has become a central topic of discussion. Discourses around contemporary gastronomy show this ambivalence. Around the world, restaurateurs and diners alike are keen to embrace the future with open arms while at the same time advocating for local traditions and ingredients. There is an emerging interest in what is loosely defined as ‘authenticity’ in today’s food world (De St. Maurice 2014; Gunders 2011; Monaco 2017; Vasquez & Chik 2015). Regina Bendix captures the Janus-headed mindset of this ideal, which in her view is an inescapable aspect of the forward thrust of modernity, a period marked by “the oppositional desires for progress and nostalgia for what is left behind” (Bendix 1997 : 18). This same paradox is at the heart of what cultural anthropologist Renato Rosaldo has called imperialist nostalgia, the attitude that emerges when “someone deliberately alters a form of life and then regrets that things have not remained as they were prior to their intervention” (Rosaldo 1989 : 108). The intersection of tradition and modernity, problematic as it is, becomes an epistemic battleground in a divided society like Peru.

  • 4 In Peru, socio-economic levels are officially divided into five tiers (A to E), based on the Nation (...)
  • 5 According to a report by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission published in 2003, 69,280 people e (...)

15Almost two centuries after declaring independence from Spain, Peru continues to be a fractured society. The results of a recent study on cultural diversity and discrimination by Ipsos Public Affairs show that the estimated 6% of the population that identifies as white continues to hold on to the reins of power with a firm grip. According to this study, of the 16% classed within the top socio-economic levels A and B4, 28% are white, 8% are Quechua or Aymara, and 1% indigenous or native. The same study concludes that 31% of Peruvians experienced discrimination over the past year, principally in hospitals and police stations, with skin colour cited as the main factor, followed by income level and dress style (Ipsos Public Affairs 2018). This stubborn structural divide was a significant factor behind the armed struggle that brought the country to its knees during the 1980s and 90s5. It is no coincidence that the Shining Path was able to launch its ‘popular war’ in Ayacucho, in the central Andes, filling a power vacuum left by a largely absent centralised government in Lima (Rénique 2015).

16Peru’s sharp dividing lines are the most enduring legacy of its colonial history. Even today, with the armed conflict fading into an indiscernible past as the country enters its twentieth year of uninterrupted economic expansion, the cultural and often racialised burden of inequality continues to dampen Peru’s generally optimistic outlook. Peruvian sociologist Anibal Quijano traces the roots of this structural divide to the early days of Spanish conquest, when assumed physical difference defined the boundary between victors and vanquished. Thus established, Quijano argues, racial division became more than a taxonomical exercise, laying also the foundations for a Eurocentric perspective to become the hegemonic standpoint from which to observe and make sense of the country and its people (Quijano 2007 : 119).

17This period in the history of European thought was marked by the rise to hegemony of modern scientific observation, defining a standard of truth that transcended the confines of the laboratory into the broader realm of culture. Colombian philosopher Santiago Castro-Gómez finds a fundamental connection between the implantation of Euro-centrism in Latin America and the emergence of a mathematical perspective in the Italian Renaissance. The adoption of a fixed and singular point of view in Renaissance art mirrored the emergence of a “sovereign gaze that is outside and above the object of representation” [my translation] (Castro-Gómez 2005 : 62). This new observing position revolutionised the practice of cartography in Europe, unifying the very perception of the planet. World maps no longer radiated from a defined imperial centre, instead they represented the world as an objective, unified whole with no defined centre. The totalising quality of this emerging perspective dictated that all alternative forms of looking at the world be subordinated. Castro-Gómez refers to this god-like form of knowledge that places the observer in a sovereign position in relation to the object of observation as the point zero hubris, which he links to capitalist expansion: “This point zero represents the absolute epistemological starting point, but it is also the start of the economic and social control of the world. It follows the need that the Spanish state had (followed by the other hegemonic powers of the world system) to eradicate any other belief system that would not favour the capitalist vision of homo economicus [my translation] (Castro-Gómez 2005: 65).

18To this day, racial and cultural relations in Peru continue to favour the position of the white European observer, incapable of forming a clear picture of the world outside the sovereign gaze of homo economicus. This configuration of power is particularly evident in the relation between the globally connected city of Lima and the rural regions of Peru, forming an entrenched structural barrier that curtails the ability of individual agents to proceed otherwise. As I will explain, it is not difficult to detect some of the hallmarks of the colonial mode of observation in the exploratory work of a chef like Virgilio Martinez. Yet, I see nothing but genuine care and curiosity for traditional knowledge moving Martinez’s enterprise, a point to which I will return in the final section of this paper. It is, as Bourdieu would have it, a matter of habitus (Bourdieu 1984), the result of a class-based socialisation process that goes beyond matters of aesthetic taste and bodily comportment, informing also a certain epistemic framework with a particular set of limitations that are not easy to break away from.


19I have been observing the development of Peru’s restaurant culture from Melbourne, Australia, as well through regular visits to Lima. For this study, I have chosen to focus on chef Virgilio Martinez because of the ambivalent space he navigates, between modernity and tradition, as both a highly influential chef with a global outlook and one with a strong interest in exploring Peru’s cultural and biological diversity. Martinez’s work is emblematic of issues that tend to emerge when local foodways are translated into the cosmopolitan idiom of high-end dining. In particular, his exploratory journey presents a test case for the ability of a Peruvian chef to break away from his elite, colonially inflected habitus, and engage with peasant farmers in their own terms. Admittedly, Martinez is not representative of the general direction in Peru’s dining culture, rather, his projects open up a space for a globally informed local avant-garde at one end of Peru’s hospitality industry. Nevertheless, Martinez is highly influential in the local medium, looked upon as an important source of inspiration and direction for a new generation of successful chefs.

20This paper provides a qualitative analysis of Martinez’s work. My findings are based on applying a decolonial framework to a composite picture of Martinez made up of information gathered from a variety of sources in various formats and mediums. Celebrity chefs with a global reach have a presence that transcends their restaurants. Details of their work and views can be readily accessed through sources including social media accounts—and the discussions that bring these platforms to life, press coverage by global media, books, television series and documentaries. Virgilio Martinez is one such chef. The starting point for this study consisted of two visits I made to Central, Martinez’s flagship restaurant in Lima, in 2016 and 2017. Other sources include Central the book he co-authored with American writer and photographer Nicholas Gill, and Chef’s Table, the Netflix documentary series that in 2017 dedicated an episode to Martinez, narrated in part by Gill. I also gathered his views from articles in the international press, and the websites and Instagram accounts of Central, Mater Iniciativa, and Mil Centro, Martinez’s three main projects.

21In addition, in May 2018 I met in Cusco with Francesco D’Angelo, a Peruvian anthropologist who is part of the team at Mater Iniciativa, the research arm behind Martinez’s restaurants. D’Angelo advises Martinez on a collaborative strategy to involve the Quechua-speaking communities neighbouring Moray, the archaeological site where Mil Centro, Martinez’s latest venture, is located. Presented as an “interpretation, research and development centre” (Martinez 2017), Mil opened in February 2018 as a restaurant as well as a new base for Mater Iniciativa. My meeting with D’Angelo was followed by a series of online conversations, email correspondence, and a two-day visit to Mil in October 2018. His input incorporates an important voice to my investigation, testing some of my assumptions and helping triangulate my findings.


22Virgilio Martínez Véliz was born in Lima in 1977. His background and career trajectory mirrors that of his generational cohort. He trained at Le Cordon Bleu in Ottawa and London before serving as executive chef at Gastón Acurio’s flagship Astrid & Gastón in Bogotá and then Madrid. In 2009 he returned to Peru to open his own restaurant, Central, in Lima’s affluent beachside district of Miraflores, where he gained rapid recognition amongst the cosmopolitan dining set. Central’s international standing grew steadily, receiving in 2014 the Highest Climbing award after jumping 35 places to number 14 in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. Currently, the same list ranks Central at number 2 in Latin America and 6th in the world.

Figure 1

Figure 1

Virgilio Martínez at the Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants awards night​centralrest/​

23Martínez is a consummate explorer, he is regularly on the road exploring the diversity of Peru’s many climates, from the coastal deserts to the puna region 13,000 feet above the sea level. His aim is to find novelty ingredients to experiment with as he develops what he sees as a truly local Peruvian cuisine. An interview with the Australian newspaper cites Martínez’s goal as bringing “an authentically ‘100 per cent’ indigenous Peruvian cuisine to the world, free of any other imported culinary traditions” (Verghis 2015). Reaffirming Martinez’s ambivalent position between global and local concerns, his nationalistic goal is in line with the New Nordic Kitchen Manifesto, Point 4 of which recommends “to base our cooking on ingredients and produce whose characteristics are unique to our climates, landscapes and waters” (“New Nordic Food” n.d.). Peru’s megadiversity—including 84 of the earth’s 117 microclimates, and 10 per cent of all species of plants and animals (Martinez 2016)—has allowed Martinez to apply the formula successfully.

24To professionalise his exploratory enterprise, Martínez joined forces with his sister Malena, a trained physician, to create in 2012 the research organisation Mater Iniciativa, the ‘biological and cultural research centre behind Central Restaurante’ (“Mater Iniciativa” n.d.). The purpose of this parallel project is to traverse Peru’s diverse geography in search of ingredients, and to understand them in their place of origin. Martinez has since travelled the country dozens of times collecting botanical and mineral specimens such as edible clays, mosses, barks, tubers, and salts, all of which are photographed, carefully catalogued, and experimented with in his kitchen.

Figure 2

Figure 2

Taxonomy of local salts, by Mater Iniciativa​​

25Martinez’s initiative of equipping his kitchen with a scientific research arm did not happen in isolation, Mater Iniciativa shows striking parallels with the Nordic Food Lab. Established in 2008 by Claus Mayer and Rene Redzepi, the New Nordic Food Lab is a not for profit organisation with a mission “to explore the edible potential of the Nordic region”. Like its Peruvian counterpart, it also brings together a research team to combine “scientific and humanistic approaches with culinary techniques” (“Nordic Food Lab” n.d.). Attention to local diversity and a taxonomic drive are central to both projects. The Nordic Food Lab explores the diversity “of autochthonous genetic material, of organisms, of cultural practices, of ideas (…) acknowledging geography as the foundation of gastronomy” (“Nordic Food Lab” n.d.), while Mater Iniciativa explores “one of the four most megadiverse countries on the planet”, in the understanding that “a plate of food will never be more important than the tradition of an ingredient” (“Mater Iniciativa” n.d.).

Figure 3

Figure 3

Taxonomy of Kongelundsskoven, Copenhagen, by the Nordic Food Lab

26Even below the immediate parallels linking both projects, when considering their respective socio-political contexts it is possible to detect a deeper layer of questions with similar undertones. The New Nordic Cuisine, it has been pointed out, emerges at a special period of change in Europe, with Nordic societies becoming more racially and ethnically diverse. In this increasingly unsettled political landscape, NOMA, the Danish restaurant led by influential chef Rene Redzepi, has been building a brand around the unsullied character of its region. Part of NOMA’s appeal would lie in its conjuring of a ‘simpler’ past, rooted in a ‘purer’, truly Nordic lineage, a romantic ideal resembling that of Nordic race science from the turn of the 20th century (Andreassen 2014; Neuman & Leer 2018). However, as Andreassen rightly points out, neither NOMA nor the New Nordic Cuisine ought to be branded racist, rather they “can be seen as reminiscent of the racial history they inhabit” (Andreassen 2014 : 449).

  • 6 The Lima of yesteryear is a common trope in fashionable restaurants like El Bodegón, Isolina, La Pi (...)

27Peru’s socio-political context shows some curious parallels. The country has been rapidly transforming not just following its opening to the global economy but also, more importantly, due to successive waves of country-to-city migration. Lima today is a loud and chaotic, yet burgeoning and socially mobile cultural hub with deep Andean and Amazonian roots (Matos Mar 2012). In response to this, the city’s mostly white middle class—more closely aligned with the city’s dwindling Spanish roots—has been retreating into defensive enclaves such as the infamous gated communities in Lima’s southern beaches (Matta 2007). Some of Lima’s fine dining establishments reflect this tension, providing sanctuary through the motif of tradition, clinging on to the ‘authentic’ Lima of a romanticised past where provincial folk knew their station in society6. Martinez’s project is not focused on old Lima, though his intent may be just as infused with nostalgia. In a way, like his Nordic counterparts’ harking back to their Viking past, Martinez has a special fascination with Peru’s Inca past, an important point I will develop in the final section of this paper when I analyse Martinez’s newest project based in the old imperial capital of Cusco.

28In addition to the similarities between Martinez’s prospecting explorations and those of his Nordic colleagues, it is hard to dismiss a historical lineage linking Martinez’s travels through rural and remote regions of the country with the botanical expeditions funded by the Spanish crown between the 1770s and early 1800s. The parallels I see cover the logistical as well the epistemological and aesthetic mechanics behind both enterprises. A product of their time, these botanical voyages brought the scientific spirit to the new world, framed by the taxonomical system that Swedish Botanist Carl Linnaeus developed in the earlier part of the 18th century. Reflecting the enlightenment treatment of nature as an object of scientific observation, these expeditions re-imagined the world through what Cajigas-Rotundo calls the anthropology of the gaze, reflecting the Kantian aesthetic of the time that privileged vision as the best source of pure understanding (Cajigas-Rotundo 2007 : 170).

29The botanical expeditions were, of course, contingent on industry funding; royal patronage was secured with the prospect of locating and exploiting valuable botanical commodities in order to challenge the British, French, and Dutch hegemony in the lucrative spice trade (Bleichmar 2012). Following this lineage to our day, Cajigas-Rotundo finds a “gluttony of the gaze”, translated into contemporary discourses of ‘sustainable development’, which—he argues—provide an ethical avenue for global capital’s continued extraction of resources [my translation] (Cajigas-Rotundo 2007 : 170–171).

30The taxonomy of Peru that Mater Iniciativa has been developing is reminiscent of the botanical expeditions’ careful documenting of samples which, as Daniela Bleichmar explains, were primarily a visualisation project aimed at making imperial nature visible and therefore governable (Bleichmar 2012 : 7). The scientific spirit that produced the large corpus of images—around 12,000—over two centuries ago continues to reverberate, today, in Mater Iniciativa’s prospecting for new ingredients to bring the unfamiliar to view, this time for a cosmopolitan dining set. This intent is clear in the Mater Boxes, display cases where patrons to Central can observe some of the findings. I quote from the website:

31“Conveying the wonder of the discovery of new products in their natural habitat is impossible. However, at Central, thanks to Mater's foraging, it is possible to exhibit the wild beauty of roots, seeds, fruits, vines, tubers and aromatic flowers that we gather along the way. And so, to satisfy the curiosity of restaurant visitors, we have the Mater Box, a type of glass case in which we display the discoveries of our journeys. We now have more than 150 products on exhibition, and we are convinced that the biodiversity of Peru will never leave us without new protagonists” (“Mater Iniciativa” n.d.)

Figure 4

Figure 4

Mater Box​english.html

32Both exploratory enterprises also share similar representational challenges. As Bleichmar sees them, the images documenting the botanical expeditions show “isolated botanical fragments floating over overwhelmingly white pages” in an “extremely selective pictorial approach” where geography is erased, “turning local plants into decontextualized natural specimens that could circulate globally” (Bleichmar 2012 : 14).

Figure 5

Figure 5

Antonio Barrionuevo (New Granada expedition), ‘Myrodia globosa’, undated, tempera on paper (54 x 37.5 cm).

Real Jardín Botánico, Madrid (Bleichmar 2012 : 95)

33The parallels I detect with the scientific expeditions are not circumscribed to Mater Iniciativa’s taxonomic work, Martinez’s eminently Instagrammable culinary arrangements also circulate unimpeded as a reflexion of today’s global dining aesthetic. Yet, when considered as an interpretation of local dishes, which is not uncommon in Martinez’s creations, the ingredients begin to appear somewhat out of place. Witness, for instance, his interpretation of a traditional Tunta Rellena, in which freeze-dried potatoes, a notoriously pungent Andean staple, form a decorative background to a complete reconfiguration of the ingredient as rather ethereal wafers. Like his predecessors two centuries ago, Martinez appears keen to render the far corners of Peru visible to the European-informed eye of a cosmopolitan set that are also voracious consumers of today’s increasingly visual culture.

Figure 6

Figure 6

Tunta rellena at Central​

34Without a doubt, Martínez is a passionate and proud proponent of Peru’s often surprising ingredients. He also appears genuinely curious and willing to engage with the ancestral traditions of his country. Yet like any Peruvian of his generation who grew up in the secluded habitus of middle class Lima, he could be excused for failing at times to fathom the distance that separates him from his fellow Peruvians in the Andes. In 2015, the Wall Street Journal featured an interview conducted with Martinez during a foraging expedition to the highlands of Cusco. As he gathered samples of what to local women are medicinal herbs, Martínez candidly gestured towards his Quechua-speaking translator and commented: “the first time we came they thought we were crazy, the idea of cooking with some of these ingredients doesn’t make any sense to them. It would be like putting Xanax in a dish” (Kahn 2015). Food writer and photographer Nicholas Gill, who narrates much of Netflix’s Chef’s Table episode profiling Martinez cites a similar incongruity: “Virgilio finds these things, like a tree bark with a resin in it; it is not even an ingredient; one village might use that thing for headaches or different medicinal uses; when indigenous communities see that he is collecting these things to cook with, they don’t understand”.

Figure 7

Figure 7

Martínez with Quechua-speaking women in Cusco​articles/​chef-­virgilio-­martinez-­takes-­peruvian-­cuisine-­to-­new-­heights-­1425485872

35Such contrasting approaches to ingredients betray a certain unilateralism on the part of Martinez. He is, indeed, within his rights to explore his country in search of ingredients, yet his approach to these ingredients seems at times to miss the opportunity to engage with the local knowledge he so craves to unearth. This, to my mind, carries within it the marks of what Walter Mignolo describes as the monotopism in modern thought, or “the impossibility of thinking outside the categories of modernity, of not understanding the geo-politics of knowledge and of the ground of epistemic, political and ethical enunciation” [my translation] (Walsh 2002). Face to face with Quechua-speaking women, Martínez the modern-day explorer appears awkwardly encased in an outsider’s position. As a middle-class Limeño, his perspective is historically habituated to observe the world from a position of hegemony and universality. Martínez, the restless explorer on a mission to connect with the ancestral knowledge of his country struggles to disengage from the sovereign gaze of modernity.

36Similar undertones inform the journeys through the Nordic region by gastronomic explorers Claus Meyer and Rene Redzepi. In his analysis of the NOMA book, Andressen detects an unequivocal civilising ethos in the chefs’ approach to the locals in Iceland, the Faroe Islands and Greenland. While marvelling at the quality of the ingredients that “seemed to be growing by themselves out from the landscape”, they were clearly disappointed with the local cooks. “The people were spectators, trappers and hunters—not refiners”, they conclude (cited in Andreassen 2014 : 448). Importantly, Andressen points out that Greenland, Iceland and the Faroe Islands are former Danish colonies, treated in the 19th century as providers of raw materials. To this day, they continue to be the providers of wild produce to the metropolis in Copenhagen for the delight of the cosmopolitan gastronomic set. Whiteness argues Andreassen, consists of “the ability to turn wild ingredients into world celebrated food experiences” (Andreassen 2014 : 448).

37Even though Martinez’s explorations cover the various regions of Peru, the Andes have always occupied a special place. His latest project, Mil Centro, is perched on a plateau, 11,500 feet above the sea level. Described by Martinez as “an interpretation, research and development centre” [my translation] (Miglio 2018), Mil Centro is a thatched adobe building that doubles as 20-cover restaurant and research centre, located next to the Inca ruin of Moray, 30 miles northwest of Cusco. Believed to be an agriculture research centre in Inca times, the enigmatic amphitheatre-like concentric terraces of Moray define discrete microclimates with marked variations in temperature and humidity. This was the site that inspired Martinez to design Mater Alturas, his altitudes-based degustation menu at Central. Mil has engaged two neighbouring Quechua-speaking communities to work the land and participate in a series of collaborative projects.

Figure 8

Figure 8

Mil Centro, neighbouring the archaeological site of Moray, Cusco.

38Breathtaking as it is, Mil Centro’s location is more than a mere majestic site. As historian Cecilia Méndez points out, the Inca past plays a prominent role in Peru’s criollo imaginary. In her analysis, to extol the Inca imperial past in defence of the nation is to assume the nation as a given, and not as an entity taking shape through the action of existing forces. Indians are accepted so long as they remain elements in the landscape and testimony to a distant glory. Méndez traces the roots of this attitude to the quashing of the rebellion of Túpac Amaru II against colonial authorities in 1783. The ensuing repression of local leaders meant that the indigenous aristocracy began to dissolve and criollos took control of the reproduction of Inca traditions and symbology. From this point on, all manifestations of Peru’s imperial past became stylised, purged of any political content. To this day, Mendez argues, criollo discourses fail to recognise the capacity of Indians to express and represent themselves (Méndez 1995). Grey and Newman apply Méndez’s argument to what they see as “culinary colonialism” in the Andes, which they define as “an extension of Settler jurisdiction over, and an exploitation of, Indigenous gastronomy”. They point out that market valorisation of local cuisine has been accomplished via the exclusion of Indigeneity “where Quechua are passed over in favour of the more noble, essentially fictive, and conveniently long-deceased Inkan ancestors of the modern nation”. Ultimately, they conclude, “telling colonized peoples’ stories by cooking their cuisines constitutes erasure through re-narration” (Grey & Newman 2018).

39Could we therefore infer that Mil Centro constitutes an extension of settler jurisdiction over indigenous self-determination? There is, in my view, no straight answer to this question. On the face of it, there is a clear contradiction in the very concept of a luxury restaurant dedicated to translating the ingredients of the Andes and the stories of its people into an experimental degustation menu. At USD 145—plus drinks—the experience is well beyond the reach of even many middle-class Peruvians. The point raised by Andreassen in reference to NOMA could just as well apply to Mil Centro: to move at ease in such an upper-class environment would require not just financial capital but class skills, in other words, a degree of ‘whiteness’ that is foreign to the everyday experience in the local Quechua communities (Andreassen 2014).

40Beyond this initial barrier, any meaningful study of the restaurant’s impact on the local communities’ capacity for self-determination would need to consider the power distribution amongst all parties involved and, ultimately, base its findings on the level of agency afforded to the Quechua-speaking communities that have lived on the site for countless generations. This would require careful observation over time, a worthy research project given the attention Mil has been gathering both globally and, most importantly, in Peru. Any positive outcomes could pave the way to similar projects in other regions.

41Opening a restaurant in rural Cusco, Martinez is doubling down on his resolve to connect to the land, its people and its food. In his own words, “Mil isn’t just a restaurant, it’s a laboratory that looks at Peruvian culture, produce and identity” (Moseley-Williams 2018), a lofty goal indeed. It is too early at this point to offer anything but preliminary observations; as I write this paper, Mil has only been open for seven months. It is possible, however, to highlight some encouraging developments. Mil Centro now houses Mater Iniciativa, which has evolved into more than a mere taxonomical exercise. The project now incorporates substantial input by a team of researchers that work alongside the two Quechua-speaking communities that border the restaurant.

42I have been in consultation with a member of Mater Iniciativa’s research team, Peruvian anthropologist Francesco D’Angelo. Martinez engaged D’Angelo to conduct a study of Mullak’as-Misminay and Kacllaraccay, the two communities surrounding the site of Mil. D’Angelo has since designed a participatory strategy to engage with these communities, who now cultivate the project’s land and benefit with 50 per cent of the harvest, as well as a living wage. In addition, community members are participating of a training program that will help them increase the diversity of their potato harvest, thus fetching higher prices at the local market in Urubamba. The practice of reciprocity, a pillar of Inca society that continues to sustain peasant communities in the Andes to this day, is a core principle in this strategy.

43The other principle is listening. In May 2018, Mater Iniciativa was involved in the 1st Potato Biodiversity and Innovation Festival in Cusco, a fringe-style festival to the main-stage World Potato Congress, held concurrently in Cusco and attended by around 1,000 delegates from 52 countries including the Peruvian president. At the behest of Mater, D’Angelo made sure that the voices heard at this festival were those of the growers themselves. This was a small but highly suggestive initiative. It marks, to my mind, a step forward from previous efforts by the likes of Gastón Acurio, Peru’s most influential chef and Martinez’s mentor, who paved the way for innovative gastronomic experiments such as Mil to become a reality. Credit be due to Acurio for raising the profile of the Peru’s small producers—responsible for over 80 per cent the country’s agricultural output (Instituto Nacional de Estadística e Informática 2012), yet, to the best of my knowledge, he is yet to hand over the microphone to any of these producers to speak for themselves.

44It is worth highlighting that Mater Iniciativa takes the collaborative nature of its projects seriously. Mullak’as-Misminay and Kacllaraccay are referred to as ‘partner communities’, and research involving them is designed with collaborative safeguards. As an example, Mater were interested in gaining some understanding of how ‘food’ and ‘work’ are perceived by members of the Kacllaraccay community. To this end, D’Angelo searched for an ethnographic method that would best convey the community’s views in their own terms, in his words:

45“We wanted to avoid creating unequal power dynamics, as it is the continual goal of Mil and Martinez, to encourage the restaurant and community to work side by side. So we searched for investigative methods that would decolonize the research process, making it more about open dialogue, learning and knowledge sharing” [my emphasis] (D’Angelo & Wolff forthcoming).

46He decided on a method called Photovoice, which involved handing over camera equipment to a sample of community members to take photos of what they thought was ‘food’ or ‘work’. The photographs were then used to hold discussions including some open-ended questions “to encourage the sharing of ideas and perspectives”.

47Meanwhile, Martinez presses ahead with his mission to connect with the land, perhaps not without ‘the white man’s burden’ flagged by Rosaldo (Rosaldo 1989), yet with an uncompromising will to learn; “you are in the countryside and what Mil gives you is an understanding of nature, your surroundings, the mountain ranges, altitude ecosystems, culture and cuisine. It’s a journey of learning”[my translation] (Miglio 2018). In a recent conversation with D’Angelo, he described Martinez to me as the kind of guy who would call him at 10 PM and ask ‘why is [fermented corn drink] chicha so important to them?’

Concluding remarks

  • 7 According to official statistics, monetary poverty in rural Peru dropped from 74% in 2007 to 44% in (...)

48In 2021, Peru will be celebrating its bicentenary as an independent republic. There is a conspicuous nationalist fervour engulfing the country, most notably in urban areas. The festive mood is justified as the country is in its second decade of sustained economic expansion following a dark period of political violence and financial implosion. Yet much remains to be done before we can begin to perceive Peru as a nation, that is, a territory shared with a modicum of equality in terms of access to the benefits of citizenship. It is true that the rate of extreme poverty has shown a sharp decrease over the past decade7, yet the nationalist celebration is yet to evolve into a genuinely inclusive project. The divisive structures implanted by Spanish colonial intervention continue to support a unilateral view of progress as a civilising endeavour we must all be part of. Alternative understandings, Peru’s ancestral ways of relating to the land and to each other, continue to be at a disadvantage in a culturally rich country that would like to take pride in its heritage.

49Peru is a country with a rich and complex culinary heritage where food is somewhat of a national obsession. In this diverse culinary landscape, the idea of a Peruvian national cuisine remains elusive, yet it continues to play a central role in defining the national character. Just like its people and its geography, Peruvian cuisine can mean many, radically different things. Peru’s food culture paints an accurate picture of the country’s history and its present, of conflict and coming together, of global incursion and local experiments in cultural encounter. Peru’s colonial past continues to delineate its present, more so in an era of globalisation where the market for ideas knows few boundaries. Yet globalisation also brings a growing awareness of the right to self-determination. This ambivalent encounter of modernity and tradition defines a cultural battleground that, in the case of Peru, continues to be the stage of an epistemic confrontation. Such is the field where Chef Virgilio Martinez has chosen to operate.

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1 In this issue of the journal, Emma McDonnell explores the inherent coloniality in the discourses of Peruvian chefs like Martínez, Acurio and Pedro Miguel Schiaffino.

2 In a Peruvian context, the term criollo broadly refers to Spanish settler society established in colonial times, and their descendants.

3 Held in Copenhagen each year, the MAD symposium is the main gathering of industry leaders and its extensive network of followers.

4 In Peru, socio-economic levels are officially divided into five tiers (A to E), based on the National Household Survey carried out by the National Institute of Statistics. The survey measures access to services, dwelling conditions, possessions, level of education and access to health.

5 According to a report by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission published in 2003, 69,280 people either died or disappeared between 1980 and 2000 as a result of the armed conflict, three quarters of whom were from Quechua-speaking peasant communities. An estimated 37% of these casualties were attributed to the military (CVR 2003).

6 The Lima of yesteryear is a common trope in fashionable restaurants like El Bodegón, Isolina, La Picantería, and many others that build their brand around the notion of the ‘authentic’ Lima. I am developing his topic in my doctoral research.

7 According to official statistics, monetary poverty in rural Peru dropped from 74% in 2007 to 44% in 2017. Equal decrease was observed for the same period in urban areas, from 30% to 15% (“Instituto Nacional de Estadística e Informática,” n.d.).

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List of illustrations

Title Figure 1
Caption Virgilio Martínez at the Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants awards night
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Title Figure 2
Caption Taxonomy of local salts, by Mater Iniciativa
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Title Figure 3
Caption Taxonomy of Kongelundsskoven, Copenhagen, by the Nordic Food Lab
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Title Figure 4
Caption Mater Box
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Title Figure 5
Caption Antonio Barrionuevo (New Granada expedition), ‘Myrodia globosa’, undated, tempera on paper (54 x 37.5 cm).
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Title Figure 6
Caption Tunta rellena at Central
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Title Figure 7
Caption Martínez with Quechua-speaking women in Cusco
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Title Figure 8
Caption Mil Centro, neighbouring the archaeological site of Moray, Cusco.
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Electronic reference

Jorge López-Canales, « Peru on a Plate: coloniality and modernity in Peru’s high-end cuisine », Anthropology of food [Online], 14 | 2019, Online since 17 June 2019, connection on 10 August 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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About the author

Jorge López-Canales

Department of Spanish and Latin American Studies, The University of Melbourne,

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Licence Creative Commons
Anthropologie of food est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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