Mil Centro: Virgilio Martinez’s Culinary Lab In The Sacred Valley

Terra Explorer
August 18, 2022

People often call Lima the gastronomic capital of South America. Cuisine aficionados are lining up in search of the best culinary experiences in Peru. After all, the closely watched World’s 50 Best Restaurants list includes four eateries from this coastal metropolis —and Central by chefs Virgilio Martinez and Pía León ranks second best in the World.

But their culinary oeuvre is not only served at their headquarters in Lima. In 2018, they branched out into the Sacred Valley in what appears to be not a commercial attempt to multiply their venues but a mere necessity to establish a base of operations for their botanical, cultural, and artistic endeavors —which power Central and Kjolle (the latter, Pía’s solo project).

The gastronomic duo has hung out their shingle 11,706 feet above sea level, perched over a mountain overlooking the ruins of Moray. These Inca terraces —speculated to have been a botanical lab to gradually adapt crops to different climates— have inspired the altitudinal menu of Central, one in which each plate harnesses the flavors and textures from a certain elevation, a certain biome: from the bountiful Pacific waters, up to the Andes, and back down again into the Amazon rainforest.

And Mil Centro, their most recent restaurant at the famed valley, somewhat follows that same notion, although more localized. If Central is a gustatory tour through Peru’s whole geography, Mil is a more thorough stop at the Andes. Reason being, the valleys, tundra, highland forests, lakes, and rivers provide a cornucopia of unexplored ingredients there alone —many of which remote communities have salvaged, driven only by tradition. We’re talking about tubers like mashua and mauka, unheard-of varieties of purple potatoes, herbal cooking dyes, and vitreous spheres of bacterias growing at the banks of Andean lagoons.

Related: Manuel Choqque, The Man Who Saved Purple Potatoes.

mil centro restaurant outside

The restaurant has formed a co-op of sorts with the tiny nearby farming communities to revive these “lost crops.” Yet, their work goes beyond harvesting. Their conservation efforts sprawl into cultivation techniques, cooking methods, and even fermentation practices of both drinks and foods that would otherwise be lost to time.

Currently, Mil offers an eight-course meal at lunch only. And as the NYTimes puts it: “each stop, an opportunity to use age-old ingredients and techniques to arrestingly modern effect,” a dichotomous gestalt impossible to find at any other kitchen. 

The duo of restaurateurs works in tandem with Malena Martinez, the driving force behind the research center. She is joined by biologists, anthropologists, chemists, chefs, distillers, and even artists and designers to expand the initiative’s reach and re-iterate the findings into newer forms. There is simply no other gastronomic enterprise with such a motley team behind it —there is where its strength lies. 

And so, a proper visit to Mil goes far beyond its tables. Besides the lunch service, the team proposes a dive into its surroundings. They call it the “Mil Inmersion,” and it encompasses six stops: first at the top of the ruins of Moray, then to the farmlands, followed by a short botanical expedition, and later to their experimentation hub, all crowned by a visit to their distillery and a meal at the minimalist restaurant.

Related: 5 Must-Go Restaurants In Peru.

An Architectural Gem

mil centro restaurant

Now, let us diverge from the culinary to engage in well-deserved architectural chatter —as the site has been shortlisted as one of the five best “Rebirth Projects” in 2019 by Dezeen. Rafael Frayre, the leading architect, overhauled a traditional building to create Mil Centro. Yet, instead of adding sterile steel or concrete, the team turned to its surroundings to gather materials and construction techniques to experiment with. 

In turn, an austere earthen facade surged, topped with woven Andean grass —from the outside, the building merges with local styles of construction. As for the inside, the interiors flourish over a collection of rustic plaster, polished wood furnishings, and floor-to-ceiling windows all around the central stone patio —right in the middle of it, an almost extinct Queñua tree flourishes. 

Those same rough, organic, and minimalist aesthetic sensibilities are also poured into the tableware. Everything is minutely thought out. It indeed is another masterstroke by the Central team.

A visit to Mil Centro by Virgilio Martinez and Pía Leon is undoubtedly the best culinary experience in Cusco. Whether you fancy yourself a foodie or not, a trip to this restaurant will be more than worth it. And if you’re looking for a food tour in Perú, look no further. Contact our team of experts to co-design the most flavorful of routes.

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