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Husband-wife chef duo from Peru, Virgilio Martínez and Pía León, talk about their Singapore residency

Jasmine Alimin
Jasmine Alimin8/22/2022 06:38 PM GMT+08  • 8 min read
Husband-wife chef duo from Peru, Virgilio Martínez and Pía León, talk about their Singapore residency
For their three-month Mandala Masters residency in Singapore now on till Oct 30, the couple will be taking inspiration from their dining concept at Central, presenting a vertical journey through the indigenous cultures, ingredients and flavours of Peru
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After two highly successful, sold-out culinary residencies headlined by chefs Mauro Colagreco from Mirazur and Gaggan Anand, both stalwarts and number one on The World’s Best Restaurants and Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list, Mandala Masters is back with an ambitious third residency that promises another best-in-class dining experience featuring a highly-decorated husband-wife team from Peru.

Virgilio Martínez is a world renowned chef and restauranteur behind Central, ranked number two in the world according to the World’s 50 Best Restaurant Awards, and as the Greatest Latin America’s Best Restaurant from 2013 to 2022.

Meanwhile, co-founder, collaborator and wife Pía León was voted Latin America’s Best Female Chef in 2019, and World’s Best Female Chef in 2021. While overseeing Central with her husband, León also runs her own dining concept Kjolle (pronounced KOY-ay), housed in a modern restaurant complex that shares its space with Central, the Mater Iniciativa NGO research lab and cocktail bar Mayo — all of which belong to the couple. Kjolle burst into Latin America’s 50 Best list at number 21 in 2019, winning the Highest New Entry Award, and is also one of the Top 10 Most Beautiful Restaurants in the World as voted by Forbes in 2021.

For their three-month Mandala Masters residency in Singapore now on till Oct 30, the couple will be taking inspiration from their dining concept at Central, presenting a vertical journey through the indigenous cultures, ingredients and flavours of Peru in Meters Above Sea Level (MASL).

Multi-course tasting menus of completely new dishes have been developed exclusively in order to present the chefs’ signature interpretation of Peru’s vastly biodiverse landscapes and ecosystems. Each dish is unnamed but rather listed according to its altitude to allow guests to experience ingredients from altitudes ranging from -10 MASL, featuring plenty of oceanic delights, to 3,850 MASL, where you will get native tuber, clay and high altitude leaves.

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The very core of Central is its philosophies about sustainability and Martínez is famed for collecting and cataloguing rare ingredients. Martínez says: “To us, meters above sea level refers to the way we connect with the environment in Peru. Bisected by a major mountain range, Peru’s unique geography requires us to look at the world vertically in order to access the origin of thousands of our ingredients.”

“People are looking for experiences that surprise but also transcend. An interesting culinary experience should be new but also complete, multifaceted and presented with the elements to make the story behind it cohesive and meaningful, ” adds León. “We came together to make MASL feel like our house, our hands, our joint teams from Central and Kjolle.”

To provide the appropriate verticality and views, MASL will be hosted by rooftop dining destination Art at National Gallery Singapore, with the support of chef-owner Beppe De Vito, executive chef Daniele Sperindio and team. It will be the first Mandala Masters event outside of Mandala Club, and the space will be completely transformed for the experience.

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In addition to the 11-course dinner degustation menu ($448++), MASL also offers an 8-course lunch menu ($320++), and a Latin American-inspired cocktail pairing (from $188++) specially selected by the Peruvian head bartender Alonso Palomino featuring Hennessy and Glenmorangie spirits. Moët & Chandon champagnes are also available. For reservations, visit mandala.club/masters.

Here, Martínez and León talk about setting up their Singapore residency and what we can expect on the menu.

Is this your first residency outside of South America?

Martínez: I have had many opportunities to cook abroad. Pretty much everywhere in the world, including Asia, Europe, America, but I’ve never done anything like this in Singapore this time, staying for a while, like this residency.

León: I once went to New York, where the team and I did about four months of Kjolle in a beautiful venue. I have very good memories about what we did over there, but MASL will be a completely different and unique experience that I’m excited about.

What are you looking forward to doing while you spend a few months here?

Martínez: We are very happy to be in Singapore because it’s a place where we have been in touch through many chefs we see and admire. You have such an amazing gastronomic city, good quality of food, different kinds of cuisines, and we enjoy the fine dining scene here as well. We enjoy talking to different people and we have lots of friends in Singapore. I think for us going to Singapore is something in between, work of course, but there's also a lot of fun going on. There is a lot of learning all the time.

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In my case, it’s going to be around my 10th time in Singapore. I remember the first time I came to Singapore, it was 23 years ago, to learn how to cook. I was travelling in Singapore, staying in different places.

León: I love Singapore. I remember we got engaged here, so it’s a special place very close to our hearts. We have been going to Singapore mainly for cooking but always find the time to enjoy and relax a bit. We’ve been to Odette, and ate at restaurants by Daniel Chavez, and Andre Chiang when he had Restaurant Andre.

Are you both co-creating the MASL menu for Singapore?

Martínez: Cooking and creating together is something we have been doing for years. We spoke to our team about the research from the Mater Iniciativa area, and we started to develop new dishes, new flavours, and new textures, coming from what we have available in Peru and what we will have available in Singapore.

León: The menu was jointly conceptualised by the both of us. In fact, MASL is actually our very first project together of this kind outside of Peru. We are both incredibly excited to be working together to bring the vast biodiversity and flavours of Peru to Singapore.

Can you share some interesting facts about the dishes?

Martínez: In the case of the dishes that are coming from the sea, we tried to recreate an ecosystem coming from it, so it's basically our experience and interpretation. The inspiration is coming from the Pacific Ocean, a very rich and dense sea, where you can get a lot of fantastic quality seafood.

León: I enjoy the Amazonia a lot, there are a few similarities between the tropical and humid systems of the Amazonia and Singapore, and there’s also biodiversity, so we are playing with these things we have in common to create a few dishes for the menu there.

Will you be using a lot of ingredients from Peru?

Martínez: We will be using only a few ingredients from Peru, namely coffee and cacao, which we feel are definitely worth the travel, and our relationship with small producers is so tight it´d be beneficial and interesting for this new audience. Since we just opened our restaurant in Tokyo, we have seen that there are many ingredients already in Asia. Part of what we have been experiencing in the past 10 years of travelling together is that Peruvian ingredients are already in big gastronomic centres like Singapore, Tokyo, New York; so, it’s not that difficult to find Andean grains like quinoa, amaranth, kañiwa, and different varieties of vegetable roots, tubers, fruits, legumes and very good seafood.

León: I would say the cacao is the most exotic and fragile ingredient. We want to get the freshest cacao possible coming from the central Amazon of Peru. That would be something quite unique. Also, coffee, from the same ecosystem.

What have been the challenges with the set-up?

Martínez: The challenge is to train the big team that is already there. That would be one of our main challenges. Not in terms of machinery, but we have to promote people that want to create teams, we want to show people who are doing something special. We are in an era where we have to provide human interaction. So, to have the people motivated and well trained is quite an achievement and it’s been challenging of course. This is something we are working on every single day.

What are your insights on the evolution of the F&B industry?

Martínez: The food industry is changing with the world, so we have to be up to date with what is happening across the world. We see there’s a lot of positive things, as well as some things that are not working any more. We try to work on preservation, and on what’s important. We need to process our history and maintain our identity, never lose what we have learned, and never forget where we came from. This has to be preserved for future generations, even for this new generation where the level of information they receive is huge and can sometimes be quite confusing. Gastronomy is now leading the attention of different disciplines. It must evolve with the help of different disciplines, science and art.

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