Amidst the dreamy snow-capped Andes mountain range of Peru lies a treasure trove of produce that are grown at a dizzying altitude — yacon, a tuber with a refreshing cream-hued flesh, is grown at 3,280 metres above sea level (MASL), Andean corn at 3,550 MASL and pigs roaming the undulating grounds at 2,700 MASL.

Diners here can get acquainted with these exotic ingredients, thanks to a three-month pop-up restaurant by renowned Virgilio Martínez and Pia Léon, who are behind the much-vaunted contemporary Peruvian restaurant Central, which was lauded as the world’s No. 2 restaurant of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants last month.

Leon helms the casual Peruvian restaurant Kjolle, which is named after an Andean flower that grows at a high altitude. Both restaurants are located in the Casa Tupac complex in Lima, while MIL is perched at 3,600 metres above sea level in Moray, where it is flanked by mysterious Incan ruins in the Sacred Valley. 

Showcasing Peru’s biodiversity on a plate

MASL's Corn, Kiwicha, Cancha.
MASL’s Corn, Kiwicha, Cancha.

Capturing the richness of Peru’s biodiversity is a common thread that runs in the couple’s three restaurants, and that’s being distilled at their debut pop-up restaurant in Singapore, Metres Above Sea Level (MASL) that runs till 30 October. It is part of the Mandala Masters programme by the private members club, which has organised pop-ups by prolific chefs such as Gaggan Anand and Mauro Colagreco.

While the couple will be in town a few times over the next few months, the fort here is held by 28-year-old Argentine head chef Bernabe Simon Padros, who leads a brigade of 12 staff from Peru at MASL at Art Restaurant in National Gallery Singapore. About 80 per cent of the ingredients are sourced locally, as the team is growing some Peruvian herbs in a local farm here, on top of other ingredients such as kiwicha (quinoa grains), chuño (freeze-dried potatoes that resemble white pebbles), tubers and yuyo algae that are imported. 

These indigenous ingredients are showcased through dishes such as a mini crusty loaf of bread made with maca root and served with yacon yoghurt and a floral hibiscus spread; sweet velvety Andean corn studded with purple corn crisps and kiwicha grains and cancha. The ocean arrives in the form of azure-blue spirulina chips which escond the scallops and creamy ribbons of uni. 

Related: Peruvian – The Next “It” Cuisine?

High-altitude ingredients in one of the flattest countries

MASL's Crab, Clam, Carabinero
MASL’s Crab, Clam, Carabinero.

Why the decision to hold a pop-up featuring high-altitude ingredients in Singapore, one of the flattest countries in the world (the highest point here is Bukit Timah Hill, which stands at a mere 164 metres above sea level)? 

Martinez attributes that Singapore is a culinary hub and his familiarity with the local fine-dining scene here. He was part of four-hands collaborations at Odette and the now-defunct Restaurant Andre. He has also witnessed how the local dining landscape, especially the bar scene, has flourished since he first did a starching stint at the Four Seasons hotel here some 20 years ago.

He enthuses: “Singapore is an important centre (in the culinary world) and this is the place to be with so many things happening. As chefs, we need to be in these places and take advantage of these moments.” 

Singapore also holds a special spot for the couple — it was where Martinez proposed to Leon. They now have a six-year-old son. 

Looking at agriculture in a vertical way

Bernabe Simon Padros, Pia Léon and Virgilio Martínez
(from left) Bernabe Simon Padros, Pia Léon and Virgilio Martínez.

Besides learning about Peruvian produce, Martinez hopes that diners can broaden their horizons on the biodiversity of ingredients from Peru, which is home to varying micro climates. 

In an interview with The Peak, he says: “Sometimes we are blindsided by mantras such as going hyperlocal and sustainability, but we want diners to think bigger — agriculture in a vertical way and the different habitats where produce is grown.” He hopes that casting the spotlight on habitats can spark conversations on the environment before it has been urbanised, and in turn, diners can connect more closely with nature.  

Getting in touch with nature is how Martinez seeks solace from the high-octane world of running three restaurants, which have more than 100 staff between them. A hands-on person, he regularly visits indigenous communities in rural areas across Peru and in the Amazon forest to learn more about the produce and ways of cooking and cultivation. 

He reflects: “When you are living in a city, you constantly feel a need to catch up. However, interacting with the farmers made me see how they can be happy with such a simple lifestyle without many worries.”

How fine-dining restaurants can remain relevant today?

MIL restaurant in Peru.
MIL restaurant in Peru. (Photo: Gustavo Vivanco)

Martinez and Leon were in the media spotlight when Central was named number two of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants List last month. The couple plays down the accolade, crediting it to the passion and hard work of their growing team. The bigger question upon them is how fine-dining restaurants can remain relevant in a world rife with economic woes? Leon points out that the answer lies in how they have been running MIL in the remote Sacred Valley over the past five years. 

She says: “Through MIL, we have enabled diners to have an experience with the land and the communities that are living in the same place.”

Located near MIL is the restaurant group’s research centre Mater, which is housed in Incan ruins that were ancient food experimentation “labs”. Martinez says: “This is how we were able to discover and breed new varieties of native potatoes in different shapes and other vegetables. I want to preserve these traditions through innovation.”

The couple has been researching ways of maximising the use of chuncho, a type of cacao that is native to Peru. In the cacao dessert course in MASL, a salted caramel is made from the husk, while the sponge is made from cacao powder. 

Besides the produce, MIL also showcases textiles made with herbs and flowers by the Warmi tribe, who also work in the restaurant.

In Asia-Pacific, the couple recently opened Maz in Tokyo in July, which is also inspired by Peru’s diversity and produce in Japan. They are open to the idea of opening a concept here in Singapore, if the opportunity presents itself. 

Martinez says: “We will go to places where we can create an impact on the scene, and bring a positive value to what we do in Peru — and never stop the research.”

Find out more: Metres Above Sea Level pop-up restaurant

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