If we talk about revelations in the recent list of the 50 Best Latam, Merit of chef Juan Luis Martínez, is one of them. Last week, it reached the 11th place of the best restaurants in Latin America. Provecho spoke with him about his beginnings in the kitchen and how he ventured to create a new proposal in which a special brotherhood between Venezuela, his homeland, and Peru stands out, but which also gives rise to all Latin Americans.
– When do you start in the kitchen?
I start cooking at the age of 27, I think a bit late compared to other chefs, but after studying communication I felt that another path was my way. It was one of my best friends who, upon trying what he cooked, pushed me to dedicate myself to this. I did not doubt it, I felt that he had found my place. And it all started like this. I went through a first cooking school in Venezuela and then I entered a very prestigious and recognized one.
– What paths did you travel before arriving in Peru?
At the end of the course, one of the requirements was to do internships, and that’s where it all started, I flew to Europe and did an internship at Martín Berasategui, I loved it. I returned to Venezuela to work for a couple of years and then I traveled to Paris in 2011 where I did a six-month course. One of my teachers recommended me to do an internship in a restaurant in Bordeaux and I was able to learn a lot there. My intention was always to be in places where I was allowed to cook. I finished my time in this restaurant and looked for work elsewhere, so I came to DirverXO, in Madrid. I did my summer internships and during that season Madrid Fusión took place. My desire had always been to go to this event and it was my chance to do it. It was there that I met Virgilio Martínez, with whom I discovered that not only Europe offered a great kitchen. I spoke with him and I took my bags, I headed for Peru, returning to Venezuela was not an option, so I did not hesitate to make the decision when they offered me an internship at Central. In addition, I could visit Machu Picchu, while I find what I was looking for and what Europe, until then, had not given me.
– How was that experience?
I arrived at Central and a week later Pía (León) offered me a job. I entered as head chef, for the first time I had this position and for me it represented a tremendous opportunity. In that period my daughter was born and that was my anchor. Much of what I learned at Central I apply now. Arriving in Peru was the beginning of new adventures. I have always believed that you have to trust that inner voice, you should not doubt so much, I did it and now I think everything is going well.
– When does the time for Merit come?
Being at Central, I knew that if I stayed I would have many opportunities and I still question leaving (laughs), it would have been easier, but I felt that I had to do it alone, plus I started late, so I had to do it now and I jumped at it. with the support of my family. So I was able to do things my way and I took on that challenge and everything that came with it. I told Virgilio and he understood, we already had a good friendship at that time, so it wasn’t that difficult. In addition, he offered me his support. And that’s where it all started, I already had some ideas and I just needed to order them. In fact, these ideas were the ones that also pushed me because at some point I started to feel that I didn’t fit in the Central world.
– How do you start to make Merit a reality?
First I had to find the place and I always wanted to find a space in Barranco, because this district has its own vibe and very consistent with Mérito, from the ingredients to the vibe that the restaurant has, I believe that cooking is art and I needed a place where this was felt and that is Barranco. Then, talking about space, I was looking for something with history, I didn’t want something new, not even in buildings, and this place appeared, where everything speaks to you, as is the case with the walls. The size of the place was also important, I didn’t want something very big because it was my first restaurant. José Luis Saume, who accompanied me at the beginning, added a lot with his experience opening restaurants. He gave me peace of mind with his ‘know-how’ in everything operational. I dedicated myself to creating meanwhile. Merit speaks a lot about me and my career.
– And the gastronomic proposal?
My Venezuelan roots and Peru for being the birthplace of Mérito. These are the two nationalities with which we identify the most, but there is more, for us the main focus of this work is the products that have a strong Latin American identity, in the end we are all connected by the Andes Mountains, the Amazon or the region coastal, then all the products of all the cultures are the protagonists of my proposal. Thus, everyone who comes from the different countries of this part of the American continent can feel identified even though he is going to try dishes that he has never seen, but it will be the input that will bring back memories and make him nostalgic. We want this proposal to generate feelings and move you, we don’t just want it to be rich, we want it to cause more.
– Did you expect the success of Merit?
No, I never expected it and I am afraid of this (laughs). The name of Merit was born because for me those are achievements, the learning process, not really the recognitions. For me, an achievement is overcoming fears, facing situations, everything that really costs you, that is a prize. So, Mérito has been one of those personal achievements and cooking with a kitchen exposed so close to the customers has been a challenge that we have been able to overcome, despite the fact that it was a very difficult and nerve-wracking process. The recognitions are one thing, they are nice, that shows that people like it, but everything that goes behind it and what it costs to get there, that is really what has the most value and that I can transfer that to my team It is a real merit for me.
Where is Merit located?
Jr. July 28, 206, Barranco. Office hours are Monday through Saturday from 12:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. and from 7:00 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. Sundays is closed