Pía León has never shied away from a challenge. The chef constantly pushes herself to the limit, yet never once mentions the sacrifices she makes, such as free time, missing out on friends’ birthday parties or even receiving recognition. But the asceticism of this Peruvian has paid off, as you can see in her resume since she was the first woman to work at Central. She was to take the culinary world by storm. In 2018, just a few months after opening her first restaurant, she was awarded the title of Latin America’s Best Female Chef. León is in the limelight, which she shied away from for so long, although she has more than earned it with Kjolle, ranked number 21 among Latin America’s best restaurants.
Into the culinary sun
The sun was already shining on the young Pía. She travelled a lot “throughout all of Peru,” as she says. “I’ve always worked towards getting to know more aspects of my own culture.” When she returned home to the Peruvian capital Lima, she looked over her mother’s shoulder in the kitchen. A lot in Pía’s life is about eating, about food and discovering new things. Her mother runs a catering company and took Pía into the culinary universe. She seems to have opened her eyes to the world at an early age. As a young girl she was already eager for knowledge and burning with curiosity, her head full of blonde curls and wild ideas. “I learned a lot from my mother, and I’m still learning a lot from her.”
Everything she absorbed and picked up in her childhood she raised to a professional level at the Institut Le Cordon Bleu in Lima. After that, the Peruvian was offered an internship at the Ritz Hotel in New York. Back in Lima she had already set her sights on the next famous address, Avenida Paz Soldan 290. This is where Astrid y Gastón work culinary wonders that have made Peruvian cuisine famous beyond its borders. León also sensed that something big was happening here. “Gastón has done a lot for Peru,” she says. An internship under his patronage should now finally open up all doors to her, or so it would seem.
In the epicenter of Lima
But León loved the challenge, and knew exactly what and where she wanted to go: to Central, which at the time was making its way to the culinary Olympics. The encounter with Virgilio Martínez was a fateful one. León was 22 at the time, but she already had more experience, will and strength on a level that not many people could match. Martínez hiring her marks a turning point. León was the first woman who worked in Martínez’s kitchen. Although this could not have been an easy time, León doesn’t say a single negative word about her first year in Central. “This was a period full of challenges, where I learned more than just new techniques and the culinary arts. Above all, I learned to work in a team,” she recalls instead. The verb “to learn” often get mentioned when Leon speaks. This seems to be the most important thing to her. “You never stop learning,” she loves to say. Her mindset and talent took her all the way to the top. It has been well known for a long time now that she directs the kitchen at Central, and much more. In an interview with Eater in 2017, Martínez also immediately gave her full credit for her work. “Pía is the one who runs the kitchen at Central. She doesn’t get the recognition she deserves, and she’s the one who’s always in the kitchen doing the hard work.” The stove virtuoso later apologized for the fact that he did not think she was up to the task at first. He literally told her during the job interview that he would hire her, but that he was afraid she would ask for leave to get married or – even worse – take maternity leave. At the time, León promised that this would not be the case. In the end it turned out exactly as it was meant to, but not quite as Martínez had imagined it would, because he was actually the person who married León in 2013. Their son Cristóbal has enriched the life of the dream duo since 2015.
Expansion in eight days
Martínez and León have become the perfect couple over the years, both in private and business terms. He is the creative mind, she focuses on peace and order. Together they win one prize after another. Central is currently ranked sixth in The World’s 50 Best Restaurants, and even rose to fourth place in 2015 and 2016. It topped the list of Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants three times. Did she ever feel like she was standing in her husband’s shadow? “No,” says León with certainty. “At the beginning everyone has to understand what their role is. Over time, you learn to respect the work and freedom of others,” explains the pragmatist. But when Central was bursting at the seams and the entire complex had to move, the chef realized the time had come; she was ready to start her own restaurant, Kjolle. In just eight days, the León-Martínez empire relocated to Casa Tupac in the neighboring trendy district of Barranco. “It was already a cultural center, so our philosophy allowed us to fit in perfectly,” explains León. The fact that she is one of those people who put things into practice immediately is confirmed by the daring project that came next. “We moved in eight days, it was an intense time and we learned a lot.” But Central was not the only one to move in such a short amount of time. The crew also laid the foundation for two completely new concepts, Mayo cocktail bar and Kjolle, León’s first restaurant.
Resistent like Kjolle
“I was always afraid that Kjolle would not be able to keep up with the Central,” admitted León at CHEFDAYS 2019 in Graz. But the restaurant does credit to the Peruvian cuisine and its namesake. In the indigenous Quechua language, the word Kjolle means tree. It grows in the Andinian high mountains, prevails against other species and difficult climatic conditions and has bright yellow flowers. Colors also play an important role in León’s kitchen. Here, the exceptional chef performs a dance with the tastes of Peru, giving forgotten ingredients a culinary face. Her speciality is tubers, which she cooks in an oven she built herself, for example. Its called a huatia. Like the Incas in former times, León forms a dough out of natural clay, salt, water and ashes, which later covers the tubers.
On the path of the Inca
Thanks to Malena Martínez, Virgilio’s sister, the kitchen teams in Kjolle and Central can work with ancient techniques. “Malena is in charge of Mater Iniciativa. She travels to Peru to find products, not only on the coast, but also in the Andes and the Amazon,” says León. “Together we rediscover products that only a few people use or know about,” explains the cook. She and Martínez study these products in their restaurants. “We find techniques to work with them, then we can add them to the menu.” They are all driven by a common belief. “There’s more out there,” is her mantra.
Off to new worlds
“I don’t want to look that far into the future. I now focus on the things I want to improve every day in my family life and in my restaurant.” There is just one more thing that León and Martínez have been dreaming about for a long time. Someday there should be a restaurant in the middle of the Amazon, modelled on their restaurant in Cusco, the Mil, which they have been able to include in their repertoire for the past two years. Whenever the culinary temple in the Amazon will open its doors, if the ideas of its two founders are brought to fruition, then we may well look forward to it with excitement.