Star chef Virgilio Martinez’s Central is known for its complex tasting menus that are a celebratory, cerebral exploration of the ecosystems of Peru. And when Martinez announced his intentions to open his first Asian venture, ICHU Peru in Hong Kong, expectations ran high.
The big question was whether diners could expect the same rarefied experience as at Central. The answer is a short, sharp “no”. ICHU is not, and is not attempting to be, Central 2.0.
Banish thoughts of solemn, 17-course tasting menus at Central, the No. 6 restaurant in the world. Instead, ICHU pays tribute to the relaxed cevicherias of home, delivering classic Peruvian flavours with modern, upscale twists, and plates made for sharing in a lively environment.
The decision to play this particular tune comes down to logistics. In opening in Asia, Martinez has discovered how Central’s identity is tied to place. Attempting to recreate it is an exercise in futility that reflects the challenges of shipping or sourcing obscure, highly perishable ingredients from the far side of the world. It was a rude awakening for Martinez and his right-hand man, Sang Jeong, charged with heading ICHU.
“Most of the dishes for ICHU were created and tested when Virgilio and I were in Peru. When we arrived, I had to start over again because of the limitations of ingredients we can find here,” Jeong says. “I have to use many products from Hong Kong and remake dishes with them, while keeping the flavour authentic.”
What can be imported from Peru, like quinoa, chilli and corn, are brought in and used in numerous dishes. The chillies – aji Amarillo, aji limo and rocoto — for instance, spring up in most dishes here. The same goes for corn, of which three types are imported – purple, cancha and choclo, a must in ceviche. Potato, on the other hand, is much harder to bring in. Jeong currently uses local potatoes, sourced from markets around Hong Kong.
Purists will cry foul, but Jeong insists that ICHU is a flag bearer for authentic Peruvian cuisine. Modern interpretations of the dishes are respectful twists. An example is the tartar de lomo con maiz, or steak tartar mixed with carob molasses, coriander, onion, parsley and lime juice. This is served with corn puree and corn chips. Jeong’s combination is traditional and the flavours are recognisably, undeniably, Peruvian.
Quinoa salad is a colourful trio of natural black quinoa and white quinoa dyed red and green with beetroot juice and spinach clorofila respectively. Although the base of goat cheese is sourced from Italy, it is superior to what is generally found in Peru.
More exotic is a delicious signature dish of whole sea bass baked in banana leaf. The fish, sourced from France, is wonderfully sweet and tender, with a tamarillo sauce and corn relish adding zing to the delicate flesh.
“Comfort food” is what Martinez wanted to present, he has said before. And the dishes are all elevated under Jeong’s steady hand.
The Korean chef, with English as a second language, didn’t speak a word of Spanish and had never visited South America until four years ago. How, one asks, did he end up as Martinez’s right-hand man cooking cutting-edge Peruvian food? It was purely by chance that Jeong, who was working at renowned Quay restaurant in Sydney, Australia in 2014, got to know of Martinez. He had stumbled across one of Martinez’s recipes for an octopus dish on the Internet. Intrigued, Jeong emailed Martinez looking for a job. He was offered an internship, and before he knew it, was in the kitchen at Central.
“I have to use a lot of products from Hong Kong and remake dishes with them, while keeping the flavour authentic.”
“The first 10 months there were horrible,” recalls Jeong. One can sympathise – he had to learn a new language and cuisine simultaneously, all on the job. Yet, to his surprise, he was made sous chef in a short time. How, we ask? “In Latin America, they have siestas. But even during breaks, I kept working because I wanted to learn something and survive. I think that’s how I got respect from the team,” says Jeong, though it’s safe to assume talent plays a big part, too.
Now, here he is in Hong Kong, a champion of Peruvian cuisine. Amid the fine-tuning, Jeong is looking forward to adding more interesting and unusual dishes to the menu. This includes anticucho, a beloved street food – usually grilled beef hearts and other offal – found all over Peru. Diners, however, are eagerly lapping up what is already on the menu, with a table at Ichu one of the most sought after reservations in town.