Central in Lima has earned a reputation as one of the finest restaurants not just in South America but in the world, an achievement most commonly attributed to its founder and chef-owner, Virgilio Martínez. But behind the scenes, driving the restaurant alongside Martínez for the last decade, is Pía León, one of the most talented, albeit under-rated, chefs in the industry. Now, after opening her first solo restaurant, León is ready for the spotlight, and is about to get the recognition she deserves.
Within restaurant circles, 31-year-old León is widely respected for the role she has played at Central, which she led to No.1 in Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants for three consecutive years with her husband, Martínez. Starting in the kitchen 10 years ago after a period at the Ritz Hotel in New York and a stint at Astrid y Gastón in Lima, she worked her way up to head chef, running the kitchen day-to-day and joining Martínez and his sister Malena’s research trips to discover new ingredients for their tasting menu, which is based on Peru’s biodiversity.
But three years ago, she set her sights on opening her own restaurant, one that would be hers from conception to completion. That restaurant is Kjolle, opened in August 2018 in the same complex as a relocated Central, a new cocktail bar and a hub for research arm Mater Iniciativa. While at Central, León and Martínez divide their 20-something courses by different elevations of Peruvian geography – the sea, the mountains, the Amazon – Kjolle’s menu is less structured, with a seven-course tasting and an à la carte menu using ingredients from all over Peru.
There’s no doubt the dishes at Kjolle bear some of the signature stamp that León developed over many years at Central – bright, colourful ingredients intricately plated on a mix of specially designed plates and bowls, often with products served inside fragments of nature, such as a dish of crispy fish skins is served in a piranha fish head at Central or, at Kjolle, razor clams served inside a cacao pod.
But at Kjolle the chef has a more relaxed approach to geography, pairing Amazonian cacao mucilage with Andean mashua negra plant and clams from the sea. The restaurant itself is also more relaxed, with a cosy, light-filled room and a more laidback atmosphere than Central.
León’s achievements don’t stop at Kjolle and Central, of course. She has been instrumental in setting up Mil restaurant in Cusco with Martínez, and the pair are also working on a new restaurant in the Amazon. She finds time for exercise, excursions to look for new ingredients and quality time with her young son, and puts her success at managing a family as well as several restaurant businesses down to discipline, determination and serious organisational skills. Already respected throughout the industry, with her new restaurant Kjolle and her latest accolade as winner of the Latin America’s Best Female Chef Award, León is setting the finest example for the next generation of chefs.
Av. Pedro de Osma 301
Take a look inside Kjolle and go into the Amazon with Pía León and Malena Martínez:
Get to know Pía León in 50 seconds:
Go behind the scenes on our photo shoot with Pía León at Kjolle: