Pía León, of world famous Central, goes solo
Claim to fame: When Pía León co-managed Central, the Peruvian restaurant was voted one of the world’s best
Reason to go: Lima’s sexiest, most delicious new spot
To look out for: Cocktails and desserts showcasing exotic Peruvian fruits and herbs
For the longest time, Chef Pía León operated incognito, unknown to most outside the tight-knit culinary circuit. If you weren’t a high-end cook, food writer or gastro-insider you probably wouldn’t even know what she looked like. When Virgilio Martínez, her husband and partner at Central, starred in Chef’s Table’s third season, León only appeared very briefly. Having her out of the spotlight was weird but it was also her decision. León, who became Central’s head chef in 2011, was always in the kitchen, she struggled a little when she had to leave it, cooks normally plate dishes table-side at Central and greeting diners was not her thing. Central’s kitchen was a territory she shared with her husband, but Martínez didn’t have a choice, he had to spend more time away from the stoves, taking pictures with guests and traveling abroad while the restaurant’s fame kept growing.
Those roles have now changed, for both of them, Central moved from its original Miraflores location to the hipper neighborhood of Barranco where the couple acquired and completely refurbished the famous Casa Tupac property. It is here that Pía León has decided to step into the limelight and open a restaurant of her own.
Named Kjolle after a yellow flower that grows at high altitude, it’s located on the second floor of the Casa Tupac complex, right above Central, the house bar Mayo and the research center Mater Iniciativa. The space is clean and roomy, a beautiful big mirror dominates the dining room, an elegant nod to the giant mirror that was the old Central’s showpiece.
Unlike Central, Kjolle offers a tasting menu as well as à la carte options. Whichever way you go, if you’ve been to Central, you’ll find yourself in familiar territory. You can take the chef out of Central but not Central out of the chef. Yet, given that León helmed the other restaurant’s kitchen for six years, the steps she’s already taken to explore new directions are remarkable. As with the mirror, the ingredients used here will remind you of León’s previous home, albeit in a more liberated, playful manner.
Naturally, Kjolle’s ingredients and techniques are products of Mater Iniciativa’s research, just like at Central, but León’s sensibility here feels different. At Central everything was minutely and obsessively executed, at Kjolle the leading impression one gets is that the cooks are not only enjoying their jobs, they’re having a great time designing the dishes. One example will suffice: ‘Muchos Tubérculos’ (Many Tubers) is a small, savory tart made of potato, oca and olluco. Delicious and beautiful thanks to the tubers’ bright colors, it also communicates a non-verbal message: “You think you can make this at home, I encourage you. It won’t be easy, but go ahead, give it a try”. Which of course you’d never think of doing with a dish from Central, all it takes is one look at the gorgeous Central: Cookbook to understand that it’s virtually impossible to replicate those recipes at home.
The new journey that León has embarked on is both fresh and exciting; you’ll want to return soon again to see where she and her team are taking the restaurant.