Kjolle, Central and Mil, Peru
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 more than a decade, is Pía León, who also opened her first solo restaurant – Kjolle – in August 2018 and co-runs the couple’s destination restaurant, Mil, in the Peruvian Andes. Now, León is ready to step onto the world stage and get the recognition she deserves.
Within restaurant circles, 34-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 more than 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, based on Peru’s biodiversity.
Around 2015, 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 the relocated Central, a new cocktail bar and a hub for research arm Mater Iniciativa. The same year, León was voted as Latin America’s Best Female Chef, and 15 months after its opening, Kjolle picked up the Highest New Entry Award when it debuted on the Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants 2019 list at No.21.
While Central’s 20-something courses are grouped by different elevations of Peruvian geography – the sea, the mountains, the Amazon – Kjolle’s menu is less structured, with a nine-course tasting and an à la carte menu using ingredients from all over Peru.
León's dish Pumpkin and Crustaceans
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. Products are often presented inside fragments of nature, such as a dish of crispy fish skins served in a piranha fish head at Central or, at Kjolle, razor clams placed 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.
León’s achievements don’t stop at Kjolle and Central. She has been instrumental in setting up Mil restaurant in Cusco with Martínez, and the pair are also working on new restaurants in the Amazon, Russia and Japan. 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 gastronomic sector, with her latest accolade as winner of The World’s Best Female Chef Award, sponsored by Nude Glass, León is setting the finest example for the next generation of chefs.
Get to know León by reading our interview with the chef and watching the video:
Discover more about the previous award winners