A Fork In The Road for Remote Eateries

After two years of travel restrictions, restaurateurs from Peru to the Faroe Islands are questioning the viability of their gourmand outposts.

Article by Bridget de Maine

With its ichu grass roof, the restaurant Mil is a dramatic sight upstaged only by the neighbouring Inca ruins at Moray, Peru. Photography by Gustavo Vivanco.

By the time Covid-19 put an abrupt halt to international travel, our collective fetishisation of food had reached its zenith in destination dining. Chefs had collected the kind of clout previously reserved for Hollywood actors, while landmarks were being scrubbed from travel itineraries, the “must-see” replaced with the “must-eat”. We had fallen in love with fine dining and would go to the ends of the earth to get a taste of it.

By 2019, the global culinary tourism market had an estimated value of $1,538 billion. For some of the world’s most remote eateries, it presented previously unimaginable opportunities.

Take Peru’s Mil restaurant, stationed 3,500 metres above sea level at the end of a winding, 45-minute drive from the city of Cusco (a 1.5-hour flight from Lima). Its Moray location, overlooking an Incan ruin atop the vast Andes, is no gastronomical gimmick.

Designed to bring diners closer to the cultural heritage of Mil’s head chef, Virgilio Martínez, the location is one aspect of his mission to preserve and elevate under appreciated Peruvian produce

. “One of our main challenges was to find somewhere you can immerse yourself into our culture, so that was one of the reasons we created this place,” says Martínez.

Along with the serving of high-altitude spoils (including lake algae, wild Andean mint and ancient kañihua grain), Mil and the attached lab and research centre, Mater Iniciativa, are the site of painstaking cultivation and careful cataloguing of hyper-local produce — a kind of edible celebration of the landscape. About 20 per cent of the site is dedicated to the restaurant, the remainder to research work.

The very existence of Mil confirms the lengths diners would go to in order to savour something singular. Indeed, those from abroad represented 90 per cent of pre-Covid-19 reservations at Mil.

But in March 2020, all three of Martínez’ restaurants (including Central and Mayo, both in Lima) were forced to close. “We didn’t know what was going to happen,” he says, adding that he and his wife, Pía León, who he runs Mil with, weren’t sure “if restaurants would even be necessary in this new era. They were the worst times that we’ve had in our life.”

Koks, on the Faroe Islands.Photography by Claes Bech-Poulsen.
Lake Leynar, the site of Koks’ hjallur. Photography by Claes Bech-Poulsen.

In the case of Koks, one of the world’s most northerly Michelin star recipients, it isn’t just the eatery that’s isolated. The entire archipelago of the Faroe Islands, which forms part of the Kingdom of Denmark, is wildly remote. Floating between Greenland and Norway, this self-governing clutch of 18 jagged islands is distinguished by its dulse-coloured cliffs, emerald blankets of treeless terrain and an abundance of wind, rain and sheep.

Set on a turf-tiled tuffet near Lake Leynar, Koks is pioneering a reimagining of the local cuisine and is a stellar salute to the scarcity of the islands and the ingenuity of its residents. Isolation is nothing new here. Rhubarb and a few root vegetables are the extent of the Faroese harvest and traditional fare centres on foodstuffs that have been fermented, a process known as ræst. Meat and fish are stored in partially open huts (hjallur) where they are whipped into rot by the sea breeze and then served with sauerkraut or turnips.

Previously located at the southern end of the island, the fine diner was moved to its current post, a remote 18th-century farmhouse, in 2018. Like life on the Faroe Islands, the operation of Koks is never straightforward. Weather here is so erratic, the tourism board disseminates advice about the benefits of packing a raincoat.

“Being out here is a logistical nightmare,” says the head chef, Poul Andrias Ziska, with a laugh. “The house is off the grid: we have no water supply so all the water that we get is from the mountains around us here. If it’s raining too little, that will affect our water. If it’s raining too much, cars can’t drive up.”

Despite its position in a windblown crater about 25 kilometres from the capital, Tórshavn, Koks is generally booked to the brim for the summer season as much as six months in advance. Of those bookings, almost 90 per cent are from visitors living abroad. But since March 2020, Koks has experienced a turbulent run of careful reopenings and sudden closures, including a shutdown just weeks into the sell-out summer of 2020 when one of the chefs tested positive.

“We closed down for two weeks, then we opened up again,” Ziska says, adding that he was also forced to close earlier in the season than usual. “It was not a very good year.”

Dishes at Mil hero local produce.

That said, Koks has been relatively lucky. Danish travellers were allowed to visit the islands, which was a life jacket for Koks, along with a combination of government support, being part of a larger restaurant group and the eventual mobilisation of staff to a pop-up eatery in Tórshavn. Ziska’s “moveable feast” approach kept the business afloat until Europe began cracking open in 2021.

“From mid-June, we’ve been fully booked,” he said in September. “It seems like all of Europe is really opening up again.”

But where the Faroe Islands experienced notably high testing rates and extensive chunks of Covid- free life, Peru has grappled with the world’s highest fatality rate. Although research and farming has recommenced at the Sacred Valley site, and some staff and produce have been redeployed at Central and León’s restaurant, Kjolle, Mil has been closed since March 2020. Martínez is hopeful it will reopen by year’s end.

“We are in so much debt [with Central and Kjolle] now,” Martínez says, laughing. “But what is magical about Mil is that the owner of the land, my partner who provides me the land, is not pushing me to reopen.”

Although Martínez’ Lima eateries are now experiencing a revival (on the day of our call, the evening’s bookings included diners from America’s East Coast and Europe), challenges linger. Mil’s farm lost countless crops and, of particular concern to Martínez, his businesses had to let go of valuable staff. For a time, he was without answers.

An inside view of Mil restaurant. Photography by Beinta Á Torkilsheyggi.

“Maintaining leadership was a big, big issue,” he says. “You see how young chefs are getting disappointed about life, how they stop dreaming.”

He wanted to set an example, to show his workers he was coping well under the circumstances but, he says, “they couldn’t get a good answer from me. For me, that was really, really sad because I couldn’t respond in a few situations with what was the right thing to do.”

While some might become bitter at the near impossibility of their restaurants’ survival, it isn’t the case with Martínez and Ziska. For the former, the pandemic hasn’t hampered his desire for explorative work in food preservation and research into the natural ecosystems of his homeland — it’s just set new limits.

“Why are we doing things and what for? That’s one of the most important questions,” Martínez says.

For him, the restaurant has never been about money, trends or ego; instead, he says, it has always been about creating “a good expression of what is rooted in Peru’s landscape and our culture — which is now even more important to preserve”.

As for the future, he says, “There’s not much to change. There’s probably more direction now and probably the path is clearer.”

Ziska is similarly resolute, especially with the threat of collapse still fresh in his memory. “It’s just brought a lot of clarity in terms of what I believe in,” he says. “Often when it’s raining and you find yourself in a situation that’s not so pleasant — because of the snow, or the wind, or the rain, and you have to run between your car and your house — it’s good to have that in the back of your head: remember when you almost lost it?”