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‘Chef’s Table’ Star Virgilio Martínez Interrogated at LAX Over Duffle Bag Full of Frozen Piranhas

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The acclaimed Peruvian chef was interrogated for five hours until he was cleared to bring the fish to a dinner at Somni

Amazon Black Piranha with exposed teeth
The Jungle Explorer via Shutterstock
Mona Holmes is a reporter for Eater Los Angeles and a regular contributor to KCRW radio. She has covered restaurants, dining, and food culture since 2016. In 2022, the James Beard Foundation nominated her for a Jonathan Gold Local Voice Award.

Last week, acclaimed chef Virgilio Martínez flew into Los Angeles International Airport with a duffel bag full of frozen, vacuum-sealed piranhas from his native Peru. Martínez owns Central, a popular and influential restaurant in Lima, and arrived ready to prepare the piranha at two Los Angeles Times Food Bowl festival events. This ordeal turned out to be one interesting moment in customs.

Martínez appeared on the third season of Netflix’s “Chef’s Table,” where he blends traditional Peruvian ingredients with modern cooking techniques. According to the Los Angeles Times, Martínez came prepared to make dinner at both Somni and Vespertine. The chef hoped to demystify piranhas by showcasing a common delicacy from the region. This should’ve been a fairly routine customs stop, but things got a little strange.

Customs officers opened Martínez’s luggage after the chef described the package as “bones” and “flesh.” But the response gathered an extra level of caution by customs, by quickly placing Martínez in an interrogation room for the next five hours.

All ended well, with Martínez preparing a salad with piranha meat at Vespertine at a sold-out event on Sunday. And at Somni, chef Aitor Zabala combined Martínez’ flavors by placing dried piranha skins inside fish heads. Piranhas are indigenous to the Amazon Basin, and commonly eaten throughout Peru, Brazil, and northeast South America.