Virgilio Martinez, the Peruvian chef from Netflix docu-series Chef's Table, was accosted at the Los Angeles International Airport for carrying frozen piranhas.
Martinez came from his home country Peru and was passing through routine customs check-up at the LAX when he was stopped by customs officers who inspected his duffel bag and found 40 vacuum-packed, frozen piranhas.
Airport Joke Gave Him Away
First, the customs officials at the airport asked him what was inside his bag.
"Bones. Flesh," Martinez jokingly replied.
His joke prompted officials to further question him. The officers took him to a private room and asked more information on what he intended to do with the exotic fish.
"I was extremely obsessed about bringing piranhas because we serve piranhas in the Amazon at Central, so I said, 'Guys, why not take a risk to bring piranhas to L.A.?" Martinez said.
Martinez showed his cookbook to the customs officials as he explained that he will cook and serve the piranhas for dinner at Somni and Vespertine fine dining restaurants as part of the Food Bowl festival in Los Angeles.
The month-long citywide food festival features hundreds of events across Los Angeles that will showcase local favorites and world-renowned chefs. The Food Bowl will host a mix of dinners, parties, tours, pop-ups, classes, and a five-day night market at Grand Park.
Martinez's ordeal ended as customs officials allowed him to bring in the piranhas that he made into a salad. Piranhas are commonly eaten in Peru, Brazil, and northeast South America.
The chef was featured in the third season of Chef's Table. His restaurant Central in Lima, Peru is regarded as Latin America's best restaurant. In 2018, he opened Ichu Peru in Hong Kong, a bistro-style restaurant that offers Peruvian comfort food.
Piranhas From South America
The South American continent is home to piranhas that earned the fearsome stereotype as vicious river monsters. They have lived in the continent for millions of years, currently inhabiting the freshwaters from the Orinoco River Basin in Venezuela up to the Paraná River in Argentina. Around 30 species inhabit the lakes and rivers of South America today.
While many piranhas have razor-sharp teeth and many are carnivorous, some species are actually vegetarian, like the piranha relatives red-bellied Pacu. Adult piranhas have a single row, interlocking tricuspid teeth with a pronounced crown that measures about 4 millimeters.
Contrary to the myth, piranhas only eat humans and capybaras or semiaquatic mammals when they are already dead.