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Martin Morales: The other great Peruvian chef

Martin Morales: The other great Peruvian chef

Posted by PanamericanWorld on July 29, 2015

We're often taught to see the value in moving on and starting fresh. But you can tell a lot about someone from what they choose to hold onto. London based Chef Martin Morales lived in Peru until immigrating with his family to Leicester, England under difficult circumstances. Growing up, he'd enjoyed Peru's diverse and vibrant food culture from an early age - superfood ingredients like avocado, quinoa and amaranth, eating ceviches on the beach, weekend excursions to the outskirts of Lima for pollo a la brasa, and encomiendas (large parcels) filled with ingredients his grandmother would send from her Andean village. It was not something he'd let go of easily.

A former music executive and DJ living in London, where Peruvian food was barely known, Morales found a blank canvas where he could explore his culinary roots. After testing the waters with a series of pop-up style events that incorporated food and music, he opened the first Ceviche in 2012. His award-winning book Ceviche: Peruvian Kitchen, came out in 2013 and has since been translated into 10 languages.

Andina, inspired by regional Andean cooking, opened a year later. It was followed by Ceviche Old St., a restaurant by way of a contemporary Peruvian art gallery. Most recently, he launched a CevicheTV YouTube channel to showcase new recipes and traditional techniques.

Martin is also a big promoter of Peruvian culture through its music. His label, Tiger's Milk Records aims to put Peruvian old and new music on the map. Peru Boom, released on August 17, is a compilation featuring electronic artists from Lima.

We caught up with chef Morales when he was in New York City to prepare a dinner for the Peruvian Ambassador to the United Nations and cook at the James Beard House.

Q: What are your earliest memories of food and cooking in Peru?

A: My great-aunts lived in Lima and I used to cook with them. I started off by spending weekends with them in a neighborhood called Lince where I'd stay in the kitchen and just watch how they prepared different traditional dishes. I'd get involved in taking the stones out of the lentils and rice and just kind of junior prep kind of roles within the kitchen from the age of 4 or 5 until about 9 when I started really cooking in their house and helping them a bit more.

Q: What kind of impact did immigrating to the UK with your family have on you?

A: It was hugely disruptive as you can imagine. I was 11 years old when my parents split up. My father was being threatened by the Shining Path Guerrilla Movement, so we lived a tough life my last year in Peru. Then moving to England, it was coming into a cold country where I didn't know anyone and my mother wasn't with me. It was really tough because I suffered from racism for the first year I was there. I lived in a neighborhood that didn't have multicultural ethnic backgrounds. It probably took me 10 years to get culturally acclimatized shall we say. I missed the food, I missed my mom, and I missed surfing, and I missed the culture.

Q: You were a successful music executive and DJ before opening the first Ceviche in Soho, London. What inspired your transition from music to food?

A: Miley Cyrus. I was working at Disney running their music business across Europe. We'd launched Miley, the Jonas Bros., Selena Gomez, Demi Lovato and High School Musical, and I'd had a great time working with all those guys. Before that, I worked with Steve Jobs launching iTunes [in Europe]. I guess I'd felt like I'd done everything I could within that context of the music industry.

I really wanted to go back to working with my hands, to craftsmanship, to creativity, to cooking. Cooking has always been a really deep love. I wanted to go back to working with something much smaller that really represented my culture and my country. No one was doing that in the UK. The restaurant scene in London is fantastic but there was no great Peruvian restaurant. I just said that I have to fix that problem. I have to be the one that creates this because no one else will, and no one else had up to that point. That's where I decided to put a line in the sand and cross it and give up my career in music and executive work. I sold my house and put everything on the line for our first restaurant.

Q: What misconceptions about Peruvian food have you come across?

A: Because there is no large population of Peruvian people [in London], there are no mom-and-pop style restaurants or humble sort of soul food restaurants shall we say. The only thing we got through the media about Peru were negative things or very unique, singular tourism things like Machu Picchu - which is an incredible world destination - but that's where it stops. Paddington Bear has done something to talk about Peru as well. It's cute but it's not profound enough. It's not deep enough for what a nation and a country and a cuisine and a culture really represent.

So we were starved, the country was starved. Whenever I met people, they would ask where I was from and I'd say Peru, and they'd say, "Beirut?". They wouldn't even know which continent Peru was in. So I just decided to change that. I said look - I'm in a great position here - I have the skills to talk about [Peruvian food] and be a great chef and to have a restaurant. Let's see if it happens, let's see if it can work. Let's see if this experiment can really work.

And we started to get some great produce. It's very difficult to get amarillo chiles and it's very difficult to get choclo, a giant kernel corn, but it's easier to get great avocados, great seafood and fish. By combining a strategy of importation for some niche ingredients that are native to Peru with the ones we already had - boom - we've got great dishes right on our doorstep. The seasoning and the preparation that I bring into this with my team of chefs, that's one of the keys to our success.

Q: What are some of those key flavors and ingredients that define Peruvian cuisine?

A: Peruvian cuisine is very broad and that's what sets it apart. The variety of flavors and ingredients is massive. We're talking 492 national dishes. We're in the Guinness Book of World Records for more national dishes than any other country in the world. You've got the indigenous cuisines that date back thousands of years and the traditions and ingredients that come from that. You've got 500 years of fusion and migration - of Chinese, Italian, Japanese, Spanish, and African people - all of which have brought their own touch, their own techniques, and new ingredients and mixed them with Peruvian. It's that variety and the health aspects as well. Our cuisine is really healthy if you pick and choose the right dishes. We're a real powerhouse of superfood ingredients with more nutrients, and more vitamins, and minerals than other ingredients. Those are the things that make Peruvian [food] so special.

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