Interview with an Innovator

Ella Canta's Martha Ortiz: ‘My kitchen is like an orchestra’

The Mexican celebrity on the art of food, inspiring female chefs and why Latin American cuisine is going to dominate for the next 30 years.

9 February 2018
Mexicanlatin americachefsrestaurants

Ortiz on Paper - CV

  • Debuted with Águila y Sol in Mexico City in 2003
  • Opened her second restaurant, Dulce Patria, in 2009, followed by Ella Canta in London last year
  • Has authored eight cookbooks and appears as a judge on Top Chef Mexico

Martha Ortiz believes artists are the best influence for the plate. From Jackson Pollock to Oscar Wilde, you can see their work in the bold flavourings, complex aromatics, and table and plate designs of Ortiz’s restaurants.

Ortiz, whose Dulce Patria in Mexico was previously awarded 48th place by Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants, demands her plates have ‘another dimension,’ drawn from leading international painters, writers and her own female viewpoint – something she’s keen to emphasise.

The celebrity Mexican chef opened Ella Canta in London at the Intercontinental Park Lane in September 2017. The name literally means ‘she sings,’ and that’s exactly what Ortiz does in our interview, as she relives her route to success and reveals the food and drink trends on her mind right now.

 

My first food memory was in school, the first time I saw the Mexican flag. I saw this eagle eating a serpent over a cactus and tuna fish. My flag is gastronomic, so I thought I should become a cook. It was very simple.

My Mexican roots mean everything to me. Mexico has one of the greatest cultures in the world, and the food is the most magnificent and profound: it is the new world and old world together. It has this unique power.

My best friend, a very famous architect, inspired my cooking. I always told him: I want another dimension in my food. Not just the sauce, the meat or the salad. He told me to go and see buildings all over Mexico.

Now the arts are my main inspiration. When I see a Balenciaga or Dior, I use their colours in a sauce, and the textures on a plate. Things in my dishes like beautiful ribbons are inspired by artwork. I design the look of every dish. I go to modern art and say, ‘All the food that we are making looks like Jackson Pollock in a way.’

I don’t like Instagram. I like to see textures and paintings in real life. To understand the genius of a photographer you must go out: listen to an orchestra, or go to a gallery – don’t just look at your phone.

The next London trend is going to be Latin American, and Mexico is going to lead it. Why? Because Mexico has the deepest culture. I love Peruvian culture, but I think Mexico is the Latin American leader – I really believe it.

I think Latin American food is a trend not just in London but all over the world. I went to Paris recently and I could see it there. I think we as Mexicans deserve that moment. Asian food was very on trend, but now I think Latin America will be the trend for the next 30 years. It won’t replace Asian food, but have the focus.

Londoners are very open to new flavours. And I think that’s fantastic. I already see excellent, authentic Mexican places in London right now. I really like El Pastor and Santo Remedio. I think they’re all part of this new ‘Mexican moment.’

I’d describe my new restaurant Ella Canta as ‘chic affordable.’ I don't want to say luxurious.

My favourite dish at Ella Canta is the Vampire Ceviche. I love it with its decorative butterflies – they are blue like the sea, on a blue plate. And they have edible glitter.

Our mole has 50 ingredients – try it and you’ll feel more than ecstasy. It's sweet, it's salty, it’s sour, it’s tasteful, it’s so powerful; the colour, the flavour will become one of the best memories, and you will be a different person.

Keeping ingredients authentic and price points low is my biggest challenge. We have to bring a lot of our products from Mexico, and sometimes that makes the food very expensive.

I use British products in Mexican food because it adds character. The diversity of British products is very good. I love to use British products like fish and meat, I think they add to Mexican food in a way. But in Mexico I have hundreds of chillies I can choose, so I can make a hippy tortilla, a psychedelic tortilla, and I can’t make that here, because there isn’t the variety of chilli available.

Where I can, I love to buy direct from producers. I buy chillies from one man in Oaxaca who I love to have a chat with. He tells these stories about whether the herb is in a good or a bad mood, or whether the variety is having a bad year.

My kitchen is like an orchestra. A good team is crucial, who work well together.

Presentation is as important as flavour, so we have trainees from art schools in our kitchen. I decided that I wanted trainees from fine art backgrounds, not only cooks, and I’m adoring having trainee sculptors and painters. We work together. My kitchen is more of an artistic affiliation. When I have a thought that I think is not good, I ask an artist.

I was scared when I opened Ella Canta because you never know how things will go. I love Oscar Wilde, and he said there are not bad or good books, there are only well written or badly written ones. In the same way, I accept criticisms and don’t worry about Ella Canta being a ‘bad’ restaurant, as my restaurant is a growing concept that will change and evolve.

My advice to British chefs cooking Mexican food is: treat our ingredients with respect. We have a big culture, and even bigger cookery methods you have to learn. If I want to make fish and chips from here, for instance, I have to make it in a good and respectful way to your culture. I understand with this climate why you need the chips! Mexican food has its own secrets and is mysteries; you need to learn and to know that Mexican food is our country’s identity. It’s poetry, it’s beauty.

I don't like Tex-Mex – that’s a very poor view of Mexican food. If you are cooking Mexican food you must learn from the traditions, with a respect for the culture.

Being a woman is not easy.  But there are many benefits to being a woman chef, particularly in Latin America, as we can give different ingredients. Women give a look of beauty and sensuality to food – these seductive things that are in our culture. I think that men and women were provided with the same, but being a woman chef in Mexican culture is hard.

I am here to inspire and motivate female chefs of the future. There are a lot of brilliant female chefs, like Anne-Sophie Pic and Helene Darroze. For women chefs, the market is open, but there are not enough in the world. We need to be 50/50 and we are not there yet. Women are interested, but we need to inspire them from the top. It’s a bad circle – you need to inspire, motivate and educate to get women to apply for the jobs in the first place.

My favourite chilli is the chilcuzche, we call it the ‘aristocracy of chillies.’ It only grows in Oaxaca, and when you buy it, you buy it first, second or third. The first can be very spicy but it gives this beautiful chocolatey, smoky flavour. And the seeds, when you burn them, start smelling with this potency. I adore it; it’s quite rare, even in Mexico City.

Mexican food is all about the contrast. The colours, the flavours and the complexity make it the best food in the world.

My three most important factors for a restaurant opening, first, you need to build a live concept. You can only do this if you have enough experience; it needs to be a living concept that makes a 360-degree experience. Secondly, you need a lot of passion, because if you don't have that passion in this kind of work that is day and night, you won’t manage. And last, but not the least, is consistency.

I’m writing a new feminist book. It’s called Recipes for Women with Greatness. Twelve women give the recipe of their lives, and there’s even a political writer who has been out of service who gives hers. I have had a very interesting but tough life. The recipe of my life has been to remain very consistent – sometimes I put one or two drops of tears into my food and it tastes better.

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