Martin Morales: We Meet London’s Coolest Peruvian Chef
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  2. Martin Morales: We Meet London’s Coolest Peruvian Chef

When we met Martin Morales

We meet Martin Morales – one of the most highly esteemed chefs we work with – in the secret music room tucked away at the back of his Shoreditch restaurant, Andina. The walls here are lined with his vinyl collection, a multi-coloured musical map showing the best of Peruvian funk and dance. Every now and again, the rich, smoky smell of the grill wafts in from the open kitchen. As we take in our surroundings, it's clear that we're in the perfect place to discuss his twin passions – music and food.

As a kid growing up in Peru, Martin would to go to his Auntie Carmela and Auntie Ortillia's house to cook every weekend. "They would take me to the local market very early on a Saturday morning, and we would pick out the ingredients for the next day or so.

"I learned that love for ingredients and judging whether they're fresh, feeling them to make sure they're ripe. We'd choose from the live chickens as they ran around at our feet. You'd pick the fat one, and then come back and collect it fifteen minutes later. Then we'd go back to their house and start preparing the meal, which could take three or four hours. It was all very rustic."

"Here, we cook with love" 

A work ethic and sense of dedication came to a young Martin early on. "Rice wasn't processed like it is today," he says. "You had to actually pick out little stones and grains by hand. That was my job at the beginning, before I got onto the hobs. Picking out the stones is a nice menial job to give to a six-year-old.

Despite the fiddly jobs, a love for cooking was beginning to take hold. Specifically, the value and importance of creating something for someone you care about. It's written all over his face as he speaks, "My aunts taught me this motto that I still use, 'Aqui se cocina con cariño.' It means 'Here, we cook with love.'"

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"I was wrenched out of the place I called home"

Sadly, that idyllic childhood was to take a unforeseen, dark turn. As the Shining Path movement (a militant communist group) built momentum in Peru, it drastically changed the political landscape in the country. "It was the mid-eighties and it was a really tough time in Peru's history. Now, it's a very beautiful, safe, blossoming country – it's been one of the fastest growing economies in the world for the last fifteen years – but then it was on its knees. There was civil war, corruption, criminality. It was a really tough place."

"The Shining Path were planting bombs in Lima, kidnapping people and taking over one or two-thirds of the country. My father was threatened and we decided to leave. He was British, so as far as he was concerned he returned to his birthplace. But as far as I was concerned, I was being wrenched out of the place I called home."

The escape from Peru was bittersweet. "I arrived here and it was a sigh of relief. I had freedom and safety to walk almost everywhere I wanted. But, because of the richness of the love for my family in Peru, and also of nature, the beaches, the weather, the geography and then the food, the ingredients, the flavours and all of the other exciting aspects of Peruvian culture... I longed for those things dearly for many, many years."

Anyone who has ever moved far away from home will feel a pang of recognition at what he says next. "In many ways, I mourned for them without ever letting go. I still say I haven't recovered from the jet lag. I still live in two different time zones. I never really left."

"Food and music are weirdly different and the same" 

At university, Martin became a DJ and hosted foodie/music nights that we're seriously disappointed we never got to attend. This led to a career in the music industry, where he helped to introduce the likes of Miley Cyrus and The White Stripes to European listeners.

So what's the difference in handling superstar egos and fine ingredients? "Food and music are weirdly different and the same. In the music industry, there's a different dynamic of creativity and influence, and power struggles too. With restaurants, there's a camaraderie that exists among chefs and restaurateurs because there's a very vibrant and strong independent sector."

Creativity is clearly a subject he is an authority in. "People in the UK want – and love – the new. They admire and appreciate originality and true creativity in cooking. That was the biggest breakthrough when I started. I said, 'This is what I want to do for the rest of my life.' It was a real joy to find that truth. Whereas in music you are confronted with major record labels who have so much muscle, they squeeze out more independent artists or alternative music scenes."

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"Everyone has to play towards the same beat"

Martin's experience in the music industry provided valuable experience that he was able to bring in the kitchen. "Creating a dish is just like creating a song. In a dish you have ingredients, in a song you have instruments. Running a kitchen brigade is like running a band. In music, you've got drummers and bass players – two completely different breeds of people. In the kitchen so are people that work on the grill versus, say, the pastry section. Yet across both, all the elements need to be in harmony, and everyone has to play towards the same beat."

Working in the kitchen offers a chance to perform, too. "Our restaurants are open kitchen – it's a theatre of cooking, we're on stage all of that time. There's nowhere to hide. It's even tougher than being on a typical live music stage where most artists do two hours max. We're on stage for seven hours sometimes."

The parallels between food and music are something Martin feels in abundance. "Just like with songs, every dish has a story behind it. In the same way that an artist is inspired to write a song by whatever is happening in their lives, chefs are inspired by all kinds of things around us and in our past to create a dish. It could be a love story, it could be politics, it could be a broken heart, or it could just be a fun thing we want to celebrate."

"I really respect people that I'm feeding"

We're on to the main event now – Martin's dishes. There's the yellowfin tuna ceviche, fresh fish with tart pineapple and tiger's milk. I've never eaten a meal that felt just like having a refreshing shower before, but there you have it. The marinated duck breast with sweet potato puree and black quinoa sauce is perfectly cooked. Crispy skin, tender meat and an array of beautiful orange, black and deep red colours. The octopus is delicious – sweet honey sauce balanced by the smokiness taste of the lucama paste. Incidentally, Andina is the only place where you can taste proper lucama paste – not straight from a powder.  

"Cooking is a sacred thing" he had said earlier, and it's clear from his cooking that this isn't just a good soundbite. "When you eat something, it's going inside your body. Externally we have this layer of strength, but internally we don't – if you're eating something it's very personal, so I really respect people that I'm feeding because of that. They're trusting me so much."

"It'll make them happier"

As well as being an unofficial Peruvian culinary ambassador, he now runs a record label dedicated to spreading the sound of Peruvian artists. "It's not a blind patriotism in any way. I have a lot of friends here in the UK, I partially grew up here and I care for people here. And I know that they don't know about some really beautiful things from Peru. I just thought, well… They should know. It'll make their lives better, it'll make them happier. Whether it's a particular dish or song, I want to be responsible for introducing these beautiful things to people. Especially when they're this good."

It all goes back to that motto, "Here, we cook with love." Is Martin's success, both as a restaurateur and in the music industry, down to the fact that he lives that motto in every aspect of life? Meeting him, it's difficult to imagine him doing anything without love, and that love is infectious. It's in the taste of his dishes, the sound of his records and the enthusiasm with which he approaches everything. If there's one lesson we're taking from Martin, it's to throw yourself into your passions with everything you've got, and be sure to enjoy every second.  

Don't just take our word for it – try Martin Morales' incredible Peruvian cooking for yourself at his London restaurants, Ceviche Soho, Ceviche Old St, Casita Andina and Andina, all available on Deliveroo.

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