Chef profile: Mexican chef Martha Ortiz on her first London restaurant Ella Canta

06 October 2017 by
Chef profile: Mexican chef Martha Ortiz on her first London restaurant Ella Canta

Award-winning Mexican chef Martha Ortiz has launched her first London restaurant, Ella Canta, in the InterContinental on Park Lane. Katie Pathiaki speaks to the flamboyant chef about going international

Martha Ortiz is fashionably early, perched on a sofa in the exclusive Club InterContinental restaurant on the seventh floor of the InterContinental London Park Lane, overlooking Hyde Park and Green Park.

Denim-clad and glamorous, Ortiz exerts a powerful presence. She soon takes control of the conversation and runs wild with anecdotes and philosophical thoughts. She credits her authoritative yet light-hearted nature to the influence of her mother, who was raised in the north of Mexico, "where women are strong", she says.

She was first taken with the idea of opening her own restaurant during her childhood, when her artist mother and her father, a doctor and writer, would entertain an array of illustrious guests. Always surrounded at home by a mixture of painters, poets, dancers, doctors and politicians, Ortiz loved sharing ideas and conversations around the dinner table.

Her first restaurant Águila y Sol (in English, Eagle and Sun) opened in Mexico City in 2003. Its mission was to show the great cuisine of Mexico through flavour, colour and texture. "I see Mexico City as a beautiful monster, because it has such beautiful parts and very contrasting parts," says Ortiz. "It's also one of the gastronomic destinations of the world. You can have a wonderful molé [a sauce made from chillies] from Oaxaca at the same time as you have machaca [dried meat] from the north."

However, in 2008 Águila y Sol was forced to close. "I think it was a punishment in way for being successful," she says. "I lost everything. I cried so much. Then one of my best friends told me that everything I needed was in my heart. The same day that I closed my restaurant, I decided that I would reopen. If they wanted to shut it down, then I would reopen 100 more times, no problem."

A year later, she opened Dulce Patria (Sweet Homeland), a 90-cover restaurant in the Las Alcobas boutique hotel in Mexico City. It went on to win awards, and currently stands at number 48 in the World's 50 Best Restaurants' Latin America ratings.

Alvaro Rey, area general manager of London and franchise hotels Europe for InterContinental, says the chemistry was "immediate" when they met, adding: "To create something truly unique in the London food scene is a great challenge. However, I knew that Martha's style is something that London has been waiting for. She represents Mexico like no other chef, and it is a joy to see her creative, authentic and imaginative style come alive at Ella Canta. We feel so honoured to have Martha and the restaurant as a new dining experience."

Ella Canta is housed on the former Cookbook Café site, which has been completely redesigned. The interior, created by David Collins Studio, has a clear connection with Dulce Patria, but the two restaurants have different identities.

Ella Canta
Ella Canta

ce Patria is set over two floors, and the restaurant is full of colour - feminine pinks, warm reds and regal golds, with individual flowers on each table. Ella Canta is similar: although all on one level, it is split into four sections, each with a different colour theme, flowing from rose pink to terracotta to baby blue, until you reach the bar, which is almost a separate entity in a sultry black, tan and gold. Running along the middle of Ella Canta is a beautiful, hand-carved, floor-to- ceiling walnut installation, inspired by the work of Mexican furniture designer Eugenio Escudero.

The bar offers a collection of rare mezcals and tequilas, alongside signature cocktails titled Mexico's Gifts to the World. "Each cocktail contains a key Mexican ingredient," says Ortiz. "It's a way of educating people about the incredible produce we have."

The restaurant has a romantic element, as does Ortiz. "Mexicans have special methods of cooking," she says. "I think the flavours and ingredients are so interesting and different - exotic, beautiful and sensual. When you cook a tortilla, you don't have distance; you take it in your hand, and that sensuality gives life to the food. You have to be close to your ingredient. With the molcajete [Mexican pestle and mortar], you feel and hear the sound of the stone when it breaks to make a salsa. I think that connection is fantastic."

Her menus change regularly, portraying the story of Mexico and its many magical folktales. On the Day of the Dead menu (£85), which is served between 1-12 November to coincide with the Mexican celebration, everything is black: graphite-black amaranth tamal, Gressingham duck, chilomate sauce and ranch cream cheese; aged rib-eye steak, black chichilo, chinchayote, toasted corn and lemon zest; and black molé ice-cream.

"It's like a story," she explains. "I want to show people in the UK the profound influence that this celebration has throughout Mexico. I want to show people through food that we don't just celebrate death, we celebrate life. On the table, I place the food between altars, which makes it come alive."

Beef fillet, black chichilo and aubergine and Calavera (PatrÁ³n Silver tequila, PatrÁ³n Citronge, guava marmalade, grapefruit and lime and lemon verbena syrup)
Beef fillet, black chichilo and aubergine and Calavera (PatrÁ³n Silver tequila, PatrÁ³n Citronge, guava marmalade, grapefruit and lime and lemon verbena syrup)

e Á la carte menu offers Mexican dishes with a twist. Vampire ceviche (£12) is served with sangrita ('little blood' - a shot of tequila) sorbet. Creamy poblano chilli rice with chicken thigh (£24) comes with 'a spell of pumpkin seed dust'. The guacamole with ricotta cheese and pomegranate (£9) is plated with a 'Mexican jewel' - a grasshopper painted gold.

The 'final curtain' desserts include a Mexican churros, caramel and chocolate feast (£8); mamey (a tropical fruit) baked custard, edible gold, rose water ice- cream and carnation sauce (£11); and her signature Maria Goes To… series (the dessert takes 'journeys' around the world every month; in London, she's going to Mexico).

Ortiz is passionate about Mexican produce. Her favourite ingredient is the guajillo chilli - the one molé is made from. She says: "It tastes a bit like chocolate and a bit like stone, and has a lot of smokiness. It can be very expensive, but in a way it is so exclusive, so chic, I adore it. And this, with passion, is the perfect ingredient."

Without a doubt, Ortiz has enough passion to last a lifetime of recipes.

Magical cuisine and the caramel ceiling

After taking a degree in political science and before becoming a chef, Martha Ortiz embarked on a trip around Mexico with her mother, who was carrying out a research project, and learned from traditional cooks.

"I saw their way of life and I learned so much about them," she recalls. "I think these people are my heroes, because in some parts of Mexico, there is a lot of poverty, but they take the maize, the chilli and the beans and create a magical dish. They are like magicians."

Ortiz says her mission in life is to create her own master recipe using the best ingredients she has been given. Her first husband was an artist. When she asked for advice on a dish, he flew her to the UK to show her a painting by Leonardo da Vinci at the National Gallery, which enlightened her to true beauty. Her second husband was a musician, who inspired her to be dramatic with her cooking.

She currently owns two restaurants: Dulce Patria in the Las Alcobas hotel in Mexico City, and Ella Canta. Her fans in Mexico regard Ortiz as a strong female figure. People even tell her she should be president of Mexico. "Maybe in

10 years, I will want to do something along those lines," she says. "I love responsibilities. Maybe I could be a senator, where I can influence laws for women."

Ortiz is a gender equality champion, urging women to empower and support each other. She looks to learn from other women and is happy to teach others. In the hospitality industry, where women account for a tiny percentage of kitchen staff, Ortiz thinks there is more to be done.

"We need to break that caramel ceiling," she says. "I think we need to help each other. I made the decision that I didn't want to have children when I was a young girl, not because I was working - it just wasn't for me. I think as a woman, you need to have choices, to have the liberty to say 'I want to do this', and having families where the husband can help a little more.

In Mexico it's unusual, but here the men can stay with the baby and the woman can return to work."

Dressed to thrill

There's a vein of excitement running through Ella Canta, from the kitchen through to the front-of-house team, who are dressed in a modern take on traditional Mexican dress designed by London-based fashion label 1947.

Each of 1947's dresses is made to measure with bespoke fabric and trims. The elegant colour block jumpsuits, suits and dresses are seen on staff in shades of burnt orange, teal and powder blue, accessorised with vibrant floral headpieces.

"When it came to designing the collection for Ella Canta, we wanted to capture the spirit, colour and vibrancy of modern Mexico, while also keeping functionality and comfort at the forefront of our minds," says Laura Tovell, cofounder of 1947. "We're absolutely thrilled with the results and it's wonderful to hear that the staff also love their uniforms."

The head chef

Elias Silva Resinas, head chef at Ella Canta, trained at the Instituto GastronÁ³mico de Aguascalientes and Le Cordon Bleu Ottawa Culinary Arts Institute. He went on to cook at restaurants including Benu in San Francisco, Pujol in Mexico City, Noma in Copenhagen and Le Chateaubriand in Paris. He moved to Ella Canta from Cosme in New York, where he was sous chef.

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