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Renaissance Man: An interview with Martin Morales

28 March 2014 by
Renaissance Man: An interview with Martin Morales

Chef, author, DJ, producer, marketeer - plymath Martin Morales' talents like in many areas, but he has untied them all in the form of Andina and Cevice, a one-man Peruvian restaurant revolution - and he's barely begun, says Fiona Sims

You could put it down to the healthier fare Andina offers, which many of us crave in the New Year - quinoa burgers, ceviches, a Peruvian energy drink called emoliente, and solterito, an Arequipa salad of broad beans, giant kernel corn, queso fresco cheese and tomatoes - but the obvious excitement surrounding 
the style of the cuisine is hard to ignore. It's Peruvian, in case you hadn't guessed.

Peruvian food is the latest success story on London's food scene. Lima London was awarded a Michelin star a little over a year after opening - a first for a Peruvian restaurant. And since Morales opened his first restaurant, Ceviche, in Soho, in March 2012, there has been a flurry of other openings paying homage to the cuisine, including Coya and Tierra Peru.

So what is Peruvian food exactly? Thanks to its Inca origins, and to Spanish, African, Chinese, Japanese, Italian and French immigration, Peruvian cuisine is one of the most diverse in the world. Step into Lima's central market and you'll find packets of miso next to Chinese noodles and picarones (pumpkin doughnuts) being sold alongside causas - a cold, stuffed, mashed potato dish that dates back to the Incas.

Add to that many different climates and a terrain that includes a desert coast, tropical rainforest and the Andes, plus a treasure trove of indigenously domesticated edible plants, a byproduct of Peru's great diversity and range of ecosystems, and it's not hard to see why Peruvian cuisine has aroused such excitement. Even some of the world's top chefs are flying in for a closer look, among them Ferran AdriÁ , Daniel Patterson and René Redzepi.

National dish But if you had to sum up Peruvian cuisine in one dish it would be ceviche - preferably washed down with a pisco sour, the potent but addictive national drink.

The key ingredient of ceviche - raw fish - is cold-cooked using copious freshly squeezed lime juice. The resulting liquid, a combination of fish juice and lime, is a highly prized concoction called leche de tigre, or tiger's milk. Add to that thinly sliced red onions, chillies, a generous seasoning of salt and a grinding of pepper and you have Peru on a plate. "Though everyone does it differently," explains Morales.

Ceviche, then, was a smart name choice for his first restaurant. While Morales was pitching the concept to hundreds of investors to raise funds for the business, he took the cuisine on the road as a pop-up restaurant, wooing palates up and down the country while breaking in his team.

"It took us eight months to raise the money. I pitched to 300 investors and 290 said: 'No, you must be crazy, this has never been done before' - and that included Peruvians. But after hundreds of knock-backs and listening to feedback and changing my team, we pulled it off. Now we are strong, professional and sharp - and geared for growth. We smashed our first year sales target by 30%. And last year, growth was another 15% on top of that," he says.

His team includes executive chef Tomasz Baranski, a Polish-born Spanish food nut who has embraced Peruvian cuisine under Morales' tutelage. There's also operations director Raquel de Oliveira, David Buxton leading finance, and Philippe Hails-Smith, a partner at Joelson Wilson, who was involved from the initial capital fundraising and who held Morales' hand throughout, not to mention Soho House Group's Martin Kuczmarski as non-executive director.

"I'm lucky to have so many mentors. They have great belief in what we are doing and they have stuck their necks out for me," says Morales. "Professionalism, leadership and a strong ethos of fairness in the workplace are crucial to us, but we are a restaurant first and foremost - it's all about the food we cook."

Morales is a great marketeer - and even though he freely admits he's not a professional chef (his love of cooking stems from helping his Aunt Carmela in the kitchen as a child), that hasn't stopped him from appearing no fewer than three times on the BBC's Saturday Kitchen. "Tomasz is very much the executive chef, not me - though I am the co-creator of many of our dishes," he explains.

Past lives It's probably best to look at his list of achievements before becoming a restaurateur to explain some of this drive. Morales has a Peruvian mother and lived in the country until he was 11, leaving, rather dramatically, to settle in Leicester after his British father was threatened by the Shining Path Guerrilla movement. It was while he was studying marketing at the University of Leeds that he began DJing Peruvian, Latin and Brazilian music, later forming the Global Kitchen, which saw him cooking and DJing at the same time, and eventually DJing around the world as a hobby.

His career, meanwhile, took off. As head of Pan EU, Morales was a founder member of Apple iTunes, launching the online store across 16 countries, and he was also the youngest board member at Disney, heading up Disney Music Group Europe, where he signed up big name artists such as KT Tunstall.

"But my heart was always in Peru. I've been talking about Peruvian cuisine to anyone and everyone over the last decade, so I thought it was time to stop talking and just do it," he says. So he chucked in the job at Disney, tweeted extensively about Peruvian food, created supper clubs and pop-up restaurants to generate more interest, and then sold his home to fund the restaurant venture.

According to Morales, visiting ex-pat Peruvians cried after eating at Ceviche for the first time "because they hadn't had that kind of food in years," he explains. "But it also sparked memories in people who had travelled there as tourists, while foodies came after hearing about the excitement surrounding Peruvian cuisine.

"Around 90% of our customers ask about the ingredients we use - much of which they've never seen before. I spend, on average, an hour every night answering emails from customers - mostly about where to get particular ingredients, or how to make a particular dish. But I don't mind; it's all part of spreading the word," he adds.

Finding those Peruvian ingredients is indeed tricky. Morales even imports some of them directly himself, including amarillo, panca and limo chillies, which arrive in the UK whole and frozen, as well as purple corn, a giant corn Peruvians call choclo, a pepper called rocoto and a frozen purée of lucumu, an Andian fruit.

But these supplies may become more readily available if the march of Peruvian openings in the capital continues. "The openings have helped us. If we share this, we all benefit," says Morales. "But we are the pioneers and we broke the market - and we are still innovating," he adds, and points out that he is also the only restaurant business with a record label.

"I want us to be ambassadors of not just Peruvian food, but of Peruvian culture and arts, too. Food is at the heart of what we do but in my mind cooking is interlinked with art, creativity and even music. At times these areas can be promotional, but they can also become revenue streams. And above all, it makes us, and our customers enjoy our work more," he says.

Ceviche Peruvian Kitchen, his cookbook, is another such revenue stream. It has remained in the top 10 cookbooks on Amazon since it was published by Random House last July, and was voted The Sunday Times Cookbook of the Year in 2013.

Morales' 'sharing' ethos extends to showing people how to make his signature dish, don ceviche. In addition to the recipe printed in full in the book, there is an instructional video on how to make it (and pisco sour) on his blog, accessed via the restaurant's website (cevicheuk.com).

"It has had nearly 14,000 views in the 12 months since it was uploaded. The plan was to always share what we do. We are passionate about it, and we thought that if we share it, people will come," he says. And they do come, in their droves - he reached his first quarter sales target figure in four weeks.

"Running restaurants is not that different from the music industry if you think about it. I've got two bands - Andina and Ceviche, with lead singers in both [the chefs], with hit singles [the dishes] - and we tour, too," he adds, referring to the 10-date pop-up restaurant and masterclass tour he took on the road last July, essentially to plug the book, but also to bring Peruvian cuisine to the provinces.

Will there be a Ceviche in Leeds one day, perhaps? "Absolutely. This is not just a London story - it's a national story. People are excited about Peruvian cuisine and they've read lots about it. And we were sold out on our pop-up tour, from North Shields to Padstow," says Morales.

"I think there's a lot more to come. We are just at the beginning of discovering Peruvian food - it's about so much more than ceviche. There are so many different stories to tell, from Chifa to Afro-Peruvian, from Nikkei to Amazon - and it's my job to tell that story."

Morales on music

Before embarking on a career as a restaurateur, Morales was best known as a DJ.

While he was at university in Leeds he began DJing Peruvian, Latin and Brazilian music before forming the Global Kitchen. These events saw him cook and DJ at pop-up locations, and Morales maintains the combination of food and music in his career.

He co-runs a re-issue label called Tiger's Milk Records with a friend who is equally passionate about Peruvian music. It releases compilations of vintage Peruvian songs that have remained undiscovered for 30 years, which they remaster and then sell online, in record shops and at Morales' restaurants.

"I've amassed a collection of more than 4,000 albums of Peruvian music. It's important for me to continue to connect with the creative arts. And music is an important part of the restaurant experience," says Morales.

Andina: A taste of the Andes

"We created Andina to enchant and surprise people," says Morales, of his second restaurant, which opened on the corner of Redchurch Street and Shoreditch High Street in December 2013. Its name pays homage to the region that inspires the menu - the Andes - and it is Morales' modern interpretation, with a little help from Schneider Designers and Here Design, of a 'picanteria' - a traditional family-run community restaurant that is open all day, from breakfast to dinner.

In addition to the juice bar, which serves Andina's own Peruvian coffee blend with quinoa milk, and the Pisco bar, which makes Peruvian national drink Pisco Sour (and has recently introduced masterclasses on how to make them), there are breakfast dishes such as Peruvian porridge (amaranth, orange zest, golden berries, figs and purple corn syrup) and Pastel de Choclo (corn cake with poached eggs).

While the restaurant's main menu includes six different ceviches, the heartiest dish on the menu is Aji de Gallina - a casserole of crispy chicken, amarillo chilli, pecans, potato and rice. There's also that quinoa burger, served from midday until closing, with sharing dishes the common theme,as well as a private dining room, housing Morales' rare Peruvian 7-inch singles.

Facts and stats

Ceviche 17 Frith Street, London W1D 4RG
Seats: 80
Most popular dishes: Don Ceviche and Lomo Saltado

Andina 1 Redchurch Street,
London E2 7DJ
Seats: 86
Most popular dishes: Siwichi and the Quinoa Burger

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