They say you eat with the eyes first. But for Martha Ortiz, food is something that you feel. Born and raised in Mexico City, Ortiz is an award-winning chef and restaurateur, Top Chef Mexico judge, and author of eight cookbooks.
She has two restaurants in Mexico City, Dulce Patria and Filigrana, and one in London, Ella Canta. She has been lauded for her deep passion for Mexican gastronomy and the tireless work she has put into researching the history of her people and their connection with food.
I recently visited Ella Canta, situated on the ground floor of the InterContinental London Park Lane, where I experienced Ortiz’s artistry first-hand. Using her extensive knowledge of traditional Mexican cuisine, Ortiz is able to take apart the idea behind each recipe and reimagine it in a modern way. Her restaurants are her stage and at Ella Canta the a la carte menu is divided into sections called Overture, Drama, Main Act, and Final Curtain. Guests may assume that dishes like the Guacamole Nationalista are familiar, until they notice the golden grasshopper on top of it, that is. Other pleasant surprises include the salsa sikil-pak, a Mayan pumpkin seed sauce, to accompany the grilled lamb, and the sangrita sorbet that comes with the sea bass ceviche. “Mexico City is the cultural capital of Latin America and it has always inspired me. Growing up amidst the vibrant city life was a privilege,” she says.
How did you first get into cooking?
My first encounter with gastronomy was seeing the Mexican flag – an eagle devouring a snake, perched on a cactus, this for me was both magical and patriotic. This gastronomic flag really spoke to me as a little girl and shared a message that gastronomy is part of our identity.
If you weren’t a chef, what do you think you would be doing?
If I had not become a chef, I would be a film art director or screenwriter.
You have restaurants in both Mexico and the UK. How do you balance your time and how has each catered to its local clientele?
Now that I have three restaurants, two in Mexico City and one in London, I balance my time around key events at each location. I like to ensure that I am always present for the creation of our menu narratives, seasonal changes, events, and improvements. Additionally, I have many academic and artistic interests and must confess that my agenda is very tight and sometimes overloaded!
You’ve been on television shows such as Top Chef Mexico and MasterChef UK. How do you think TV food shows have changed the public perception of chefs and cooking?
TV food shows have given a great insight into the work of chefs. They have also helped to change people’s perception of gastronomy and showcase the beauty and science of food. I think it’s also important to discuss the provenance of food and tell its story, which adds another dimension.
What are some of the biggest misconceptions surrounding Mexican food?
One of the most important misconceptions about Mexican gastronomy is that it is mistaken for Tex-Mex food and there is nothing more alien to Mexican cooking than Tex-Mex. Mexican gastronomic culture is sophisticated, fine, magnanimous, profound and, for many experts, one of the three most important cuisines worldwide.
Some may be wary at the thought of eating bugs, but I loved the gold grasshopper in the guacamole at Ella Canta. Why did you decide to put that in the dish despite knowing it might put Londoners off?
I love presenting insects as Mexican jewels. This is why grasshoppers are gold in Ella Canta’s guacamole. My intention is to arouse curiosity about the flavours and textures of this beautiful and exotic ingredient that has been a fundamental part of Mexican pre-Hispanic cuisine. I think Londoners are quite adventurous and the feedback has been great!
Ella Canta is not only a restaurant with an innovative menu, it also has an impeccable look and aesthetic. How involved were you in the restaurant design process and what did you want your diners to feel whilst there?
I always get involved in the art direction of my restaurants. For me, the atmosphere and decór make up the spirit that accompanies my dishes. I visualise it as a theatre stage where all beautiful things and flavours are possible.
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You’ve been praised for being an excellent storyteller. Why is it so important that you take your diners on a journey with your dishes?
I like to develop dishes that are part of a story because it builds a deeper connection. It’s important to have a common guiding thread that enables a narrative and this narrative becomes like a play where the colours and flavours are relished by guests who collect a story through each menu. I call [my regulars] dish collectors because they [frequently] return to experience new menus.
What is your favourite city for dining out?
It would have to be my city, Mexico City.
Which cuisine would you want to learn how to cook next and why?
I would like to learn Indian cuisine because of its depth and similarity to Mexican gastronomy.
You’re hosting a dinner at your house. What do you do to make it special?
I invite artists to come and install unique decorations. Just flowers and dishes are sort of boring to me. And, as I used to say: “Let music become opera with passion, drama, and beauty.”
What are three ingredients you could never live without?
Corn, chile and cacao with a seasoning of passion!