Malena Martínez is a doctor and the director of the Mater Project, a center for gastronomic investigation, which has become a source of products for her brother, Virgilio Martínez’s restaurants, Central and Mil, as well as Pía León’s restaurants Mauka and Kjolle, and Maz, the restaurant the chefs share in Tokyo. Don’t be fooled by her sense of humor and low profile, Malena sagely manages an investigative center that continues to ramify and bud new ideas every day. Do all of them come to fruition? Not always, as viability and sustainability are essential to their realization – a fact that the whole team has now come to understand after much trial and error. Today, months after Central was awarded Best Restaurant on the 50 Best list, we sit down and speak with Malena. Together we analyze her work, reflecting on appropriation, working in community, and respecting ecosystems, and concluding with the most current event: Festin, the book about products and recipes that she recently launched together with Pía León.
It is important to recognize that Mater, which has become so solid, is at the foundation of so much (and includes Central, Mil, Kjolle, Mauka in Peru, and Maz in Japan, among others). This all began with the trips you led starting in 2012.
I think that we began as explorers. We wanted to see what was out there, to travel, learn, converse with people, expand our horizons. It began with curiosity, so that we could then learn to do things differently. At that time, many people got the idea that we were out looking for exotic ingredients, but that wasn’t it. We were ultimately searching within ourselves, investigating what we were about, how to construct our culinary identity, our food identity, what it’s based on, what it’s pillars are, and what distinguishes one space from another. That is why we summoned people from other specializations. It was clear that none of us knew (or know) more than the other, rather, we all have something to say, and all our contributions are equally valuable.
We stopped traveling just for the sake of traveling because we realized that these exploration trips were part of a more youthful agenda: “my country is so beautiful, I’m going to keep exploring it.” We had to mature our idea and turn it into something that could serve as a foundation. If we wanted to become more structured and be more formal, we had to create a work methodology, we could not be so intuitive. We needed to establish a chronogram, a fixed itinerary, and summon the right people – those who we found ideal for the objective of the trip. I feel like we grew up, and that the experience served us well.
Were mistakes made during this process? What were some of the more common ones? Things that at the time seemed right, but weren’t?
There is a level of expectations that accompanies each trip, and sometimes these expectations are not met. Or, you plan to go down one path, but you end up on another. We have learned that errors are valuable, and we do not consider them failures, rather, opportunities to reassess. One must be able to reformulate when faced with unexpected information, or when someone has a different vision of reality, or objectives that you do not share. You can propose something you think is great, only to realize that you are not receiving a big smile in response, or a “let’s do it.” Instead you hear “hey, I’m not there. I am not in harmony with you. But how about we do this or that, or do you have other ideas?”
A CONFLUX BORN IN MIL CENTRO
One of the most significant challenges for Malena Martinez and Mater, has been communication. Specifically, when Mater began to come together, and the restaurant Mil was formed. It wasn’t just about arriving to this foreign space and appropriating it – imposing rules and fixing the world – it was about correctly approaching these communities who were not familiar, and who had very different ways of thinking and working. Thus, all those involved had to learn to understand each other, the Mater team, as well as their neighbors in Maras, the members of Mullaka´s Misminay and Kacllaraccay communities. “We learned not to have fixed expectations, to be more versatile with our plans,” explains Malena. Other team members always ask me what the hardest thing about Mater is, and I always respond that it is the communication, because the multicultural factor is a basic component one must always consider. The people who you are dealing with always have other things they bring to the table. The conversations are rarely fluid because we don’t share the same mother tongue, because they have a different cosmovision, because there is a lot of non-verbal communication that we do not understand, and because there is a history. These are people who culturally keep to themselves, they are timid and introverted. Women do not traditionally participate in the conversations, they are not used to it because they have never been given a voice, and, thus, they haven’t internalized that they can also express themselves and contribute. There are many different nuances, and, therefore, I think that communication is key, and we are in that learning process.”
Five years after founding Mil and working with the communities, how can you measure the impact you’ve had?
The anthropological work that we do serves to measure the differentiating factors that have been established over this time. I would say that one of the most important changes is the number of people who voluntarily sign up to work with us, which has grown exponentially over time. Our first year, there were 18. Now, we have over 64 community members on work rotation. In addition, we work with an association of women who were previously homemakers with no personal income. This is a very important differentiating factor. These same women are now looking into which universities to send their children. For me, that impact is very evident and tangible. They also tell us that before, their diet was centered around potatoes and perhaps some vegetables they found in the local market, and that meat was consumed only for celebrations. Now, meat is regularly incorporated into their menu. These women are able to tell their husbands: ‘this is something I can do, I too can contribute,’ and they receive praise from their spouses. I believe this is an important change. This has been a change for all the women from the associations whose husbands were originally reluctant to accept the project proposals. Now, they are all pleased because it brings happiness, optimism, positivism, and income.
Why the need to do this kind of work, and how is it different from what the NGOs have been doing in these areas for decades?
Mater is a nonprofit that investigates and interprets by means of cuisine and other arts. It looks to develop projects based in gastronomy, food, art, culture, science, and humanities. We know that our country is mega diverse, but we need to register what that actually consists of, make it visible, and make the information accessible. We must be prudent and very careful with the work we produce, and what we put our time and effort towards. We are lucky to have a spectacular team of people who realize projects in different areas, but there is still so much to work towards, and more people to join in.
Do you think that the agricultural grower gets lost in the search for knowledge about these products?
There is a human being at the center of all our stories about searching for products. I cannot recall having told a story about something without having mentioned the hands involved in its production. We have never suggested that a product just exists; each product exists thanks to someone who cares for it, processes it, and transforms it, someone who sows and cultivates it, and works hard to make sure it stands the test of time. It was actually our original intention to have a station in charge of connecting with the field labor that is so often invisible to those within the restaurant context, where we generally just focus on the fruits of the harvest. The problem with that is you end up losing the previous six months of work. The process doesn’t begin the day you spread the seeds, the sowing begins much before, with the preparation of the soil. It is difficult to connect with that, with those cycles of farm life.
When working the earth, do you still employ the rotation schedule: the ayni(a communal, solidary, and reciprocal model that is used by the Quechua and Aymara communities)?
The idea of ayni is based on the principal of reciprocity, but part of the objective is to summon people so that they participate, and so that the work load is rotating, that way more people can benefit from it. A certain number of people from each community sign up to either work the fields, work in the restaurant, or participate in the immersive experiences. The presidents of the farming groups from each community also change. Right now we have Norma Quispe from Mullaka´s Misminay and Yovana Franco from Kacllaraccay. It is a democratic election process that is born from the community and executed by its members.
Half of the harvest goes to them, and the other half goes to Mil?
We have a hectare and a half. This year was especially challenging due to the changes in climate, so 100% of the harvest went to the communities. Normally, between 30% and 50% stays at Mil, and we use a portion of this for seeds, another part for the restaurant, and the rest gets sent to Lima. The other 50% goes to the communities who work and are paid across all seasons. Rudy Puma, our agricultural engineer at Mil, directs the field work. There are moments during the growing season in which we need more people for the agricultural techniques used, so more people are summoned. This is determined by the rhythms of the land.
Is it easy for people to knock on the door to see what you do there, and for you to show it to them?
That doesn’t happen much, that people want to know more about the work we do at Mater, and do prolonged visits or internships. If only we had the space and the staff needed to cover that. At the moment, we’ve closed our artist residency program this year, and are just getting around to programming 2024.
How many thesis students and how many students – both national and international – have come through Mater? Over 100?
Yes, probably. People have done stays of different lengths, coming from different organizations, financed by their institutions or by us, and always to develop specific projects. But even in that, there was a learning curve for us because at the beginning, we were open to receive passionate people with the desire to participate in wonderful things, much like when we started with our open-ended trips. Now, we are more selective because we have a clearer notion of what works and is more impactful, versus that which perhaps won’t have any real lasting effect.
APPROPRIATION, APPRECIATION, INTERPRETATION?
It is complex to discuss cultural appropriation within the framework of Peruvian gastronomy, being such a mixed, rich, and diverse field. Nor is it easy to untangle and evaluate the term as applied to a cookbook, despite the endless reflecting that has been done over the last decade by journalists, cooks, and investigative specialists. It is audacious to superfluously label the actors of the gastronomic sector, to sentence them without considering the eras from which they come. Nevertheless, it is important to recognize that cultural appropriation does exist, and we must be open to dialoguing about it and correcting these things that originated in another context, so that we don’t perpetuate them. Now-a-days,the goal for many is to demonstrate their appreciation, and to communicate how potent, incredible, flavorful, and culturally diverse our cuisine is. This as a way to generate change and forge paths, to generate alliances and reciprocity in order to benefit all those who make up the long chain of labor that is born from a seed. In the fields.
These days there is a lot of talk around ancestral techniques and preparations. Are you looking to bring those practices to your tables?
I think that these are all interpretations. In other words, you interpret the outside world as a chef, and create your version of what is important to you. You prioritize the product, the story (which includes the producer or farmer, obviously), and the ecosystem. For us, this is essential; to talk about the ecosystem of a place, its humanity, and to contemplate the nature of these products that compose every moment. These are tools of communication. Much like a literary registry can convey an incredible culinary process, like that of cooking meats and products in the earth, a pachamanca, I like to think that gastronomy also transmits the humanity behind a given process, and shares it on its own interpretive terms. Like a painter or an artist interprets something that has impacted them.
As a country, we have so much we still have to register. In the different regions and cities, we don’t realize all we have, and so much of it is at risk of being lost. We don’t even have an inventory of techniques or recipes.
There are many ways to record things without appropriating them. Many methodologies and so much information. There aren’t many people who dedicate themselves to that. That is why when people accuse, saying “oh, are you suggesting that you discovered this?” No, I am registering it, I am telling you that it exists, and if you already knew that, well, great, but I didn’t. And how many other people said it exists? How many people stopped to look at and record a product, or at the work a person does. How many opened their eyes and observed and said: this is important and it can be used 200 years down the line to help someone understand how a huatia or pachamanca was done? Everything evolves and culture is not static. It is in constant movement because its adaptable, because conditions change. That is why it’s not a bad thing if a pachamanca is no longer the same it was 200 years ago. On the contrary, changes are responses to the culture and the social context, events modify us, they modify our uses and customs.
We have witnessed an evolution through digital and technological advances. What previously occurred over the course of 100 years, now happens within 20. Can that work against those who study gastronomy with the intention of arriving at conclusions about a profession that is in constant transformation?
My insomnia springs from my inability to do everything I feel I need to do today. We must be highly adaptable. We have to evaluate each step we take and be responsible for what we choose to use and transform. We have to recognize that each experimental process includes trial and error, that is how you arrive at results that fill you with satisfaction. It is the only way to create new things. These days – despite the multiple technological advances that aim for practicality, apparent connectivity, and the simplification of processes – people are looking to live authentic experiences, we have seen it in our visitors. It is for this reason that we work to offer real life immersion experiences, like those in Mil, Cusco.
Is it necessary for all this to occur around Central, Kjolle, Mauka and Mil?
I feel like we have to differentiate. For us, it is important to do integral work, forge a collective, set trends in the creation of new work systems, bring together different people, and generate spaces for conversation. We think all this is important, and that, at the end of the day, the concept behind the restaurant can transcend. But that is a choice we make, it doesn’t have to be that way.
Transcend is a very big word.
Our need to leave something more behind is very real. We could decide to be a restaurant focused on the aesthetic and being fair, but we are interested in continuing to build integrative systems that bring together different disciplines and different experiences; that propose solutions to urgent matters, or create commercialization channels for people who previously lacked access, or for products that haven’t been properly considered. We also recognize that the work done by other people and/or organizations helps. So, why not join forces? It is not for me to say that all restaurants should work the same way. Each one responds to their own personal objectives, needs, and desires. Not all chefs need to focus so much on research, generating content, registering. But, I do think that they need to be good, to practice justice and be more generous. We have do to things right, and if you are part of this country, you have to be genuine.
Mater has executed a project using circular organic farms in Moray, research on Chuncho cacao and a line of chocolates, and work with Amazonian communities – specifically focused on nuts from Madre de Dios. A digital cookbook was created as a result of the organic farm project. I suppose it is not about launching a project, checking it off the list, and moving on to the next thing. Isn’t it essential to maintain them over time?
That is the idea. The recipe book can be downloaded for free, and includes dishes that we developed with the communities in order for them to have a more varied daily menu. We continue to work on the botanical textile and dye projects with the women of Moray, Maras, and Tarapoto. Additionally, as a result of this seasons lost harvest due to climate, we are looking into using preservation methods that have been lost over time because they stopped being as necessary. Like the chuño method, but with different tubers and root vegetables. Much like the work Manuel Contreras (researcher and beverage expert at Mil) does with yacon, creating a new product by dehydrating and fermenting it. We are experimenting with solar dehydration and obtaining really interesting results.
And finally, at least for now, Festín, a cookbook for kids that was just presented by Malena and Pía León (Kjolle).
A completely new world, we had never done anything for kids. Festín (Editorial Pichoncito) is a book created to invite people to cook, to get kids to encourage their parents to cook together. A vehicle to showcase Peru’s diversity through 19 ingredients sourced from different regions across the country. The recipes are simple and tasty. The idea is to continue to inspire people to gather, learn, and share.