On leaving a bustling career in the music industry five years ago, self-taught chef Martin Morales had one dream – to put Peruvian cuisine on the food map for all to see and savour. Now the founder of three Peruvian restaurants in London, author of a best-selling cook book and host on YouTube channel Ceviche TV as well as being on the verge of bringing Peruvian products to retail, Produce Business UK catches up with Morales to ask how he’s helped to create further opportunities for fresh produce supplies from Peru and beyond, especially corn, peppers, potatoes, limes, chillies and onions
Owner of Ceviche Soho, Ceviche Old St and Andina in Shoreditch, Morales is a real product of his environment having been brought up in Lima, Peru, by an Andean mother and every month receiving via his grandmother in the Andes mountains “beautiful food parcels” containing Peruvian essentials such as quinoa, amaranth, chillies like amarillo, panca and rocoto, ham, cheese and eggs.
His grandmother was a small-scale organic farmer and she had a great culinary influence on Morales, but it was when he stayed with his aunties, Carmela and Otilia, during weekends that his flair for cooking was cemented.
“My aunties were great chefs, so I grew up experiencing the traditional cuisines of the Andes,” explains Morales, who eventually moved to London during his teens when the guerrilla movement, otherwise known as the Shining Path Guerillas, threatened his father because he worked for a US company.
“My aunties had a real love and passion for their cooking tradition, so that’s where my love came from. They gave me love – as much as I had in my own home – and that came out through their food. We sourced ingredients together; going to the local market and choosing live chickens that we’d pluck to eat, as well as the vegetables, and learning how to cook traditional dishes.”
The Peruvian chef movement
But Morales’ story is about much more than just bringing his ancestors’ food to the London eatery table; it’s a social statement. Feeling that the corruption that once dominated Peru also impacted the way both the world and its inhabitants viewed the South American country’s traditions and cuisines, including its food, Morales gave up a 10-year career with Apple and Disney Music to put the record straight.
“When I grew up our cuisine was based on tradition and we were all obsessed with eating,” says Morales, whose mother still lives in Peru, along with his siblings and a wide network of extended family, who he has visited each year since coming to London. “But part of our society, particularly the upper class, disregarded traditions in Peru – including our traditional cuisine, music and culture – partly because there was a lot of corruption, delinquency and terrorism, at a time when the economy was so on its knees. People who had the opportunity to excel decided to appreciate what was outside of our culture instead of their own.
“Because of my affinity with Peru and that dual heritage of being both an urban and indigenous Andean, I didn’t have that prejudice like others. In the last 10 to 15 years things have changed with Peru’s economy and the cultural life of all Peruvians and that includes our gastronomy. The economy improved because transparent legislation was put in place and the main terrorist was caught in the early 1990s, and people began to realise on the whole that what we have in Peruvian culture is extremely valuable.”
The Peruvian chef movement started to happen around 10 years ago, says Morales. “There has been a movement of all kinds of chefs, and, of course, there is a great variety of chefs,” he points out. “There are a few who get highlighted by the government and in the media but there are many more chefs who deserve recognition. Chefs from great fine dining restaurants that create innovative and delicious food or small casual restaurants that cook with real soul, as well as regionally based chefs – they all deserve the recognition for this explosion in food in Peru.”
It’s this diversity of different cooking styles from across Peru that Morales celebrates in London. Rather than giving in to a proven economically-driven restaurant chain akin to Yo! Sushi or The Real Greek, the businessman hasn’t duplicated his Ceviche offer with his further restaurants in London. Instead, he has created new menus and new ideas with Ceviche Old St and has concentrated on superfood ingredients and soul food from the Peruvian Andes with Andina.
“It’s not just about the one dish,” he comments. “There are so many possibilities with Peruvian food. At Andina, we didn’t want to shout about our ‘health credentials’, but the Andes is home to so many superfoods and as a region it has been left behind by the world. Our restaurant is healthy but we have managed to make it cutting edge and funky. It’s loved by all the community.”
Bringing Peru to the UK
After exploring his other passion of music; by bringing the likes of KT Tunstall and Miley Cyrus to fame and setting up as ‘the DJ Chef’ at the weekend, Morales decided to make a real change in the way people regard Peruvian food. So, he and his wife, Lucy, who he met just after leaving Leeds University, sold their house despite having two young children and went into the restaurant business feet-first by setting up supper clubs, which later led to pop-up restaurants and eventually a first restaurant, Ceviche Soho, in 2012.
“Five years ago, you asked the average person about Peru and they thought of ponchos and llamas,” says Morales, who felt the time was right in 2012 for Peruvian food to take some of the limelight. He also wanted someone to do it for their sheer passion for food, and not as an aggressive commercial motive.
“There was a strong battle ahead and, at first, the economic climate in London sent investors running. After we sold our house it took six months to raise the rest of the money. It was a frustrating time but I have always felt people could love ceviche [the dish] as much as sushi and pisco sour [the cocktail] as much as a mojito.”
Opportunities for Peruvian fruit and veg in the UK
At the time, around 500 bottles of the Peruvian spirit pisco were sold in the UK. Now that number has risen to 40,000, with Morales’ restaurants accounting for half of that volume. From the cocktails (they only contain pisco) to dish design, restaurant décor and especially the music, Morales’ restaurants encompass Peruvian culture, and they have inspired a steady movement towards Peruvian food in London.
“It can go in the wrong direction when restaurateurs don’t care about the setting and from where they get their supplies, but our launch has inspired others and we welcome that and do our best to work with them,” reveals Morales, whose restaurants won the Best Improved Sustainable Restaurants in the UK gong this year at the Sustainable Restaurant Awards.
Morales has also started up a new company in PK Peruvian Kitchen, which aims to serve the trade and retailers with authentic Peruvian sauces and products later in the year. “Our restaurants now feature all Peruvian ingredients and cuisine, which we source from Peru, as well as sourcing fish, meat, fresh salads and vegetable ingredients locally.”
Morales sources less specialist ingredients and fresh produce from catering suppliers and wholesalers. “We use a whole variety of suppliers,” he adds. “We need to know as much detail and be as transparent as possible. Our produce has to be organic and have a low carbon footprint, even before we get to its taste, quality, consistency of delivery and price. We struggle to get hold of purple corn as sometimes the weather makes the price and availability inconsistent.”
And when you consider Morales’ plans to open one restaurant a year, it’s clear there are many opportunities ahead for suppliers of Peruvian food, fruit and vegetables to target the UK. “We serve 300,000 customers a year and our suppliers are very grateful,” shares Morales, who uses almost endless amounts of corn, peppers, potatoes, limes, chillies and onions.
“At first, people laughed at us and even farms and suppliers in Peru laughed. It’s difficult because Peruvian farmers tend to look after the local market first. Attitudes did change though and we now have several partners that work for us, and we deal with a lot of different chilli farmers to get the right chillies. I now travel three times a year to Peru to visit suppliers and everything we source from Peru is direct from organic farms. We pride ourselves on knowing where our food comes from.”
Read other articles in PBUK’s Sourcing Spotlight on Peru:
Watch these videos about Peru: