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31-01-2024

Malena Martinez, gracefully disobedient

Interview with the Peruvian scientist who quietly coordinates the research and development of the ingredients for Central, the world's number one restaurant in 2023. She’ll hold a lecture in Milan, on Saturday 9th of March

Malena Martinez is a scientist and co-director of

Malena Martinez is a scientist and co-director of Mater Iniciativa, an interdisciplinary, gastronomic and cultural organisation dedicated to investigating, preserving and sharing Peru's enormous biodiversity. She will talk about this at Identità Milano, on Saturday 9th of March at 2.20 pm, in the Auditorium (full programme and registration)

Disobedience. It is certainly not the first noun that comes to mind when observing her as she silently sketches in a notebook the pretty flowers, shoots and wild herbs of Moray, over 3,000 metres up in the Andes. As she whispers the many plots of Mater Iniciativa, the research centre founded on the investigation and deep understanding of the ingredients of Peru, one of the most megadiverse countries in the world. As she explains that science should weave a double thread with gastronomy.

Malena Martinez is disobedient every day, when she violates the rules that dictate sharing any breath on X, Instagram or Threads. She never posts because she is a scientist: her field is not social threads but the laboratories and circular terraces of the sci-fi place that gave rise to Mil, one of the most fascinating projects we have seen in the last decade.

Virgil's sister silently tends the rich reservoir of everything that is cooked in the restaurants of Latin America's most celebrated group, which has its headquarters on this side of the Andes, Central in Lima, at the top of the 2023 World's 50Best.

And the whole journey of the least famous of the Martinez siblings begins with a gesture of disobedience. ‘I graduated in medicine in Lima. I started working as a general practitioner but I soon realised that that was not my path. I did an internship in Iquitos, in Amazonia, which was enlightening. Three years after opening Central, my brother asked me if I wanted to work with him in the research and development of the country's ingredients. He was looking for a friendly eye, who would also oversee the managerial aspects. I accepted. Mater Iniciativa was born.'

He called it 'a deep exploration of the food, nature and culture of the surroundings.'
Peruvian cuisine at that time was rather standardised and certain ingredients were not spoken of at all. They were seen as something distant, exotic. With Virgilio we tried to figure out which Peruvian region we should scout first. We called a number of friends and colleagues with different skills: anthropologist Natalia Mora, forest engineer Daniel Montes... We started travelling through Cuzco, Cajamarca, Amazonia, the regions of San Martin and Loreto...

Very diverse landscapes.
Our geography is very heterogeneous and irregular. We say that Peru is like a crumpled sheet of paper: there are huge differences between one territory and the other. Countless micro-climates, countless agricultural techniques. The coasts, the sea, Amazonia to the north, the east and south and then the Andes. This was the seed of Mater Iniciativa. We wanted to build something that had depth, that had a sense that we could not see clearly at first. Now everything is very clear. Mater is involved in research, agriculture, botany.

Malena Martinez, Virgilio Martinez and Pia Leon, the trio behind all the projects of Mater Iniciativa and Central

Malena Martinez, Virgilio Martinez and Pia Leon, the trio behind all the projects of Mater Iniciativa and Central

Have you shown that gastronomy and science can dialogue on the same level?
In the past, gastronomy did not enjoy any attention. But now it does and it has become a vessel for civilisation. It makes things more accessible for scientists. It broadens their audience, which is in itself incredible. But it is also something that requires great effort because you must make connections that make sense between the two worlds, read an ecosystem in a sustainable way. Dialogue and listening, in the same measure. Show respect for communities, always starting with the ingredient. Constantly reviewing what you have done, making things better. Ultimately, you must have a positive impact on our environment.

Is it complicated to communicate unknown ingredients and concepts?
It is difficult for us to explain to people what Mater is, what we do. To make something so complex accessible, which is not for everyone. It is certainly impossible to summarise it through an Instagram account. In general, today we have all the technological resources to say many things, but to select what is important from what isn’t, to separate what is relevant from what isn’t, is not something many people wish to do. Our attitude must always be the more you know, the less you know.

With Virgilio you communicate very well through beauty. Of places, of restaurants, of dishes. Where does this keen sense of aesthetics come from?
From our mother, an architect. It is our creative matrix. But also from our dad, a very fast thinker, a perfectionist. It's quite a competition between the two of them. When I see Virgilio creating dishes, I think he took after him. Commitment and hard work are important values for us, our parents taught us that. We strongly believe in what we do.

Which of the many aspects of Mater fascinates you the most?
I love plants. I am fascinated by ancestral uses, classifications. Every culture categorises them differently. In the Andean one, a dualistic classification prevails: the before and the after, the cool and the hot. It is all about life cycles. Plants remind us that things evolve, are transient, constantly changing. And this is a very strong message for us: don't do the same thing a thousand times. The world needs to constantly rethink itself. Nature itself is asking for it.

Malena at work

Malena at work

Of all the hundreds of Andean plant species you have drawn attention to, which ones attract you the most?
Roots and tubers. They are kingdoms that impress me. Not only potatoes; there are so many roots that were disappearing because they were no longer in demand: they are called achiras, maukas, mashua. And all the varieties of oca, quinoa, kañiwa. The colours are incredible and they have phenomenal nutritional properties. They are rich in starch and fibre, essential sources of energy for those living in the Andes.
 

When will you also explore the ingredients of the Amazon?
The Amazon represents 60% of the national territory. It means that we’re first and foremost an Amazonian nation, a fact that not even the people of Lima realise. We are completely disconnected from nature. Working with rainforest communities is more complicated than in Cuzco because they are not as used to tourism. And there are many social problems, fruit of history: the slavery that followed the rubber fever, the drug trafficking, the mines that gold diggers still plant on the way. The communities are very disconnected, distrustful and dialogue is difficult. I know people who have been working there for 20 years and still struggle to put together a real, concrete project. You need a different approach.

Can Mater Iniciativa extend beyond the borders of Peru?
Yes, because ingredients have no political borders. The Andes and Amazonia are shared ecosystems with other South American countries. We have begun to explore the commonalities with the ecosystems of Bolivia, Chile and other neighbouring countries. An exciting perspective.

Translated into English by Slawka G. Scarso

 


IG2024: the disobedience

by

Gabriele Zanatta

born in Milan, 1973, freelance journalist, coordinator of Identità Golose World restaurant guidebook since 2007, he is a contributor for several magazines and teaches History of gastronomy and Culinary global trends into universities and institutes. 
twitter @gabrielezanatt
instagram @gabrielezanatt

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