Malena Martinez, the scientist who sheds light on Peru's hidden ingredients: 'The more you know, the less you know'

Behind all the restaurants of Virgilio Martinez and Pia Leon is the relentless work of Mater Iniciativa, a research centre led by the chef's sister: 'The world needs to constantly rethink itself. Nature itself is asking for it’.

Malena Martinez, scientist, co-director of Mater I

Malena Martinez, scientist, co-director of Mater Iniciativa, an interdisciplinary, gastronomic and cultural organisation dedicated to investigating, preserving and sharing Peru's enormous biodiversity (photos by Zanatta)

We know the life and miracles of Virgilio Martinez, star of millions of views on Netflix, of a dozen ponencias at Identità Golose - between Milan and New York -, chef at Central in Lima, the second restaurant in the world for the World's 50Best. We know little, however, about his sister Malena, a scientist at the helm of Mater Iniciativa, the research centre founded on the investigation and profound understanding of the ingredients of Peru, one of the world's most megadiverse countries.

Mater.in is the rich reservoir of everything that is cooked in the group's restaurants: Central, Kjolle by Pia Leon, in the same location in the Barranco district, a unique project in the world called Mil in the Andes (we have delved into it a few  days ago), the kitchens of the Explora hotels (in the Andes and Chile). And it is also the laboratory that dictates a research method potentially valid for every corner of the planet, as already happens in Maz in Tokyo, in Estero in Playa del Carmen, in Mexico and Olluco in Moscow.
We meet Malena on a sunny morning on the 16th Century patio of the Belmond Monasterio hotel in Cuzco.

What is your story?
I graduated in Medicine in Lima. I started working as a general practitioner but soon realised that that was not my path. I did my internship in Iquitos, 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. And Mater Iniciativa was born.

He called it 'an in-depth exploration of the food, nature and culture around it'.
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 region of Peru 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, the Amazon, the regions of San Martin and Loreto...

Malena on the heights of Moray with collaborators Manuel Contreras and Efra, at the Andean headquarters of Mater Iniciativa and Mil Centro

Malena on the heights of Moray with collaborators Manuel Contreras and Efra, at the Andean headquarters of Mater Iniciativa and Mil Centro

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 another. Countless micro-climates, countless agricultural techniques. The coasts, the sea, the Amazon in the north to the east and south and then the Andes. This was the seed of Mater Iniciativa. We wanted to build something with depth, with a sense that initially we could not see clearly. Now everything is very clear. Mater is about research, agriculture, botanic science.

Have you shown that gastronomy and science can talk 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 a scientist. It broadens its audience, which is in itself an incredible fact. But it is also something that requires great effort because you have to 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 from the ingredient. Constantly reviewing what you have done, making things better. Ultimately, have a positive impact on the environment.

Is it complicated to convey unknown ingredients and concepts?
It is difficult for us to explain to people what Mater is, what we do. To make something so complex, not for everyone, accessible. 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 not many people are willing to select what is important from what is not, to separate what is relevant from what is not. Our attitude must always be the more you know, the less you know.

With Virgilio you communicate very well through beauty. The beauty of places, restaurants, 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. When I see Virgilio creating his dishes, I think he has taken 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 the ancestral uses, the 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 really strong message for what we do: don't do the same thing a thousand times. The world needs to constantly rethink itself. Nature itself is asking for it.

Malena also catalogues all wild herbs through illustrations

Malena also catalogues all wild herbs through illustrations

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 are first and foremost an Amazonian nation, a fact that not even the people of Lima realise. We are completely disconnected from nature. Working with communities in the rainforests is more complicated than in Cuzco because they are not as used to tourism. And there are many social problems, the result of history: the slavery that followed the rubber fever, the drug trade, the landmines that still sow gold prospectors on the road. 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. A different approach is needed.

Can Mater Iniciativa extend beyond the borders of Peru?
Yes, because ingredients have no political borders. The Andes and Amazonia are ecosystems shared 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

Zanattamente buono

Gabriele Zanatta’s opinion: on establishments, chefs and trends in Italy and the world

Gabriele Zanatta


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

Author's articles list