Q&A: Mexico's Martha Ortiz on her new London restaurant Ella Canta
Martha Ortiz's Duce Patria in Mexico stands at 48 on the World's 50 Best Restaurants list – and she's now coming to London. She tells us about Mexico's food culture, cooking with colour, and why it's important to show your feminine side
By Lydia Winter
Published: Tuesday 2nd May 2017
There's no doubt that London's riding a Mexican wave – witness Breddos Tacos, Corazón and El Pastor – but there's another opening this year that that we're even more excited about: Ella Canta at the InterContinental Park Lane.
It comes from Martha Ortiz, one of Mexico's top chefs, and it'll be one of the first restaurants from Mexico with a permanent site in London.
Ortiz's Mexico City restaurant, Dulce Patria, is well-established on the list of the World's 50 Best Restaurants, and is famed for its kaleidoscopic use of colours – probably something to do with the fact that Ortiz is the daughter of famous Mexican artist Martha Chapa. These colours, Ortiz says, are the way she likes to show her femininity when she's cooking.
She tells us why it's a great time to be a female chef, why she loves about food, and why London needs a Mexican restaurant like Ella Canta.
How would you describe Ella Canta?
It's going to be a different, feminine, colourful restaurant at the InterContinental Park Lane. We care a lot about authenticity, so we'll be making a lot of interesting things from scratch – it's going to be a place where you'll learn about the richness and the heat of Mexican culture through the food.
What will the food be like?
There are two spaces in the restaurant. One is going to be in the style of a cantina, where you'll have cocktails from Mexico, with spirits like mezcal and tequila.
The other space is the dining area, where we'll be focusing street-food flavours, with a special focus on moles – although the menu is still a secret. There's going to be a beautiful tart with cacao, too. The dishes will all tell stories.
What we really want to do is show how the food in Mexico is part of the country's identity, and how the food runs through our culture. We want to share Mexico's history with the world. The dishes will be like paintings, with the colours and the high contrast that we have in Mexico – that's something that you don't have here. It will be a good experience for Londoners!
What are you going to do about Mexican ingredients?
Now that there are more Mexican restaurants, there are more Mexican products. The ones you don't have here, we'll bring from Mexico. And we're very happy to promote these Mexican producers here, because the more people know about Mexican produce, the more business these small companies will be able to do here and in Europe. I don't want to come to the UK, I want to bring the people who I think are fantastic with me from Mexico.
Do you have a favourite dish?
I love the black mole, because it tastes the way it looks. Black mole comes from Oaxaca, it's made from a particular chilli called chilhuacle negro, which I think is the aristocracy of chillies. It's refined, it's expensive, but the flavour is very earthy. When you eat our black mole, it's like you're tasting the night.
The mole really shows the way I like the cook: I love to take the tradition of Mexico and pull it through to today. And I also like to cook with colour. I love being a female chef, creating with colours and showing my femininity.
Is showing your femininity very important to you?
Of course. Being a female chef in Mexico is a challenge, and it's really hard work. You have to have a lot of passion. But it's the same everywhere. Look at the marches that have been happening in the States – I was there and I joined in.
In Mexico, there are maybe only five or six well-known female chefs, and about 40 men. It's difficult – there's a strong Catholic heritage, and a 'macho' culture. But it's a great moment to be a woman, too.
Martha Ortiz's colourful cooking – in pictures:
What would you do if you weren't a chef?
I would work in a restaurant. Or as a producer, maybe of maize. I like to work with food, it makes me feel so alive.
I've always loved it – when I was a little girl, I decided that my country is so gastronomic that I had to cook. There's a family tradition of us cooking so I started very young, but I studied political science at university because my father was very strict about having a degree.
I didn't go into politics, but I'm still being political by creating good food
After that I travelled through Mexico because I wanted to learn more about the food, and I saw traditional cooking. I always think traditional Mexican chefs are like magicians. They're making magic with chillies, corns and beans.
I then went to New York, where I worked as a waitress and in restaurant kitchens. I'm autodidactic – my formal education was only in political science.
I didn't go into politics, but maybe I'm still being political by creating good food. It's just a different was of doing it.
What ingredient do you always have in your fridge?
A lot of passion. It's true! I've been married twice. Chilies, too. Did you know that they have more vitamin C than oranges? I love chilies, I think they're like lovers. It's so sensual to have the chilli in your mouth, and they give you that memory. It's like a kiss from a good lover.
Opening mid-summer; ellacanta.com