Juan Luis Martínez’ Mérito: Listening to the voice of the road
Photographs courtesy of Restaurante Mérito.
Charcoal-baked scallops, glazed pork belly with arepas, tumbo tiger’s milk, BBQ corn and huancaína (yellow chilli pepper sauce), pan-fried custard apple, and ‘the Flan’ – these may all ring a bell if you are familiar with Latin American cuisine. They are featured in the current menu of Mérito. This Venezuelan-owned restaurant, in the most hipster district of Lima, opened its doors in 2018 and immediately found a place on my list of unique food destinations, along with the one my father used to take me to when I was a kid, and other places special to me in Paris, Geneva, Istanbul, Nara, and Rome. In 2020, Mérito was named among the best 50 restaurants in Latin America.
I interviewed its owner Juan Luis Martínez, who arrived in Peru prior to 2018 and the pandemic, on the themes of migration and identity.
(Disclaimer: no tiger was harmed or forcefully milked for this interview.)
Javier Ormeno: Some people say that Mérito is a Peruvian-Venezuelan fusion kitchen, but I have to disagree with them. Certainly, when I come here, I feel Venezuela and Peru, the whole two identities, but there is more to it. Something that is very Mérito. Maybe we can talk about this and how we got here.
Juan Luis Martínez: We started Mérito in 2018 by bringing a proposal that integrates Peruvian and Venezuelan cuisine, it couldn't be any other way. After spending some years learning and working at Central (ranked within the top 50 restaurants in the world), I took a couple of years off travelling, exploring ways of cooking and conveying a culinary experience. Then, with the support of friends and family, we opened our doors.
The base of our kitchen is the flavours and ways of cooking of my native Venezuela, as well as welcoming Peru. Both cuisines use garlic, onion and ají (chilli). Sweet ají in Venezuela and hot ones in Peru. We cook with produce and achieve base flavours using alternative ingredients. For instance, rather than lime for obtaining sours, we use cold-pressed native sachatomate, and we get sweetness from yacón root extract.
JO: And yet there is something about other places here… like a recollection.
JLM: Well, I stayed here [in Peru] more than in other places. My child was born here. Before I considered myself a foreigner, I spent my teens and early twenties studying in the US, with my life split between two countries. I think I learned a bit about staying when you stay and moving forward when you leave. At 27, I reconnected with my roots, learning Venezuelan cuisine. I undertook some internships in Spain and continued my studies in Paris, and then worked in Bordeaux and Madrid. I came here after that. After Central, I had the idea of opening a place of my own. I spent some time mapping places, a geography of flavours. I wanted a place that shows my mixed identity and also the places that I have experienced. The old and the new, the close and the foreign.
While Cuzco (one of the main tourist destinations) would do well for a restaurant, I felt Barranco in Lima would do better with its artsy environment, the culture, ceramic workshops where we acquire our plates and overall, its proximity to the ocean. This is very important for me. All this is what I want to share with our guests.
JO: Modern kitchen and organic memory represent places where you have been. But more than the tasty food, you offer the experience of hospitality. This is also about materials and interior design, and the way you work, right?
JLM: Yes. The architecture of our place is all about this. For instance, we uncovered the original adobe bricks of the building to show the history of the neighbourhood. The simple uncomplicated lines of the furniture are inspired by minimalism and Japanese restaurants that invite you to enjoy, without the stress of more formal restaurants. I privilege the comfort of our guests. With physical proximity, we can establish a rapport with them. Our kitchen is open and clients sit at a bar exposing the raw vegetables we use. This setting emphasises the relationship between hosts and guests. Every bit of my experience in diverse countries is juxtaposed here.
JO: A representation of what you have gathered on the way.
JLM: Living in different places has taught me to be receptive to people’s sensitivities. Listening to a voice in your heart that tells you how to be present. I think I created something that speaks to the self.
What I express is my appreciation for different cultures, history, and traditions. I cook something that people can relate to. For me, learning to cook helped me understand my own culture. I present my dishes hoping that the flavours contribute to our customers' appreciation of their own cuisine and foreign cuisines, of their culture and other cultures. There is an interplay between familiar flavours and not-so-familiar ones that leads to an expansion of experience.
JO: It seems like the sense of what is familiar to us is a door to a bigger world.
JLM: This restaurant is driven by friendship and family. We of course have different roles but not a hierarchy. We keep a balance between Peruvian and Venezuelan staff. The crisis has affected us all and we are conscious of the problems which migrants and locals have. Working together we manage to keep continuity. We aim to keep things simple and candid. Being able to speak is important. Sometimes we have differences or challenges and we overcome them as a group of friends. We trust each other and this we try to convey.
JO: It shows every time I visit…
JLM: Having personal relationships is important for creating the environment.
JO: In the middle of a global crisis of economic and political instability, you have gambled by enlarging your business.
JLM: We were entertaining new ideas when the first lockdown was announced. The pandemics certainly have hit us hard. We were no longer able to host people at the restaurant. Bringing our full experience to our customers was a challenge. We supported business continuity by adapting our offer with easy-to-pick-up items, like sandwiches. This was supposed to be a trial, so we called it DEMO, like the demo cassettes bands used to send to producers. With the support of my family and the team, we invested, so that once restrictions eased, DEMO opened as a French bakery-inspired café.
JO: One little brother of Mérito that has its own character, I may add.
JLM: We have adapted, integrating other ways of being, or expressing them and sharing our hospitality with our clients. I'm happy this is progressing well. I like making bread and pastries.
JO: Speaking of desserts, please remember, DO NOT give me the recipe of one of the best flans I've ever tried.
JLM: It's actually a Spanish recipe. It arrived there from intermingling [of cultures], from people coming and going and from their ways of cooking. This flan itself is a descendent of Arab, Spanish, Basque, French, and now Peruvian cultures. It was given to me years ago and took me some time to perfect it using the local ingredients.
JO: I wonder how you do it.
JLM: Listening to the voice of the road [smiles]. Tracing and reconstructing flavours teaches you a lot about the world and yourself. Following that voice, maybe you can become something bigger…
JO: Listening to the voice of the road is a very important piece of advice for people on the move and our readers. It makes a nice ending for this meeting. Thank you.
With a philosophy background, Javier got involved in humanitarian action around the globe, working for the Red Cross Movement between 2008 and 2019. His MA in Human Rights (UCL) was an opportunity to reconnect with academia and articulate his experience. His research links arts and justice (including transitional justice, LGBT+, migration rights, and identity). Besides being involved with the Theatre of Transformation, he is a Research Tutor for Diplo Foundation. His interest in performance and pottery seems to be somehow related to his self-declared addiction to matcha. Javier is a Spanish editor at Routed Magazine.