When’s the last time you had an epiphany? Sometimes it happens when you see someone accomplishing something amazing. Sometimes it may happen after a song you hear. Or sadly, even when you lose someone close to you. For me, the most significant ones came to me in the form of words. Before Jeni and I went to Buenos Aires for our honeymoon, I was graduating on to my sixteenth year of smoking. One night, we were walking around looking for Argentine steaks and I stopped in front of a wall. The epiphany came in the form of a small mural of a spray-painted flower and hand-written words, “Don’t smoke. Enjoy life”. At that moment, I happened to be holding a cigarette. I looked at my hand and watched as wisps of smoke slowly wrapped around my hands like some sort of evil spirit consuming me. It was then that I realized how badly I wanted to quit and how much of a slave I’ve become to nicotine. And much to my own surprise, I decided to drop it and put out the cigarette. A few blocks later I threw away the whole pack of cigarettes and lighter. I didn’t know if I would regret it an hour later when I wanted to smoke again. But thankfully, I’ve been clean for at least fifteen months now.
The most recent epiphany happened as I was walking along Sunset Blvd. one weekend as I came across a store window quoting, “it’s not where you’re from, it’s where you’ve been”. I was reminded why Jeni and I travel so much. How we work as hard as we can so that we can step outside of where we live. We knew of four or five people that sadly passed away way too young last year – inspiring us to not take things for granted and to do things while you still could. My biggest fear is hearing myself say “I wish I had done this.” In this second edition of A Side of Salt story, you’ll learn that sometimes, you have to move around just to move on up. You’ll understand the benefits of never giving up on what you love. You’ll learn that one of Los Angeles’s most revered and underrated chef had his epiphany when he was only 12 years old. And you’ll see why Ricardo Zarate of Mo-Chica rightfully deserves the Food & Wine 2011 People’s Best New Chef award.
The first time we met Chef Ricardo Zarate wasn’t during our first visit to Mo-Chica, but rather the fourth visit. Mo-Chica, a tiny Japanese-Peruvian eatery in a quaint, Latino-dominant food court by the University of Southern California, was starting to pick up steam after it was touched by Gold. The food court offers various Latino food, including one of my favorites Chichen Itza, but it’s clear which restaurant stands out the most and draws the most eaters. During the earlier visits, the girls in our dining group would check out a certain young cook in the back wearing a bandana. One of my friends wanted to meet him and I decided to play matchmaker and bring him over to the table. I assumed he was the chef since he was the only one really visible cook in the tiny kitchen and seemed to be calling the shots. I introduced myself to “Richie” and then brought him over to our group, in hopes of him catching a glimpse of my friend, but she chickened out. Over three visits, we had mistakenly thought that “Richie” was none other than Chef “Ricardo” Zarate. It wasn’t until we came to the fourth tasting that we realized that the friendly server/host guy humbly wearing a green Mo-Chica t-shirt was actually the Chef Ricardo Zarate. We would eat the food each time and think about how good the food was and at such a low cost. It was obvious that Zarate is a good chef, but what really resonated with me was his cheery disposition, humble attitude and face of diligence. It’s that type of personality that makes me want to come back and bring him business. I had a feeling that sooner or later, Mo-Chica would be too small for this big fish.
Ricardo Zarate was born in Lima, Peru in 1973. He is the eleventh of thirteen children and as most large families operate, each sibling has his/her responsibility in the family. The eldest would do more of the business and financial ends and the youngest doing most of the domestic work. One duty each family member was responsible for was cooking. Whether or not they liked it, each of the Zarate children went through the kitchen like they were on a production line. According to Zarate, he enjoyed helping out in the kitchen most. It wasn’t until he was at his mother’s friend’s place where he first had his culinary epiphany. His mother’s friend had taught him how to prepare what was basically octopus sashimi with soy sauce and wasabi – a dish that would many years later define his current style of cooking. From there, a passion for cooking began to grow like a flame and Zarate was only 12 years old. Not as impressive as Jacques Pepin leaving for culinary training at the age of 13, but still astonishing.
As the eleventh child in the family, he was the most “famous” cook in the Zarate household and began taking the responsibility of cooking for the whole family a few times a week – impressing everyone including friends and neighbors. He focused a lot on Peruvian classics and desserts and would even write out the menu on paper and place them on the tables and refrigerator. At the age of 16, his destiny would be decided one evening when the Zarate family decided to cater a large corporate banquet – with Ricardo as the young head chef. According to Zarate, he knew the corporate head and told him he could host the dinner at his family’s place, “I can do it.” How many 16 years old do you know that can cater a banquet for 600 people? It was obvious where Zarate’s road would lead him.
When he turned 18, he enrolled in a local institute in Lima called Las Americas which offered courses in hotel management and hospitality, in preparation for his future restaurant. Yet he wasn’t in the kitchen as much as he wanted to be – where he truly belonged. For a while, things remained the same with little progress as Zarate would still need a few years to complete the training. Were it not for his friends, Arturo Garzon and Miguel Choy and one of his brothers, Zarate could still be in Lima to this day. Garzon was working in London as a cook and came back to Peru and told him about the big fortune and life he had in London, inspiring Zarate with each and every detail. Garzon ended up opening a pub in Lima in 1991 and employed Zarate to work for him. But after a few months, Zarate was unsatisfied with his growth as a chef. Hungry to learn and advance, he approached Garzon. Garzon said that he could land him a job at a restaurant in London, but under one condition, that he became a line cook in under 6 months or be “let down”. But his friend knew of Zarate’s fierce determination and work ethics, having total faith in him. Several times throughout our conversation, Zarate reminded me that he is completely stubborn and unwilling to give up in anything he does. Zarate’s eyes widened with joy and accepted the challenge from his friend. A year later, he was given a VISA and bought a one-way ticket to London.
If achieving an ambition was devoid of obstacles, it wouldn’t be an ambition. As with any feel-good story of accomplishment, there’s always strife, conflict and self-realization involved. If Zarate’s story was processed through the fairytale machine, we’d end up with Zarate landing in London, becoming an executive chef at a 4-star restaurant in under one year, receiving Michelin stars and living happily ever after with a hot tub full of naked ladies and lifetime supply of Dom Perignon. But that would be completely far from reality. Zarate’s dreams started in the back of the dish washing station at Benihana, which according to him, was a hot commodity in the London dining scene in the ’90s. We both let out a laugh. And knowing Zarate personally, he wouldn’t have wanted his success to be handed to him that easily. Before leaving to London, Zarate told Garzon, “I’m going to be the best dishwasher there is… and I’m going to be a line cook under 6 months.”
For those that have not been to Benihana, the restaurant serves teppanyaki, which is a style of Japanese cuisine cooked on a flat-surface grill also known as a griddle. Versus cooking the food in the kitchen, the kitchen comes to you. The diners are seated around the grill with the teppanyaki cook in the middle dishing out food to everyone. To the English and even American tourists today, much of the allure of Benihana comes from the fast, entertaining griddle-to-plate action each cook is trained to do. Think of them as “entertainers that can cook”. People love seeing their food being prepared in front of them, and even more when the cook slides 4-5 sizzling shrimp from his spatula on to your plate in .23 milliseconds. According to Zarate, this was a highly-coveted position within the Benihana corporation, requiring much training and even testing by corporate chefs. Any free time or breaks from dish-washing, Zarate would ask questions and learn through watching.
After a few months, Zarate approached the head chef and expressed interest in becoming a teppanyaki cook. At that time, there were only four positions available as a teppanyaki cook and they were also occupied by talented cooks of Japanese descent. I’m sure it was set up that way to maintain the brand of being an authentic Japanese institution. They also had to speak English to communicate with the customers as well as entertain. Zarate was Peruvian with almost zero English speaking skills. He was declined the opportunity and devastated. But as luck would have it, an essential call from his friend Garzon back in Peru gave Zarate one chance to prove himself. He would have to show the chefs he was capable of passing the corporate test to become a teppanyaki cook. Zarate worked a grueling 14 hours a day as a dishwasher, but during free time and after closing, he would practice on teppanyaki grills with no heat and cold food. I imagined this to look similar to the cliché scene in the movie where a boxer practices in the ring alone late at night before the big fight – focused and passionate. A few months went by and on the sixth month, Zarate faced the test administered by the Benihana corporation. It was the first time he got to cook with actual heat and the second time London’s Benihana promoted a Latino face to represent their restaurant (after Arturo Garzon).
For the next two years, Zarate managed to entertain his diners at Benihana with his speed and 30-word vocabulary which included, “yes, “okay“, “sure” and “bon appetit” – which isn’t even English. In the 90’s, he was making decent cash as a cook in London at nearly $900 a week, most of which he sent back to his family back in Peru. Due to his interest in furthering his culinary education, Zarate would stay no more than two years at each restaurant for the next decade. Remember his epiphany after eating the octopus sashimi with soy sauce? It wasn’t until he worked at his second Japanese restaurant that he realized the influence the Japanese had on Peruvian cuisine. “I had no idea I was eating Japanese food! I thought it was Peruvian!” he exclaimed. According to Wikipedia, Peru has the second largest population of Japanese in the southern hemisphere due to the demand for sugar cane production. He stated that Nobu Matsuhisa of Nobu had spent a good part of his life as well in Lima and his restaurants today are a result of the two countries cuisine styles fused together. So it was only natural that Zarate would cook food that was closest to his heart: Japanese Peruvian.
The food that you eat at Zarate’s Mo-Chica, at the conceptual restaurant Test Kitchen and forth-coming Picca comes from Zarate’s more-than-fifteen years of Japanese culinary training. At the 30-year old Ayko Ku Kaku, which was London’s first Japanese restaurant, he learned the art of making sushi. He also used his knowledge of cooking Peruvian anticuchos in mastering the Japanese yakitori grill. At Itsu, a modern conveyor-belt sushi restaurant, Zarate found his creative side as he was responsible in making small dishes enticing enough for the diners to select and eat. At the restaurant in the five-star One Aldwych Hotel, he merged his Japanese knowledge with European style cooking through a famous, french-trained chef from New Zealand. At the private and elite Colony Club of the Metropolitan Hotel, he was able to learn how to cook English, Chinese, Middle Eastern, Italian and Thai food. With all this knowledge, his skills were more honed than ever. It was again time for Zarate to move – not back home to Peru, but to Los Angeles. From 2003 to 2007, Zarate continued to work as a chef in various Japanese restaurants and his impression in Los Angeles’ dining scene was about to be made.
The Mercado de Paloma is a food court with no more than eight eateries, typically serving food to a Latino majority. Zarate wanted to introduce nouveau Peruvian cuisine to Los Angeles and felt MDP was the perfect place to open his restaurant. While most of the eateries there will fill you up on no more than $6 with a drink, Zarate’s least expensive entree dish is $11 and as high as $18 – nearly three times the amount of the food offered in the food court. This price point would be an obvious red flag. But as we’ve learned about Zarate’s undying commitment to cooking and stubborn attitude, he decided to open Mo-Chica in 2009. For nearly three months, Zarate experienced the pain and heartbreak of running a restaurant. It’s not that the food wasn’t delicious, it was more the fact that the people willing to pay that price point for food didn’t know about it. Rachael Ray made a living talking about how you could spend $40 a day in any given city. Ricardo Zarate was making $40 in sales each day – for months. $40 is barely enough to cover the cost of a few pounds of fish used for ceviche! He ended up chipping away at his savings just to pay for food costs and staff. But this is in line with the ideology that in order to really win, you have to know what it’s like to lose.
And for those that choose to endure hardship, there is usually a reward involved – in this case, a Golden one. From here, things for Ricardo Zarate couldn’t be better. About a month after Jonathan Gold wrote about Mo-Chica, the tables started filling up. Soon, Zarate began offering seven-course dinners for a jaw-dropping $35. He filled the food court with indistinct chatter, people of all ethnicities and Latin music – with everyone leaving full and content. A few months later, Zarate became involved with a temporary restaurant concept called Test Kitchen that made dining in Los Angeles even more exciting. For months, various chefs including Michael Voltaggio and Walter Manzke would offer multiple-course meals for a reasonable fixed price. But all of this was in preparation for two restaurants and a bar to be opened on the current Pico Blvd. property. One of them being Zarate’s forthcoming restaurant Picchu, an homage to Peruvian-style robata grilling known as anticuchos. And to really seal the deal, Zarate was recently voted as Food & Wine’s People’s Best New Chef of the Pacific.
Left to Right: Richie, Zarate’s sous chef. Grilled Spot Prawn with yuzu kosho oil.
Left to Right: Grilled peach. Grilled beef tongue with sauce.
If you’ve read this far, I applaud you as it was as long of a read as it was to write. Zarate is someone I respect and feel inspired by. It was important to recognize Zarate’s achievements and hopefully let his story inspire you to follow your ambitions. His career is appropriately themed “from dishes to riches”, but if you’ve talked to Zarate, you’ll know he is not interested in showing off any sort of wealth. To me, he’s rich with self accomplishments and experiences. It’s taken Zarate over twenty years to stand where he’s standing right now and I hope that you’ll be able to try his food sometime soon before his tasting menus start costing upwards of $150. All of this happened because of an epiphany he had at the age of 12. Congratulations again to Chef Ricardo Zarate for the 2011 Food & Wine nomination and thanks for reading.
Read A Side of Salt. One: Ov Heang Chhun, a survivor of the Khmer Rouge.