Ricardo Zarate is a lively chef who has been blessed with success. Currently operating three establishments in Los Angeles, Ricardo and his team recently expanded their reach up to Santa Barbara with the opening of Blue Tavern in November 2013. Ricardo’s food is classic fusion, not trendy fusion, but more rooted in the history of his own culinary experience.
From a young age Ricardo wanted to be a chef. He was born and raised in Lima, Peru, and was a part of a large family, cooking with his mother and sisters. He started at what he hoped to be a culinary school in Peru, but ended up learning about restaurant and hotel business administration. Needless to say, he was not enthralled. He was interested in learning how to cook, not how to run a business, although perhaps some of that early education in business is a factor in his current day success.
While lamenting with a friend about his inability to get a culinary education in Peru, his friend suggested that he move to London. His friend said that there were many restaurants and cooking schools in London, plus Ricardo had a brother living in London so it seemed like a good plan. After having the good fortune of an easy encounter with the visa officials, Ricardo was on his way and experienced full immersion into the British culture, including learning English. Ricardo says, “It was a fantastic experience, very hard. I learned a lot about myself. I got to study and became a chef.
It was in London where he studied Japanese cuisine and developed his knowledge and skill in executing this genre. It became his specialty and eventually led him to our fair city, Los Angeles.
There was one downside to living in London: the weather. Ricardo is a child of South America and was used to a temperate climate. He was prepared to spend the rest of his life in London when a consulting opportunity in Los Angeles brought him back to the sun. After living in the rain for 13 years, he was ready for some
Vitamin D. The consulting gig gave Ricardo eight months of living in downtown L.A., and he was hooked. He did have to go back to London for a few years, but in 2007 he made his way to Los Angeles as a permanent resident.
We chatted with Ricardo in September 2013 at the Hawaii Food and Wine Festival.
LAX: You’ve had enormous success.
Ricardo: Yeah, I’m very pleased with that.
LAX: Where do you like to eat in L.A?
Ricardo: My favorite cuisine is Japanese. I love Japanese food because of the simplicity and because it is very authentic to its roots. There’s not much influence from other cuisines. It’s very clean. I go to a lot of Japanese restaurants in Los Angeles such as Sushi Gen located downtown. I also love the Little Osaka neighborhood on Sawtelle. It’s close to where I live.
LAX: What else are you working on?
Ricardo: Right now we’ve opened three restaurants. I have a concept that I’m hoping to launch in the New Year. I’m a big believer in the next step in America. I believe that fast food is going to disappear, traditional fast food concepts, like McDonalds.
LAX: Do you think In-N-Out is going to go away? [Interrupts]
Ricardo: I don’t know about In-N-Out. But traditional fast food restaurants are either going to go away or have to make a tremendous change. People are more conscientious about what they put in their mouths. But the fast part of the fast food concept is not going to disappear because the society in which we live, people have to eat fast and we have to eat out because nobody is cooking at home. So I am trying to develop a fast food Peruvian concept — something that’s sustainable.
LAX: Do you ever feel like you’ve got too much? When is it enough?
Ricardo: I don’t know. I always ask this question. You know, this is what I dreamt of. This is my dream come true. When I opened up a restaurant, my business, this is what I said to my staff, “When I was young, I dreamt of opening a restaurant. Now this is my dream and you happen to be living in my dream. So when you are inside of my restaurant, please respect my dream because one day it’s going to be your dream.” I’m living my dream now.
LAX: Are you working a ton? How many hours a week do you work?
Ricardo: I don’t know.
LAX: Do you have a life outside work?
Ricardo: Yeah, I do, a lot actually, but I’m having fun. I’m not consumed by my job; I’m not trying to rush to get something done. I’m doing this because it’s what I love. I’m at a space in my life where everything is growing, opportunities come and we want to do the next step. We are not rushing because I want to grow sustainably. But I don’t know what is the limit.
LAX: What do you do for fun?
Ricardo: I like volleyball, I used to play a lot but I stopped because I got too busy. I like cooking a lot in my free time. To be honest, I happen to cook more now, at home, than before. Because before I was spending more time stuck in the kitchen and now we are building up a company and I am learning more about myself.
Named after the large, ancient fish of the Upper Amazon, Paiche is a relatively new restaurant for Ricardo and his team located in Marina Del Rey. It’s very close to the airport, just around the bend from where Lincoln hits MDR, on the east side of Lincoln in a new property development. The big draw of the restaurant is the quality of the cuisine. It’s a fusion of Peruvian and Japanese and the execution is practically flawless.
We especially enjoyed the ensalada de quinoa, which you mix at the table before consuming. The dish has a ton of shimenji mushrooms and crunchy quinoa. The quinoa becomes crunchy after a quick second in the deep fryer; it adds a wonderful texture and excitement to the healthy dish. Who would have thought that quinoa could be exciting? For a heartier dish order the grilled pacu ribs. They are made of fish meat but have the look and feel of a huge spare rib. The delectable meat falls apart in your mouth and it’s coated in a lime and miso sauce that will have you wiping the plate. Our only complaint was of the uni shrimp toast with rocoto honey sauce, which looks and sounds amazing but the flavor wasn’t there. Everything else was exquisite.
The cocktails are equally delicious. They are part of an evolving drinks menu presented by Deysi Alvarez. The pisco sour is a hit and goes down a little too quickly and the maracuya caipirinha is especially fun, served with muddled passion fruit.