Ricardo Zarate is on a roll. The chef opened Rosaliné in West Hollywood last summer, and Eater Los Angeles named it the hottest restaurant of the year. A few weeks ago, he announced a new Vegas venture, Once (pronounced on-seh), taking over Emeril Lagasse's Table 10 spot at The Palazzo in early March. Zarate essentially predicted his future in 2015 when he hosted the Once pop-up near Venice Beach, and he describes the original as a platform to explore new culinary ideas. When he opens his new 160-seat restaurant in Vegas, he plans to do the same.
"Once is an incubator," explains Zarate, who previously took PRØHBTD on a street-food tour in Mexico. "That wasn't the original intention, but the first Once pretty much incubated the concept that became Rosaliné. Once means 11 in Spanish, and I'm the eleventh child in my family. I did it for fun in 2015, but it created [the ideas that led to] Rosaliné. Now I have this opportunity in Vegas, and it's an incubator for a concept I'm bringing with Nikkei, which is the marriage between Japanese and Peruvian ingredients and techniques. I eventually want to present this concept to the rest of the world."
Nikkei cuisine first emerged in Lima shortly after an influx of Japanese farmers arrived in Peru in the late 19th century. The country already had a large Chinese population, who mixed Peruvian and Chinese gastronomy to create Chifa, and the Japanese farmers did the same in the early 1900s.
"So what is Nikkei?" Zarate asks rhetorically. "It means Japanese people who were born outside Japan. In the late 1800s, a big migration came from Japan to Peru, and they tried to cook their food, but they didn't have all the ingredients they had in Japan. Instead, they started cooking Japanese cuisine with local produce, which was not well accepted. Peruvians… we thought it was weird."
Despite the initial resistance to the fusion, the native Peruvians started to change their minds when the Japanese immigrants started to open restaurants in the capital.
"Most came to work in agriculture, but as they developed like any immigrant community, they started going to the capital and opening businesses, like restaurants," Zarate continues. "They started adding Japanese ingredients like miso, soy sauce, shoyu and wasabi to traditional Peruvian dishes. Not only that, the Japanese realized that we have such incredible diversity in the Pacific Ocean. We have the Niño and the Humboldt Currents crashing [in the water outside] Lima. We have all these cool temps for a very rich diversity of fish off the Peruvian coast. They were taking advantage of that because, at that moment, Peruvians were not that big on fish. The Japanese pretty much taught us how to eat more seafood. The Japanese-Peruvians created this concept called Nikkei cuisine, which was born in Peru."
In the 1970s, a 24-year-old named Nobuyuki Matsuhisa opened a Nikkei restaurant called Matsue in Lima, and he later moved to the U.S. and opened Matsuhisa in Los Angeles and Nobu in the New York City. The Japanese-born chef helped popularize Nikkei cuisine around the globe with a more mainstream approach, while Zarate has always pushed a more progressive and bold version of the cuisine, and even more so with Once. Several dishes are ready to go, such as a Peruvian-Chinese paella, but the menu will be in a constant state of evolution.
"The menu is gonna start with 11 dishes that will be staples, but then you're gonna have 11 specials, and this is where the incubator part comes," he says. "I'm gonna play with the flow. It's gonna be an exciting menu, but it'll change constantly."
Asked about specific dishes, he continues, "I'm thinking about sudado de mariscos, a seafood stew that goes in the middle of the table with a whole fish and a lot of seafood. Definitely causas. I'm gonna do a Korean hot plate like a tacu tacu, which is lima beans and rice, that will get crispy on the bottom, and then I'm gonna make a stew that will go on top. I'm gonna make a version of bistec a lo pobre."
Zarate, who released The Fire of Peru cookbook the same year he did the pop-up, also prepared for Rosaliné with a culinary journey to Japan, Thailand, Taiwan and Colombia, and this experience naturally plays a role in the menus at both of his current restaurants. In particular, Zarate embraces the dedication and precision he saw in Japanese food culture.
"Japanese culture is the guy who grows a vegetable all his life and dreams about having a farm, and when the farm becomes a reality, he grows this vegetable with so much care and passion and love," he explains. "He nurses the vegetable like a baby, but then he needs to sell it, so he gives the vegetable to the guy who transports it. That guy happens to be someone who, all his life, dreamed of having a transport company, so every time he gets into his truck, he makes every effort to take care of the produce. He drives slow and makes sure nothing happens to the package. Then he delivers it to the guy who's going to sell it, and this guy always dreamed of having his own store, so he takes care of the produce like nobody else. That's my description of Japan, and it's what I'm trying to do [as a chef]."
Coincidentally, the arrival of Once means Zarate now has restaurants in two of the nine states that legalized recreational cannabis. Asked what dish he'd like to infuse, Zarate said, "I would never do something sweet. I'm sick and tired of the sweet things like cookies, so I would go savory. Maybe I would make a marijuana ceviche. I would infuse the fish—I don't know if it's even possible—but I would grind the marijuana into a paste and wrap it around the fish and then make a nice ceviche or maybe a marijuana leche de tigre."
As a Peruvian, he also awaits the day when he can legally create dishes with coca, which are the Andean leaves from which cocaine is made. In the past, he actually made a coca leaf ice cream, but he has other ideas he'd still love to try.
"With coca leaves I can do a lot of things," he explains. "I can macerate them and make a really nice drink. Maybe I would create a green tea because coca leaves have a beautiful and distinct flavor. I could use it to make cakes or maybe a coca-leaf bread. There are so many things we could make, and the Incas consumed it for thousands of years."
Could these dishes fit into the Peruvian food canon as well? Arguably yes because the culture is all about absorbing influences and ideas, and cannabis and coca leaves are both part of Peruvian cuisine already.
"Peruvian cuisine has so many influences from different cultures—Italian, Spanish, Moroccan, Chinese, Japanese—and we've always been a sponge absorbing all this into our culture," says Zarate. "Peruvian cuisine is Nikkei cuisine. Peruvian cuisine is Chifa cuisine. It's all Peru. That's the concept that I'm creating with Once. We are always absorbing all this culture and merging it into what we have now."