STORIES

Ricardo Zarate Serves a Fish that Might Bite Your Balls Off

By David Jenison on July 5, 2017

Imagine that an Ivy League mathematician visits a poor South American town and chats with several young friends—all about six or seven years old, some without shoes—playing fútbol in a dirt field. One of the kids asks in Spanish, "What is the chance one of us will 'make it'?" The man runs the numbers for several minutes and then shakes his head: "If you are standing in front of three doors, you would have to pick the right door 10 times in a row. At those odds, none of you will make it." 

Ricardo Zarate, who grew up in a neighborhood like this in Lima, tells this analogy as a way to explain how far he's come. "Lots of people told my friends that we'd never make it, but they were wrong," he says. "I made it this far against all the probabilities."

Zarate—the second-youngest child in a family of 15—grew up during tough times for his family and the country, but he had such a natural cooking talent that his siblings pooled their money to send him to culinary school in London. A decade later, Zarate moved to Los Angeles, opened a tiny ceviche stand and landed on the cover of Food & Wine's Best New Chefs issue. By 2014, Zarate had multiple James Beard Award nominations and a small restaurant empire that included Mo-Chica, Paiche, Blue Tavern and Picca, but he stepped away from the limelight after an acrimonious split with his partners. The following year, Zarate consulted for several restaurants, did a low-key pop-up called Once, wowed the VIP dinner crowds at Coachella and released The Fire of Peru cookbook, and then in 2016 he headed to Japan, Taiwan, Thailand, Mexico and Colombia on a culinary-exploration trek. 

Fired up and ready to go, Zarate returns to the kitchen this month with his wildly anticipated new restaurant Rosaliné in West Hollywood. The chef, who took PRØHBTD on a street-food tour in Mexico last summer, now gives us a tour of Rosaliné several weeks before the open. He discusses the menu, which will include a piranha-related ball biter, but he starts by honoring the restaurant's true inspiration. 

What is the vision for Rosaliné, and how does it differ from your previous restaurants?

My vision for Rosaliné is to show how much I love cooking and that I will do it for the rest of my life. What is the difference between Rosaliné and the rest? Every restaurant was special, but this one is more special because it's a personal tribute to my mother. I'm not cooking my mom's old recipes, but if she was still alive, I would love to say, "Mom, look what I created." I'm making everything with extra, extra, extra love as if my mom was alive and I was showing her all the progress. This is Rosaliné. 

You always helped your mom in the kitchen. What did you do? 

I was about eight years old [when I started], but I don't remember a time when I wasn't helping her in the kitchen. My mom had to cook for 15 people, so multiply that by breakfast, lunch and dinner, and she made 45 meals a day. Actually, I was just in my hometown, and I asked one of my old neighbors, "How were the dinners in our house?" The neighbor said, "You had this big table where everybody sat down together, and you always made room for some of us." So my mom was always cooking for the whole family plus whichever friends and neighbors joined us.  

The first year I just cleaned the rice literally one grain at a time. We would buy two kilos of rice, and not all of it was clean, so I had to check them one by one. I would also take out the green English peas, and later she allowed me to start cutting the onions. She was training me.  

By regularly preparing food for 15 to 20 people at home, does cooking for large groups in a restaurant still feel like cooking for family and friends?  

Yes, 100 percent, and that's one of the reasons I became a chef. I grew up in a big family that always ate together, and I saw a lot of people—my friends, my family, my neighbors—coming into the house, so the restaurant brings back those positive memories.

You studied the culinary arts in Lima, but then your siblings helped you continue your culinary education in Europe. Tell me about that. 

I didn't know the word "chef," but I wanted to cook so I started taking courses. I paid to learn how to make pasta and different Peruvian dishes, but then I went to a culinary school. When I finished, I felt it was not enough, and a friend said, "Why don't you go to London?" I think it was the universe at work because three months later I was in London. 

You worked or studied in London? 

I went to culinary school for [another] three years, and I graduated as a chef from Westminster College, but I had to work [in kitchens] to sustain myself. Like a good immigrant anywhere, I worked my ass off, studied and made my contribution because, as an immigrant, you contribute to the culture around you by sharing. 

In preparation for Rosaliné, you traveled to several countries. What did you learn?

Traveling is very important for everybody, not only for food, but for human beings to understand that we're all the same. When I went to Japan, for example, I saw an advanced culture, and when I think about my country, I see that we're not that different. I see we have a chance, if we organize better and have patience with the process, to get there. My country is very rich—we have a rich culture, beautiful music, beautiful food, incredible ingredients—but Peru is [financially] a poor country, so that's why so many things are wrong. I'm very proud of all that Peru has, and I feel anything is possible there. 

What did I learn specifically? Many things. 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 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 with Rosaliné. 

How have you applied that mindset? 

I've been working on this [fermented] plum syrup. I visited the farm where I wanted to grow the plums, talked to the lady who runs it, helped her plant the plum trees and then made the syrup. It took one year for the plum syrup to be ready to serve to my customers, and I cannot be more proud because I know I helped make it with my own hands. We just got the syrup back and started fermenting the next batch, which will be ready in a year. 

The same thing with my plates. I didn't want to buy something from a catalog, so I got in touch with a guy who makes ceramics that I met five years ago at Picca. I wanted to know the guy and talk to him about it before he made all the plates for the restaurant. 

What about the other countries you visited?  

Taiwan, the same thing. I saw the passion of cooking. I saw this lady cooking in the street, and the flavors were unbelievable. That is how I grew up, eating amazing food in the street. In Colombia, it was the nice soups and the connection with the culture. Bogotá is a cold, high-altitude city, and they have these resources to create a lot of amazing stews and soups that are almost like mountain food. They are really tasty with all these available flavors. That's how you create good food: You need to use your local resources and be creative. 

Are you growing your own Peruvian peppers? 

I grow aji amarillo right now, but not rocoto because they are hard to grow here. I need to find the right place. Every time I have the opportunity to meet a farmer, I ask them to try, so we'll see. I'm dying to have Peruvian potatoes here. We have nearly 5,000 types of potatoes in Peru, and I just need five. So far I have not been able to grow them here, but I have a feeling these beautiful potatoes will eventually come. Peruvian cuisine is becoming well known around the world, but the ingredients are still a major difficulty. I hope I can contribute to bringing them here.  

Let's talk about the menu at Rosaliné. On some nights you are going to have piranha?

I am going to have pacu (pictured on the right). It's the same thing, the same family. 

So it's something that might eat me in the river?

If they don't have vegetables, they will definitely eat meat. 

(Note: Pacu has a reputation for biting off men's testicles, and it likes Jersey boys.)

You also have paiche on the menu. 

Yeah, another Amazonian fish. They call paiche the King of the Amazon because it feeds so many people in the rivers. Paiche can grow up to 600 pounds, and it's a river water fish so the meat is incredible. This fish is prehistoric, so it survived many thousands of years, but at one point the indigenous Peruvians nearly hunted it into extinction. They didn't control [the amount of fishing] until recently, but now they farm the fish for the first time so it's more sustainable. 

Anything else from the Amazon? 

I am very excited about the juane de chancho. It's like an Amazonian tamale with pork belly cooked in a banana leaf. 

What dishes are representative of Andean cuisine? 

The locro, which is a traditional Andean dish—like a stew—made with potatoes, pumpkin, corn, queso fresco, fried eggs. It's incredible. 

Do any dishes reflect the Moche culture from the north?

Arroz con mariscos. It's rice and seafood with shrimp, scallops, mussels, clams probably, and I'm going to put sea urchin in there. The pescado parrillero (pictured on the left) is from the north as well, and to learn this dish, I had to call my ex-girlfriend from when I was 16, and she had to call her mom in northern Peru. I remembered her mom would marinate the fish and then hang it outside to dry before grilling it. The dish was amazing. Her mom said, "By letting it dry in the sun, the flavor will get more intense and [the fish] more crispy."  

What about dishes from the central or southern coast? 

I have regional dishes from all different parts of Peru. From the south we have solterito. I actually got inspired to make this during my last trip to Peru, and it is a very traditional dish with pallares, which are Lima beans, and English peas and fresh garbanzos. 

Have you ever made anything with coca leaves? 

Mm-hmm. With coca leaves I can do a lot of things. I can macerate them and make a really nice drink. I once made coca leaf ice cream that was fantastic. Maybe I would create a green tea because coca leaves have a beautiful and distinct flavor. I did not play around too much with coca, but one of the things in my head is to make it into a white powder…. 

That's funny. 

I know that sounds bad, but as a powder, I could use it to make cakes or maybe a coca-leaf bread. There are so many things we could make, but unfortunately we cannot get it here yet. 

Hopefully someday.  

Oh my goodness, yeah, that would be incredible. I think they should allow coca to come [to the U.S.] because it's good. The Incas consumed it for thousands of years, and it's really important.  

Cannabis-infused edibles are huge in California now. If you were to make a Peruvian dish with cannabis, what would you make?

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. That will be good, yeah?

That would be amazing. 

Photo credits: Instagram Carla ChoyRicardo Zarate and Rosaliné. Pacu photo credit: WikipediaDavid Jenison (david@prohbtd.com) is Editor-in-Chief at PRØHBTD.

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