Celebrated chef Ricardo Zarate has been introducing Angelenos to Peruvian flavors for nearly a decade, and thanks to two newly opened restaurants he aims to bring a new wave of inventive, colorful dishes to Los Angeles.
You may have first heard of Zarate when he opened Mo-Chica in 2009, where he served upscale contemporary renditions of ceviches and other traditional Peruvian dishes from a small stall in Mercado La Paloma near USC. After receiving extensive praise and accolades, including being named as one of Food & Wine’s best new chefs, Zarate opened Picca in Beverly Hills, then expanded Mo-Chica to a larger space Downtown, and soon after opened Paiche in Marina Del Rey. While it seemed the expansion of his Peruvian mini-empire seemed boundless, Zarate had a falling out with his restaurant partners and departed from the businesses. Following the split, Zarate went on to consult with restaurants, host pop-ups, release a cookbook. He then set off on a culinary exploration that took him around the globe. Now, after taking time to travel, meditate, slow his pace and refocus his goals, the Peruvian-born chef has returned in full force.
Just last month, Zarate opened the much-anticipated Rosaliné, a stunning location in Beverly Hills focused on upscale Peruvian fare, including a ceviche bar, small plates and family-style shareables. Earlier this year he opened Mamacita in Hollywood, which offers creative, fast casual takes on Peruvian comfort fare, mostly in the form of wraps and bowls such as the short rib estofado, along with housemade drinks like purple corn chicha with kombucha. According to Zarate, both restaurants are inspired by his late mother, who sparked a very young Zarate’s lifelong passion for cooking.
“It's very special because this restaurant is really a tribute to my mom,” explains Zarate while sitting in the dining room of Rosaliné, which feels a bit like a modern greenhouse lush with hanging plants, natural woods and soft natural light from skylights. “She was a hard-working mom who for all of her life was dedicated to all of us, my brothers and sisters. I want anybody who comes in here, for them to feel like they are being taken care of like my mother did with love, passion, and that they can enjoy the moment. This restaurant is about my memories.”
Zarate reflects on his earliest memories of food, which he says was all about the smell of his mother’s cooking, even before he was old enough to eat solid foods. “I remember when I would wake up around 5 o'clock in the morning when it was still dark, and my poor mom was cooking already for all of us -- thirteen children,” he says. “My love for cooking started in the moment, when I would open my eyes. And that was my first connection to the cuisine. I'd wake up, go to the kitchen and watch my mom cook, and she'd give me my bottle of milk.”
Growing up in Lima as one of the second youngest of thirteen kids, Zarate remembers quietly observing the constant flurry of activity in his household — everyone buzzing around before school or work — as though it were a movie. “For me the memories and connections are in that little dream,” he says of the cinematic hum of activity, impressed by the sheer volume of food that his mother would produce to feed the small army. “I always thought my mom would have a restaurant, she's already cooked for so many.”
Zarate explains that his father bought a massive, industrial kerosene stove with three giant burners — not typical for most families they knew — because there were so many mouths to feed. The family also often welcomed neighbors over to eat, so fifteen people often turned into thirty five or more, he says. “Watching all of that was when I started getting into cooking, that's why I was never afraid to cook for a lot of people because I grew up into that.”
“The first day I cooked was for my family, and it was instant gratification,” Zarate says, adding that while everybody in the family was obligated to help with the cooking, not everyone seemed to enjoy it -- he loved it. The first dish he prepared was a thin, Peruvian rice pudding made with chocolate known as chufla, which he learned from his father. “My family said, 'Oh, this is amazing!' even though it was probably shit, but they were supportive. So I thought, 'Oh, maybe I'm good.’
As Zarate grew more confident with his cooking, he expanded his repertoire and soon became famous at home — and around the neighborhood — for his ceviche de pollo, a chicken stew with lemon and Peru’s bright yellow aji amarillo peppers, offering Peru’s signature acidity and flavorful heat. “I've never been able to replicate that dish in a restaurant because it's very much home cooking,” he says. “I love that dish.”
Later he focused on making anticuchos, beef heart skewers similar to ones he would later make at Picca, which he turned into his first business at only 11 years old. “I would cook in the kitchen and sell tickets to the neighborhood in advance for the anticuchos.” The young, entrepreneurial Zarate eventually developed a big enough following that he rented out the second floor of a nearby gallery for his business. “My friends would help me, and even though it wasn't allowed, we were selling beers to the adults.”
While Zarate says these days you can practically find a culinary school on every corner in Lima, at the time there were no major schools for the aspiring young cook. Instead he scoured the newspaper for postings about cooking lessons on specific dishes or techniques, and would pay people to train him. And anytime he attended a party, Zarate says, “I would head straight to the kitchen to talk to the mom,” who would teach him recipes.
“I'm coming from a Latin culture, so it's machismo — it's changing — but it was more that way,” Zarate admits. “And for a boy to go into the kitchen, they'd say, that's a girl’s job. So I was bullied a bit, and people were saying that maybe I'm gay, and I didn't care, I didn't pay attention to that because I was concentrating on what I love.” As he grew older, friends and brothers continued the teasing, saying, 'Oh, maybe he's not gay, maybe he's trying to score with the mom.' Again, I didn't say anything, but my mentality was, 'Why can't anyone think that I just simply like cooking.' But that was part of growing for me.”
Zarate eventually enrolled in what he thought was a cooking school, but soon realized was actually business management classes for restaurants and hotels. While he learned important business skills that would later help him, he was mostly disappointed that he wasn’t spending time in the kitchen. Soon after though, a friend returning from the U.K. encouraged Zarate to move to London, where his brother already lived, and pursue his culinary dreams there. “And the next thing I knew I was traveling at 19 years old to London.”
“I studied English while I was working -- cleaning offices, dishwashing -- the immigrant experience,” Zarate says. “And I paid my way through culinary school and was proud to say I graduated from Westminster College as a chef. It took me a long time, but I did it and I'm very proud.” Zarate went on to work at restaurants around London for the next 13 years, thinking he might make it his permanent home. That is, until a fateful trip to Los Angeles for a consulting job in 2003, lured him away with the prospect of more opportunities and more sunshine, “After I went back to London, I decided to move to L.A. to open my own restaurant.”
When Zarate arrived in Los Angeles, he observed a lack of Peruvian cuisine, a dearth he aimed to change. He also notes that at the time, much of the focus in L.A. was still on Hollywood and the movie industry. “I feel very Angeleno now, but I'm not going to deny that back then when people were talking about food in Los Angeles, they were saying it's not good,” he says. “When you'd talk about food you talked about New York or Chicago, and those were the only ones worth talking about in America, Los Angeles was not.”
But over the past ten years, Zarate notes, all of that has changed. “When I came here, I saw that Los Angeles had every single ingredient to be the most successful culinary scene in the world. And now it's happening, everyone is coming here. You have the perfect weather, you have all the cultures, and even the way Angelenos are dining right now, is completely different than before.”
Upon opening Mo-Chica, Zarate was determined to share with Angelenos an elevated version of Peruvian cuisine and introduce them to new flavors that were rooted in his training, experience, and Peruvian traditions. “When I presented my cuisine, I wanted to present it not as 'ethnic' cuisine,” he says. “I wanted to say, 'I'm Peruvian, and I'm equal to everyone here, and I'm going to compete with everybody with my cuisine.” Though, he admits, sharing his cuisine was not without its challenges, including trying to convince people that Peruvian ceviche was not eaten with tortilla chips as is often the case with Mexican ceviche.
“I think a lot of people in Los Angeles think that after Mexico, there's just South America,” he says of the difficulties in distinguishing Peruvian cuisine to those unfamiliar with it. “But we have a lot different, beautiful cuisines. There's Peruvian, there's Colombian, Brazilian, Bolivian, and all these different ones. But it's part of the process. Now with globalization, people are traveling more and even if they can't travel, you can travel through the internet and people are more connected. So it changes the mentality.”
While Zarate feels grateful that L.A. ultimately embraced Peruvian cuisine and his cooking, ultimately the pace of his success and growth was too fast. “I realized the direction I was going was not what I had planned,” he says. “So I thought maybe I need to stop. It was like driving a car at 100 mph, and it's beautiful when you're driving that car, but suddenly you realize, 'Wait a second, I want to stop and look at everything and enjoy this, because otherwise, it's just driving.' And that's why I needed to stop for a while. So I did my book, and then took my time with meditation, traveling, enjoying my kids, and now I'm ready.” He adds that while mistakes were made along that road, he’s learned a great deal and doesn’t hold hard feelings from the past, instead preferring to live in the present.
Zarate explains that his concept with Rosaliné is rustic meets modern, where some dishes are very traditional, others offer refined, contemporary spins, and some meet in the middle. As an example of a modern dish, he points to the tiradito de corvina on the ceviche menu, which features Ensenada sea bass, fiery yellow Amazonian charapita chili peppers, and a tamari yuzu walnut dressing. On the rustic side, he points to juane de chancho, which includes pork ossobuco with adobo, a soft tamale of garbanzos and corn and a boiled egg, all wrapped in banana leaf. “With Peruvian cuisine, there is always an element of being resourceful with ingredients, like any other ethnic cuisine,” Zarate explains. “So with the few Peruvian ingredients that I can get here, I need to stretch like elastic. I wish I had all the ingredients I had in my country, but it's coming.”
The diversity of cuisines and ingredients in Los Angeles has also inspired Zarate and his menus. One recent discovery was fermented green plum syrup used in Korean cuisine known as mashil, which he learned from friend Jean O. “My friend Jean is a kimchi genius, it's incredible,” Zarate says of the discovery. “She asked me for advice on the kimchi, and I said, there's nothing to fix, but let's make it so I can see the process and see if I can help. And she brought the syrup, it's a fermented plum syrup that her mother makes.” The syrup is made by fermenting the small tart plums in sugar for at least a few months with the color and intensity deepening the longer you let them sit. The syrup is sometimes used medicinally to help with digestion as it contains probiotics, but it’s also used to marinate meats and added to water for a refreshing lemonade-like beverage.
You’ll notice beautiful custom-blown glass jars of the golden amber mashil syrup hanging from shelves in the bar area of Rosaliné. “We're using it for some cocktails, and for dressings and in some dishes,” says Zarate. “It adds a sweetness, instead of using sugar or honey and it has an incredible floral flavor.” The current batches of the syrup have been sourced from a local farm, but Zarate is now fermenting several of his own batches at the restaurant with over 2,500 pounds of plums from the farm. Jean O adds, “Ricardo is such a great chef, and for him to use the plum syrup in his food is exciting. I hope it starts a revolution because we want more people to know about it and use it, especially chefs.”
Recently wondering if he’d ever move back to Peru from Los Angeles, Zarate admits, “Maybe not. I might be one of those immigrants who has kids and then they have kids here. And I hope they don't ever lose their connection to Peru, but it's part of life. We always move, we always immigrate. I think accepting that helps you establish yourself and grow. Like I said, I consider myself Angeleno now.”
“My passion for food is not only just for the food, but also for the history, the connections we pass along through life,” Zarate says. “My mother is no longer here, but I know she learned from my grandma, and now I’m passing that knowledge along. It's about learning and sharing, that's the most important thing. And for me to be sharing it in Los Angeles, I never in my life thought I would end up here.”