In the first part of our interview with Ricardo Zarate, the Mo-Chica chef talked about, among other things, his upcoming Peruvian skewer bar, Anticucho, which he plans to open in September in the neighborhood of Beverly and Pico if all goes as planned. In the second part of the interview (turn the page), Zarate continues the discussion, about Peruvian food in Los Angeles, how much he loves barracuda, and the challenges of sunlight, soccer and travel during his 12 years in England.
Check back later for Zarate's recipe for Aji de Gallina. If, after reading this, you have a sudden overwhelming desire to eat at Mo-Chica, you would do well to call the restaurant before swinging by unannounced, at least today. Zarate is having his 11th Tasting Menu dinner this evening, a sweet deal at $35, but which requires reservations. Zarate does these dinners once a month, and has since shortly after he opened (if you do the math, this tells you that Mo-Chica is almost exactly a year old). With live music and the city's best Peruvian ceviche, you might put it on your calendar for next month if they're booked tonight.
SI: And so do you think people are getting Mo-Chica now?
RZ: One day I had on this t-shirt, it has the Mo-Chica logo, and I was buying something at Whole Foods, and some guy says, Hey! Mo-Chica. That was funny; that was good. It's tough, this location, very tough. Because no alcohol. But we have support. Locally it's very tough because even if you think the price is affordable, in this area it's very high. I get a lot of complaints locally. This is the max I can go down, because the ingredients are very expensive. I mean, I'm doing a lot of magic. I buy things from the farmers market, I get to know the suppliers, I shop at Grand Central. I have to be creative. Now is the season for local sea bass, barracuda. I sometimes call it kamasu, the Japanese name. I prefer to call it kamasu because when I call it barracuda people get scared. It's such an amazing fish, it's really good. The sea bass now is in season, from Santa Barbara. Albacore is coming in about a month. I'm going like three times a week to the fish market. Today I woke up at 3 o'clock in the morning to go.
SI: Are there many other Peruvian restaurants in this town?
RZ: There are a lot of other Peruvian restaurants, but they're very ethnic, you know? I have very strong roots but I think what I did with Peruvian food is I cleaned it up. The flavors are more clean. There are a lot of restaurants, but they're more traditional. Since I came here, I've maybe eaten in two different Peruvian restaurants. I think it's going to grow up, it's going to become big. In San Francisco, Peruvian food is already very big. A lot of restaurants. The diners are a little different in Los Angeles, I would say a little bit. It's more compact there.
SI: The neighborhoods are smaller.
RZ: Yeah, I mean here in Los Angeles it's tough. It's tough to open a restaurant. When I went to San Francisco it reminded me a little bit of London. You can open anywhere and people come, a lot of neighbors come. Here you need to drive everywhere, you have the parking, it's tough. But it's not impossible. And I think if you can come here to Los Angeles then that's it, you can go anywhere in the world.
SI: So how did you end up in London in the first place? You're from Lima, right?
RZ: I'm from Lima, I studied culinary in Lima. When I was little I liked cooking. And now, I can't believe I did it. I was 16 years old, I made a banquet for a big corporation. I happened to know the guy and I said, I can do it. I made for 600 people, and I cooked in my house. I don't know how I did it. I remember they paid me $3,000, which was a lot of money in Peru. I was feeling rich. I went to the fish market, I asked my friends from the neighborhood to help me, I was buying octopus. And at that time I remember I was eating at my friend's house and I tried one dish, which was octopus with this sauce and I really loved it and I said, How do you make this? Can you teach me? So she taught me everything about this dish. I didn't know I was eating sashimi. It was octopus with shoyu and wasabi. And this is the first time I'd had wasabi. And they told me, you need to go to this market, buy this, make this. It was very successful. I remember it was with sesame oil and chiles. This was the 1990s.
And I studied culinary. I finished my degree in hotel and restaurant management; that was about three years. Right when I finished, I had a friend from London and he was working there, he got some money and opened a business, and he asked me to help him. I felt frustrated because I felt I didn't know that much. I was always complaining to him that I needed to know more. He was telling me that I needed to go to London, that London had a lot of restaurants. He put that idea in my head. So I went there and applied for a student visa. And that was it. I couldn't say one single word in English. I was lost in the airport. I was completely lost. My friend was supposed to pick me up, and then my plane was changed. I flew to Miami. And the lady there, it was a really bad experience for me. She was talking really bad to me, she was Cuban: I know you, you're going to stay in this country, blah blah blah. I said, I'm not going to stay here, you're the one who stayed here, I am going to London. She made me stay there — I'm talking about 16 years ago — with a policeman. And then they sent me to Heathrow.
I was supposed to fly to Gatwick. So my friend was waiting for me at Gatwick, which is almost three hours away. So when I got to Heathrow I was lost. You know, Peru didn't have trains underground; it was the first time in my life I'd ever gotten into a train. I could tell you many things that happened to me… So finally my friend managed to find out where I was. I was supposed to arrive at 8 o'clock in the morning; already it was 5 o'clock. We went right to Picadilly. My friend said, I need to go to work, so leave your bags here and just walk around. I was walking and I went to this mall and I saw this cinema, and I bought a ticket. And I went inside the cinema and when I came out–it was about 10 o'clock at night–when I went outside I saw the sun and the daytime and I almost went crazy. In Peru, we're right at the equator. I thought it would be dark and I was like, What's going on? Oh my god. It was one very long day.
Then I started working there, and I studied English. I studied culinary also in London. I went to Westminster. I did my homework. And that's it, now I'm here and I don't want to move from here.
SI: How long were you in England?
RZ: 12 years. I do miss it sometimes. Because the city is very compact, more friendly. Here we're a little selfish; everybody's used to their own space, you don't need to talk to anybody. That's why restaurants with communal tables are very successful, because it's a way to interact. I think people in Los Angeles need that. Because there's no public transport. At least in London everybody moved in the public transport, so you saw other people. Here you are in your box, your car, going to your job. I miss it for that, a little bit. But I love it. I've learned to become a good immigrant (laughs). So I think, wherever I go, I establish myself. I don't have problems with that. I like Los Angeles. I'm going to stay here.
SI: Well, you're opening up new places here. That's a good sign.
RZ: Plus, I became an American citizen. My father used to live here for many years, in New York. My father asked me [if I wanted to come here], he applied for me. When I was young, in Peru, I said no, I didn't want to go to America. So I went to London, and when I came here, because of the hotel, they reopened the case. And they gave me the residency visa, I was lucky. And then last year I became a citizen.
SI: Those of us who love your cooking are very happy you decided to stay.
RZ: Yeah. That's pretty much my story.
SI: Thank you. Now we can watch soccer [there's a television in the Mercado near Mo-Chica, which was broadcasting a World Cup game].
RZ: Yes. I think soccer in a few more years is going to get better. Yeah, American soccer. It's the only sport in the world where everyone is united. I was talking to somebody about this, you know, about North Korea and South Korea. They completely hate each other, but they are playing football now. If football becomes more popular here it would be really great. Here they call basketball the World Championship. It's not the world, you know? The world is the world. You need to go outside.
SI: Did you get into English soccer?
RZ: Yeah, yeah. I used to support my local team there, which was Chelsea. I went to the stadium many times. Now here I'm starting to get into it. I'm teaching my son. He's four years old. Now he likes basketball. I'm like, Not basketball. But it's their choice. Any sport is good.