Ricardo Zarate's path has been a little more circuitous even than most chefs', a peripatetic lot in general. His life in the kitchen began in his native Lima, Peru, where as a teenager he cooked banquets for hundreds and learned from a friend's mother how to make sushi. Then from culinary school in Peru to a dozen years in London sushi restaurants and a stint working for Gordon Ramsay, of all people. And thus to Los Angeles and a colorful mercado just south of downtown, where Zarate opened his tiny cevicheria Mo-Chica in 2009.
Two years later, Zarate, in the process of opening his second and third restaurants, has received a Food & Wine 2011 Best New Chef prize, was a victor in this year's Grilled Cheese Invitational's “Thunderdome,” and just signed on as a Coca-Cola spokesman back in Peru, part of a campaign that includes Nobel literature laureate Mario Vargas Llosa. (In Lima, Zarate peers down from enormous billboards in chef's whites, a plate of traditional food in his outstretched hand.)
What's next? Zarate says, “Now I'm going to run for president.” Of Peru. And he's joking. Well, he says he is.
Zarate has the kind of charismatic good humor that probably would work as well on the campaign trail as it does at Mo-Chica in Mercado La Paloma, where he greets regulars while sitting on a casual chair under a flat-screen television broadcasting, usually, a soccer game. Wandering marketgoers can see customers eating Zarate's barracuda ceviche or bowls of risotto made with quinoa. It's a homey place, and one the chef will keep after he opens Picca, his anticucho restaurant — think of it as a Peruvian version of a Japanese izakaya. And after Picca, if the restaurant gods allow, a third restaurant — another, more formal version of Mo-Chica — will open downtown in the summer.
“I'm trying to open my little door,” says Zarate of his quest to bring authentic Peruvian food to his adopted town. The metaphorical door, not unlike the doors at the mercado, seems pretty wide open.
Zarate had been popping up inside the revolving doors of Test Kitchen, the off-and-on restaurant experiment housed, before the space became Sotto, downstairs from Picca on Pico Boulevard (the alliteration is intentional) in Mid-City.
The commute between restaurants, from there to Mercado La Paloma, still will be vastly preferable to the crosstown trek he routinely made when he was the chef at Wabi Sabi in Venice.
The topic makes Zarate nostalgic for London, where, he notes, they have better public transportation and better soccer (Go Chelsea!).
As for the Food & Wine award, in the first year in which the public voted for chefs, Zarate actually campaigned, using social media and his own not-inconsiderable social skills. A precursor to his political career, perhaps.
This story is from our current People Issue. To read more, see our cover story.