“I want to take down the Italians,” Ricardo Zarate tells me excitedly as he pounds the table with playful accentuation. He’s making a joke, but it’s obvious his comment is laden with truth. No immigrant cuisine has been embraced in America quite like Italian. Its omnipresence reaches every corner of America. Despite pasta’s widespread captivation, Ricardo knows something nobody else does. There’s going to be a demand for Peruvian food very soon, and his West Hollywood restaurant Rosaliné is a champion of it.
Take the lomo al trapo, a popular off-the-menu item with a process unlike anything you’ll find in Los Angeles. It starts with a seared 12-ounce filet mignon that gets wrapped in banana leaf, which is then wrapped again in a cocoon of spices and cloth, tied up, and hung a few feet above a grill that burns bright with almond wood and Japanese charcoal. After a few minutes, the crafted meat-pod sweats, dripping juices slowly into the fire as if to signify something magical is happening. Another eight minutes of cooking directly in the piping hot coals, and the now black chunk of cloth gets chiseled open by Ricardo’s ceviche chef like an archaeologist opening a tomb. The result is lomo al trapo — a popular Colombian dish that Ricardo modified to his liking. Think of it like fired sous-vide steak. Ricardo enthusiastically lists his ingredients and divulges step by step how to make his version of the lomo al trapo, as if to challenge me — “Go ahead. I want you to try this.”
Ricardo isn’t in the business of keeping secrets. He wants you to know everything he knows. That's why he named his 2014 Marina del Rey restaurant Paiche, after the prehistoric Amazonian fish. “I want people to become familiar with hearing it. Paiche, paiche, paiche,” he tells me. Ricardo laments that while he convinced Whole Foods to sell paiche for a period of time, it didn’t take because “people just didn’t know what to do with it.” That’s why the press is so important to Ricardo. In his mind, if people hear the word paiche enough, if it gets beaten into their brains and becomes a part of the foodie lexicon, maybe it can thrive in supermarkets here.
Another ace in the hole for Ricardo is the ají amarillo, a pepper that is fundamental to Peruvian cuisine, yet not sold commercially in the U.S. Most restaurants get it frozen or in paste form — like what I imagine is the difference between using fresh pasta and Barilla. Javier Van Oort, however, has been growing the pepper in his Laguna Nigel backyard. A civil litigator by day, Javier has around 120 plants and they currently supply eight different restaurants in California. His harvest season is August through November, when Javier overnights the aji amarillos to Ricardo free of charge. Acidic, fruity and packed with a mellow heat that dissipates quickly, getting to try a fresh aji amarillo is a rare and fleeting experience. He also grows huacatay (aka black mint — think a cross between basil and mint), the spicier limo and rocoto peppers, and even limón sutil, a juicy, fragrant lime that’s like biting into a tangy flower. Like Ricardo, Javier is all about spreading the good word of Peruvian cuisine. “I want to help introduce Peruvian food to the US made with the right ingredients. Ricardo is a prime example of someone I will help because he is doing a great job introducing it to the masses.”
Ricardo is in unique territory by pushing the boundaries of traditional Peruvian cuisine before many people have even become acquainted with it, and that’s the beauty of Rosaliné: You don’t have to know anything. Ricardo’s enthusiasm and longing to share elevates his food without sacrificing integrity; in fact, he raises the bar merely by being one of the few Peruvian chefs sourcing authentic ingredients. Whether or not the rest of the country catches up is yet to be seen, but as Javier and Ricardo will tell you, the seeds are there.