Meet Diego Oka, a Japanese/Peruvian chef who's spent the large part of his culinary career working with celeb chef Gaston Acurio. Oka tells us he started off by interning with his idol chef for about four months, then went to on to be named head chef at an Acurio restaurant in Peru at the very young age of 21. After opening several more restaurants with Acurio including the most recent, La Mar Cebicheria in San Fransisco, with great success, Oka migrated to the Magic City to open La Mar at Mandarin Oriental.
We spoke with Oka about what the first week at the new restaurant was like, how people have responded to the dishes so far and pleasing the Peruvian crowd. On working with Gaston Acurio, Oka, who is very passionate about working with the chef tells us, "I follow his philosophy because I believe in his philosophy ... working with Gaston is amazing." Read on for the full interview.
Tell me about how you got involved with La Mar?
It's a long story. I graduated culinary school 13 years ago in 2001 and I met Gaston [Acurio] in a supermarket. I met him because I wanted to do my internship in his restaurant and I saw him one day in the supermarket and then I approached him. I said, "hi I'm Diego, you're Gaston, I love your restaurant, I want to work with you." And then I did my internship there. It was a Sunday and the next day on Monday, I talked to him and started my internship there for four month. The story goes like that. Then I graduated and I worked three years in a Japanese restaurant, it was one of the best Japanese restaurants in Peru. Gaston offered me first to make rolls at one of his other restaurants, so on weekends I went to make rolls and other things. Then I went to another bar, he was making the menu for a new bar/restaurant and he suggested that I could be the chef. I was 21 years old, but I wasn't ready. I accepted because Gaston is my idol and that he offered me to be in charge of his menu was amazing to me, so I went three months to make the menu. Then I stayed there for six months because I told him I was 21 and not ready. I had a great experience but inside I knew I was just 21 and I don't want to be a chef, a boss, I want somebody to teach me because I'm still too young. So I talked to him and they gave me another project, La Mar in Peru. They also offered me head chef and I said no because I was 22 then. That was how I opened La Mar, Lima. Then I moved to Mexico City, then Colombia, then San Francisco, then they told me they will open La Mar and I said, "great!" I accepted because it's an amazing hotel and I never had experience in hotels, so I said it's a great opportunity to learn and yeah, I'm here.
How was opening day at the restaurant?
Amazing. Really good. It was different than the other openings, we were a little bit late, but that's normal. I think I have all this support from the hotel that maybe individual restaurants don't have and for me that part was really good and helpful through the opening to make it very smooth. We have everything in the hotel, human resources, PR area, events area, so all these areas help you to make a smooth opening. I'm very happy. I have a great team, a solid team, I'm very lucky. It was difficult to find people. We interviewed like 200 people to find 20 cooks, but it was worth it because we have a solid team and great people that like to work and want to learn about Peru and Peruvian food. We're building a new family here and I'm very happy.
How was the first week?
The first week we planned not to open the doors 100%, so the first week was a soft-opening, very controlled, very smooth. After the soft-opening we did friends and family, so each day we invited more and more people. First 40, then 80, then 100, and the last day 200, so we can train the kitchen, the servers, how it really works. For the first week, reservations were very controlled, so it was good. I think really it was the smoothest opening I've had in these nine years.
How closely do you work with Gaston and what's it like working with him?
Very close. Even though I live far away from Peru, we have a lot of communication by email and Facebook or by phone. I respect and I follow his philosophy because I believe in his philosophy, that's the most important thing. And I think we have the same idea of what we want to do with Peruvian restaurants outside of Peru. We want to promote, we want to show the world our food, our ingredients, our flavors. Having a Peruvian restaurant outside is like having a small embassy of Peru. So, working with Gaston is amazing. He teaches me a lot about my country. I'm Japanese, I'm second generation Japanese, my grandparents are Japanese, but I was born in Peru and my parents too. Culturally, in my house, it's a mix. It's not 100% Peruvian, I am not 100% Peruvian, but my heart is 100% Peruvian… You know, my grandmother is the best cook and she cooked always and created these Peruvian dishes with Japanese flavors or Japanese foods with Peruvian touches. We are not that traditional Peruvian family. So, working with Gaston and having the opportunity to be at La Mar I learned more about Peru, more about ingredients, more about tradition and the people. And I continue learning. Even outside of Peru, I keep learning about new ingredients they find, new preparations. I learn a lot.
What were some of the biggest challenges that you faced that first week?
Hm… all openings have different challenges. How is your team going to react, how is it going to perform? Those are my biggest challenges. Like if they get the flavor that I want, if they get the details that we put in our food. The first week it's the real thing, people are paying, it's not for free… On the guest's side … in Miami there's a lot of Peruvian people and the first week and now our biggest consumers are Peruvian and I think they are the most challenging. Peruvians like our food, which is really good. Peruvians are very critical because they know how to eat, they know what to expect with the food and it's been very positive. Meeting expectations, I think Peruvian people and local people are very happy because expectations were amazingly big, so that was one of my biggest fears. Everybody was waiting for Gaston Acurio's restaurant, opening in Miami was like opening in Latin America, everyone was waiting with high expectations. But I think we've been doing a great job. We are still learning, we're new and we have to fix some things, but yeah.
Which dishes are most successful so far?
The Chaufa Aeropuerto, it's a fried rice …. Peru has a lot of influence, Chinese is one of the biggest, Italian, Spanish, Japanese, African, so this rice is Chinese influence. It's a fried rice with barbecued pork, Chinese sausage and it's called Aeropuerto, which in Spanish means airport … and this is a street food dish, you know, like they usually make it with left-overs, so like at the airport, everything comes and lands into the rice, noodles, sausage, shrimp, egg, vegetables, so it's a mix of a lot of things. That's our most popular now and the whole fish, the Yellowtail snapper. We serve it whole, with Japanese sauce with ginger and garlic and it's a little bit spicy and sweet. And of course, the lomo saltado. That's a top seller at any Peruvian restaurant. And, of course, our ceviche.
Overall, what has been the general reaction to the restaurant?
The reaction has been great I think. I'm very happy. I think all this time that we are very prepared for this opening, we prepared a lot, and this is the result. The result is that everybody leaves happy, they enjoy our food, they love our food. I think we have the best view in Miami for a restaurant, so that's a plus and the other plus is that we are in one of the top hotels in Miami, so it's a great support. So, I think we meet expectations because expectations were very high.
What's in store for the future?
Nothing yet. Maybe in some time we will update the dishes that maybe doesn't sell too much. We are learning, you know. Maybe they are delicious plates, but maybe … like the soups … in Peru we love the soups, but in Miami I think it's too hot, nobody wants to eat soup. So we are thinking to replace it. And every week we are going to have a special. Maybe next week we start making stone crab ceviche. If it's the season of spiny lobster, we make a special with spiny lobster. We are a traditional restaurant, so we have dishes we will not move … we'll never take the lomo saltado or classic ceviche from the menu, but we might change other things.
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[Photo Courtesy of Doug Castanedo]