While La Mar is relatively new to the Miami dining scene, Diego Oka isn’t new to La Mar. Over the past ten years the Japanese/Peruvian Oka has been working with its acclaimed chef and international restaurateur chef Gastón Acurio helping open concepts — including several La Mar’s — all around the globe. Oka has done stints in Mexico City, Chicago, San Francisco and even Colombia, before coming to Miami a little over a year ago to open La Mar in the Mandarin Oriental.
Eater Miami sat to hear about his first year at Miami’s La Mar, what challenges he faced, the camaraderie he has found with his fellow chefs and how long he’ll be sticking around Miami.
How has the first year been at La Mar Miami?
Well La Mar Miami was a big challenge for me. La Mar San Francisco was supposed to be my last stop because I really liked San Francisco as a city, but I didn’t have the opportunity to learn from big corporations like Mandarin Oriental so I took this opportunity. Not to learn about the kitchen part but the organization part, which I was missing. It was a great opportunity to move here, I never thought I’d live in Miami, but the first year was challenging. We were late almost three months, the opening, but at the same time it was great for me because I had the chance to know more about Miami and the people and have the luxury to interview 300 cooks. That helps a lot and that’s why we have a very solid team right now.
How do you think La Mar has been embraced by Miami so far?
I think La Mar in Miami is doing great. We are very happy, we feel that we are successful and people love it, but we still know that there is a lot more we need to do to improve and there are a lot of people that haven’t been to La Mar yet. The second year is going to be even better I think. We will know what mistakes we made the first year and what we need to improve so this second year is going to be very solid and strong.
What has your biggest challenges you've faced this past year?
Everybody told me when I moved here that it’s very hard to find good quality of cooks. Then I understood because usually a person who is passionate and wants to learn goes to a New York, Chicago, San Francisco, those places. But I think in one year I saw a lot of change in Miami. There are a lot of great chefs here, that are great quality, that are coming here to learn. Right now I think when we started the big challenge was to find cooks, but right now in one year it changed.
Now the other challenge we have in La Mar is that we are inside of a hotel for the first time. It’s not a challenge, it helps us a lot, but we’re in Brickell Key. We’re a destination. No body walks around La Mar and says, “oh let’s go and eat.” You have to plan to come to the hotel, to drive, to park, so that’s one of our challenges. But I am sure this upcoming year with all the construction and Brickell City Center it’s going to be amazing. And luckily we’ve been full every night and every day.
I didn’t realize you’ve worked at so many La Mars. How many have you worked at in total?
Well I opened the first one in Lima in 2005. Then I moved to Mexico and opened three La Mar’s, and while I was still living in Mexico I opened San Francisco. Then I moved to Colombia for two years to open a La Mar, then I moved to San Francisco again for two years. Meanwhile, I helped support a location in Chicago and then one year, three months ago I moved here.
Wow, so they are keeping you busy.
Yes, and I am very lucky. I have been working for so long with Gastón, but at the same time every experience I’ve had has been different. I’ve been lucky I’m being paid to move to other countries to learn. That’s my training for myself learning about food in Colombia, Mexico, California, and now here in Miami. And because of my Japanese background my culture is Japanese, even though I am Peruvian and feel Peruvian, but working at La Mar I’ve learned more about Peruvian food and my country.
So you’ve been working with Gastón for around 10 years now. How has it been working in the Miami La Mar versus the other locations?
First of all, every country has its own beauty. The most important of each country is that you meet people and then you enjoy the city. Professionally, Mexico City was the first time I lived by myself in other countries besides Peru. I was 23 years old and it was a big challenge and a great experience but it was very new. I think Latin America at the end is kind of the same — Peru, Colombia, Mexico — they are kind of the same. We’re Latins, we know each other, we are kind of similar. But going to San Francisco for me was a shock. A culture shock. Everything is different. I’m not saying it’s good to treat people with pressure and scream, it’s a different way. I learned that a lot in San Francisco, it was very crazy in the kitchen. I went through several training courses and that part of management I learned a lot in San Francisco.
What would say has been your biggest accomplishment this past year with the La Mar Miami location?
Here in Miami I have the best team I’ve had since I opened the first La Mar. The kitchen team is amazing, my sous chefs are the best. I am really happy I found my team in Miami. It really is the best team I’ve had since I’ve opened La Mar. I think that’s my biggest accomplishment.
How has the restaurant evolved since you first opened a year ago?
If you came the first day at La Mar and now, it’s totally different. Now we are more trained, cooks know the recipes, servers know all of the menu, we have new art, light, sound system, new tables, everything has been evolving to be better for the guest and for us. We have to continue evolving, continue maturing. And also the menu — I know more about Florida, know more about products, I know more about farms, the fishes that are here, and I am more informed and more connected with local people. I met amazing people, I’m very lucky, I don’t know how I did that. Being friends with all of these chefs and that’s been my best learning experience too. I’m very lucky to be surrounded by these amazing people and I can ask them for information because they’ve been here longer than me.
I think this my last stop. We’ll see, but right now I’m very happy at the Mandarin and I still need to learn more about business and this is the right place to learn. They support me a lot and right now we are looking to have a very fun successful 2015.