On a recent afternoon in downtown Los Angeles, Ricardo Zarate sat sipping from a paper cup of coffee in the lobby of the Biltmore Hotel. The setting — the hotel opened in 1923 with travertine walls, crystal chandeliers, marble fountains and frescoed mural ceilings painted by an artist who worked on the Vatican — was not accidental, but a homecoming of sorts for the Peruvian-born chef.
Zarate is best known for his restaurants Mo-Chica, Picca and Paiche, but his first job in Los Angeles was at a little Japanese joint a few blocks from the hotel, also now closed. And his first L.A. residence, back in 2003, was actually at the Biltmore, where he lived for six months, while he worked on a project at the hotel that never quite materialized.
These days Zarate is in a circumspect mood, having put the melodrama of his last year largely behind him. The backstory goes like this. After many accolades and national and international recognition for his cooking at Mo-Chica, Zarate moved that modest Peruvian restaurant from a food court south of USC to a swank location downtown. He'd also opened Picca in the second floor of a gorgeous building above Sotto on West Pico, and then opened the loud and boozy Paiche in Marina del Rey, all three projects in partnership with prolific restaurateur Bill Chait.
Then Zarate was suddenly out of all three restaurants — Mo-Chica and Paiche have recently closed; Picca has been re-envisioned without Zarate — with the kind of accompanying rumors that would have made for a great food-driven telenovela. Suffice it to say that the partnership ended, and Zarate is now a chef without a restaurant.
What Zarate, 40, does have is a head full of recipes, upcoming gigs at both Coachella and this weekend's Cochon555 grand pork fest and, more or less, a clean slate. Or maybe a clean cutting board.
Cochon555, for the uninitiated, is a massive traveling ode to heritage pigs (“5 Chefs, 5 Pigs”), in which local high-profile chefs gather to compete in judged tasting events in various cities across the country. The latest L.A. event is scheduled Sunday at the Viceroy in Santa Monica, and Zarate will be competing with chefs Walter Manzke of Republique, Kris Morningstar of Terrine, the Church Key’s Steven Fretz and Tony DiSalvo of Cast. It will be his first big public event since Mo-Chica closed in December. Next month, Zarate is slated to cook with Little Sister’s Tin Vuong at Coachella, in what has somehow become not only a music festival but a giant culinary pop-up in the desert.
For Cochon, all Zarate would say is that he's working on six dishes, one of which involves Peruvian sun-dried potatoes and pig's trotters. "When you eat that dish," he said, halfway through his Biltmore cup of coffee, "it's cooking from 5,000 years."
Zarate is talking about the thousands-year-old tradition of Peruvian cuisine, which has fueled his life and his career in pretty much equal measure. Zarate, who is from Lima, has long been an advocate of Peruvian food, even when he was working in Japanese restaurants in Peru and Los Angeles, and in London, where he spent a dozen years cooking, notably at Zuma, which many considered the best Japanese restaurant in town, and for Gordon Ramsay at Pengelly's.
"It was like jumping into a super-fast car, but it's not me driving this way," Zarate says, and while he's talking about winning Food & Wine's "Best New Chef" award in 2011, the conversation blurs into more recent events. "It was the American dream, like a beauty contest," he continues. "I never had a chance to breathe."
As the afternoon sunlight filters down the Biltmore's curved staircase and a small film crew redirects the indoor traffic ("Chinatown" had scenes shot here, also "Mad Men" and "Scandal"), Zarate's conversation has recurrent themes. He wishes his former partners well and stresses that he's moved on to new projects himself. He wants to continue to explore ways to bring Peru's long culinary tradition to Los Angeles, and though he now lives in Century City, he's not sure where any new restaurant will be.
He tells a few more stories about cooking in downtown L.A. a dozen years ago, of painting the walls and floors at Sai Sai (union rules somehow meant his occupation at the restaurant was "chef-painter"). He talks about a trip home to Peru where he organized and cooked for a charity event in his hometown, which segues into stories about his upcoming first book, "The Fire of Peru," a cookbook of a hundred Peruvian recipes, which is coming out in the fall. All the ingredients, he says more than once, you can find here in Los Angeles.
"I'm reinventing myself, rediscovering myself," Zarate says, the empty coffee cup on the lacquered table. "But I miss my kitchen."
Cochon555: Viceroy Santa Monica, 1819 Ocean Ave., Santa Monica, Sunday, 5-9 p.m.