Ten to Eleven
Why haven’t you heard of Ricardo Zarate? Why haven’t you been to his Las Vegas restaurant? Do you even know what it’s called? What does this man – the ultimate under-the-radar celebrity chef – have to do to get your and our city’s attention? Damn it, we need to get the word out on this guy!
I first tried his food in Los Angeles, around five years ago, where Zarate was celebrating his time as culinary it-boy with his second restaurant, Picca. That night, at that posh Beverly Hills restaurant, something changed for me about the way I see food. Zarate’s bold Peruvian flavors, his elegant presentations and his worldly influences blew the doors off of what I though I knew and opened me up to entire new styles of cuisine.
I think many felt the same way about the risk-taking South American chef and it was clear his star was on the rise in the crowded Los Angeles chef market. Then, as quickly as he exploded onto the scene, he burned out. Zarate had an acrimonious split with his business partners and his restaurants – the ones showcasing his cuisine; the ones that earned him the nickname “the godfather of Peruvian cuisine;” the ones which garnered him a “Best New Chef” nod from Food & Wine and the ones that were sure to take him to the celebrity chef stratosphere – were gone.
As Zarate and I eat at another ethnic line-blurring restaurant, Downtown Las Vegas’s Flock & Fowl, the thoughtful chef reflects on the pain of no longer being in control of his original restaurants, Mo Chica, Picca, and Paiche. He says, “I was very sad. A restaurant is like a baby. When I lost my businesses, I felt like somebody was taking away my babies.”
Off the map for a minute, his talent could not be suppressed for long. In 2015, Zarate published his first cookbook, The Fire of Peru: Recipes and Stories from My Peruvian Kitchen. Then, he himself, returned to the fire of his Peruvian kitchen and reclaimed his Los Angeles turf with Rosaline, a West Hollywood eatery named after his mother, which Zarate has described as “the next phase of Peruvian dining.”
The ethnic melting pot that makes up the stock that the Los Angeles food world bubbles in has been a natural fit for Zarate to kick off the American leg of his career. Of its importance, Zarate states, “I’ve lived in Los Angeles for the last 10 years. When I talk to other Los Angelinos, I say, ‘You know, in 100 years’ time, we’re not going to be here. But Angelino cuisine - you’re gonna go to Dubai or Macau or whatever country you’re going to visit - and you’re going to ask, ‘What is Angelino cuisine?’ And trust me, you’re going to get a menu and it’s going to have Korean ingredients, Japanese ingredients, Mexican ingredients. And people are finally going to recognize that this is California cuisine. It’s the future. It’s the evolution. My dream is that with all the ingredients, there will be one little part that is Peruvian.”
While the City of Angels has helped shaped the culinary point of view of Zarate, he is now ready for the next phase of molding. He explains: “What’s really exciting now is that I am not only representing Peru when I come to Las Vegas but I’m also representing Los Angeles in a way. And eventually, if I move from here to somewhere else, I will be representing Las Vegas.”
His representation in Las Vegas is not easy to find. The space that formerly housed Emeril’s Table 10 has now been transformed into Once, Zarate’s first Vegas venture. How do you get there? It’s up one of the escalators in The Palazzo that isn’t well-seen and worse yet, the restaurant is sandwiched between two popular eateries: Grimaldi’s Coal Brick-Oven Pizzeria and Sushi Samba..
Peruvian cuisine, for all its wow factor and big flavors, has not broken through into mainstream American food consciousness the way other ethnic foods have. Whereas specific ethnic foods like ramen and poke have become strip mall regulars, there is little to no fast-casual way to get Peruvian ceviches or anticuchos. “Peruvian cuisine is a diamond, but it’s a hard diamond,” Zarate says. “Me and many chefs, we are shining it. It’s going to come out and get shiny. It’s a process. I’m putting a little part of myself into that process, like many Peruvian chefs all over the world. It’s a small, little army that is going around and getting the word out on Peruvian cuisine.”
So here is what Ricardo Zarate’s Once is up against to break through in Las Vegas:
- • A location so poor that even superstar chef Emeril couldn’t make it work.
- • Neighboring restaurants featuring pizza and sushi.
- • Making accessible a type of cuisine many Americans don’t know about.
- • Price point!
I’m not gonna lie, for as good as the food is at Once, it will set you back a pretty penny. Or if you are paying in Peruvian currency, “sols bonitas.”
But if anyone can do it – or at least advance the Peruvian ball down the field a bit before spectacularly flaming out – it’s Ricardo Zarate. His food is that good.
Once (pronounced On-se), translates to 11 in English. Zarate was the 11th of 13 children. It was also the number of dishes he originally wanted on the menu. He explains, “I thought I was gonna do 11 dishes but then when I started building it up it got to the point of 29 dishes. 2 + 9 = 11.”
Sure, dude, whatever works to keep all that deliciousness coming is a fine explanation by us.
Calling this strictly Peruvian food would be a disservice to what it is. Once specializes in Peruvian Nikkei, a mashup of tastes and dishes that took root when Japanese immigrants arrived in the South American country. “Any Japanese who were born outside of Japan were called Nikkei,” Zarate states. “When the Japanese arrived in Peru 100-150 years ago, they wanted to cook Japanese cuisine, but they didn’t have the ingredients, so they started to use Peruvian ingredients to cook Japanese cuisine.”
This type of synergy worked both ways. Zarate explains, “The first Japanese immigrants, their first jobs were in agriculture in Peru, so they started going into the restaurant business. They were getting famous in Peruvian communities because they were doing something to Peruvian food. They were incorporating Japanese ingredients.”
The final element of this fusion was the way it was served. “They were coursing it out omakase style,” says Zarate, referring to the traditional Japanese meal preparation leaving everything up to the chef including what is eaten throughout the meal and in what order.
All of Zarate’s experiences make him a worthy challenger to conquer the Vegas food gauntlet. Before he landed in the United States, he worked in London at top flight restaurants including One Aldwych and Zuma, just as Japanese food became all the rage in The Smoke. He spent his time there expanding his global perspective while also honing in on Asian techniques.
No dish at Once better spotlights this conglomeration of skills and tastes than Oxtail Bibimbap, the wildest dish to hit Vegas in years. The traditional Korean version of this dish involves rice, veggies, and meat cooking in a sizzling stone pot. Here Zarate flips the dish on its head, spins it around, gives it a makeover and disorients it to create something new. The rice is tacu tacu, a Peruvian rice and beans blend. The oxtail is braised in 20 ingredients, creating a unique taste and counteracting its natural fattiness. Add to that flavor bombs from a black mint stew and plantains and this dish is playing in its own sandbox. The sunny side up egg on top pulls it back towards the familiar, but this is cutting edge cuisine done with confidence.
For something more in line with Peruvian norms, check out the lomo saltado. It gets the luxury treatment here with sautéed filet mignon and tomatoes and onions stewed over rice. Kimlan soy sauce dips the preparation into Japanese territory while crispy yucca fries add an alternate texture. A note about that rice: it looks like your basic white rice but is actually cooked with seaweed and Japanese charcoal. It’s a brave new world, kids.
Plates that have overplayed their welcome elsewhere find new energies at Once. A beautifully presented beet salad features crunchy quinoa, creamy burrata cheese and a whimsical beet jerky. Meanwhile yuquitas give the South American slant to mozzarella sticks, placing the creamy cheese inside stuffed yucca and coating the orbs with a jalapeno-cilantro sauce.
As we finish our laksa at Flock & Fowl, a Malaysian soup he’s never had before, Zarate thinks. Maybe he will reinterpret this one, too? Peruvian-Malay food. It’s just another step, right? The way Zarate sees it, anything goes in Las Vegas. He says of his new home, “It’s a big window to the world. I want to take this opportunity to showcase Peruvian food and hopefully the path is going to go faster. I’m going to open many bridges for Peruvians and try to make it here.”
Hopefully people cross those bridges because there are delicious rewards on the other side.
Once Steak Filet