2016 South Florida Rising Star Chef Diego Oka of La Mar by Gaston Acurio

2016 South Florida Rising Star Chef Diego Oka of La Mar by Gaston Acurio
April 2016

Diego Oka’s distinguished, globetrotting career owes much of its start to a chance encounter in a supermarket. While studying culinary arts at Lima’s Universidad San Ignacio de Loyola, a young Oka ran into Chef Gastón Acurio, who agreed to let him complete his required internship at Astrid y Gastón. After graduating in 2001, Oka spent a year and a half as a line cook at Ichi Ban Japanese restaurant before Acurio lured him to Tanta Restaurant to groom the young cook into the executive chef of his next restaurant. In 2004, Oka opened Sogo Room Bar & Restaurant but left after six months, deciding he had more to learn before becoming “a boss.”

Acurio put Oka to work preparing for the opening of the first La Mar Cebicheria, which Oka opened in 2005 as executive chef. Just over a year later, he left to open La Mar in Mexico City, where he stayed three and a half years before returning to Lima to launch the La Mar concept in Bogotá, Colombia. After spending a year and a half in Colombia, Oka moved to open yet another La Mar—this time in San Francisco, where he stayed for two years. In 2013, Oka opened La Mar in Miami, where his marriage of Peruvian, Japanese, and (now) South Florida influences have crystallized. Establishing roots in Miami, Oka is stepping out of Acurio’s grand shadow and making a name for himself as an American forerunner of Peruvian cuisine. 

Interview with South Florida Rising Star Chef Diego Oka of La Mar

Caroline Hatchett: How did you get your start?
Diego Oka:
I went to school in Peru, and worked for a Japanese restaurant for three years after I graduated. Peru has the second largest community of Japanese outside of Japan. My parents are Japanese, but I never wanted to work in Japanese restaurants. When I graduated, it was French, French, French. Sashimi was like, “Yeah, whatever.” My family told me I had to learn, to apply to the restaurant, and learn everything. Now, all of my techniques are Japanese. It was the best decision ever. Every cook should go through a Japanese restaurant at least once. I met Gastón [Acurio] in a supermarket and told him I wanted to work for him. He said “OK, come whenever you want.” I walked through the door of the restaurant the next day. That was 2001. I worked for four months, things happened, and after four years he offered for me to come to La Mar. I came from San Francisco to open this in Miami. I opened La Mar in San Francisco, then the first La Mar in Peru, then Mexico, and I finally opened Chicago. It was great training—you’re not going to make better ceviche or better Peruvian food. I was a little scared moving to Miami. Peruvians come to Miami for vacation, but you never see the culinary industry. I moved because of the hotel. I always worked in freestanding restaurants compared to a big corporation like Mandarin Oriental, with all its outlets that support you. I needed to learn how hotels are run. When you want a restaurant, it’s a business. The food has to be delicious, but you need the other side. I accepted the move to Miami to learn about the hotel. It’s my masters in business.

CH: Who's your mentor?
Gastón Acurio and Hiro, the Japanese chef who taught me.

CH: How are you involved in the local culinary community?
All my best friends in Miami are chefs, which never happened in any other place that I lived. We have a very tight community of friends. We’re like family. We go out every weekend.

CH: What’s the biggest challenge facing your restaurant?
To adapt at the beginning. Hiring people is very difficult here. Now, in 2016, people come to Miami to look for interesting restaurants, to learn from people. Two years ago, it was hard to find people who wanted to cook. They go to New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles to learn from big restaurants. I interviewed 300 people to hire 29. That never would have happened in Mexico or Colombia. Eighty percent of the kitchen has been here since we opened. It was worth it. We’re always used to being a freestanding restaurant; the partnership with the hotel has brought new things to learn, new steps.

CH: What's your five year plan?
I definitely want one restaurant in Peru. But Miami is a great place to open, and I’ve lived in the United States for five years and want to stay here. It’s very cosmopolitan; you can find any culture. It’s a great opportunity for Peruvian cuisine and to show our ingredients. Gastón gives us freedom, but it’s still a very traditional restaurant. In my restaurant, I want 50 percent Peruvian ingredients and 50 percent others. I want a casual restaurant where my friends want to go and where fine dining chefs want to eat. I want my own china, cutlery, to put my personality in my restaurant. When they get to my restaurant, friends who know me will say, “This is so Diego.”