« September 2013 Table of Contents
Networking - Diego Oka
Executive chef, La Mar Cebicheria Peruana, San Francisco
By James Wright
September 01, 2013
Ceviche is one of the coolest culinary concoctions you’ll ever consume, and arguably nobody does it better than La Mar Cebicheria Peruana, a growing restaurant chain that spans the Americas. Young chef Diego Oka helms the San Francisco restaurant, which sits on some choice real estate at Pier 1 ½ on the city’s busy waterfront roadway The Embarcadero. Oka’s star is clearly rising within Gastón Acurio’s budding culinary empire (Acurio Restaurantes), having spent the past eight years at La Mar, playing an instrumental role in opening locations in San Francisco, Mexico City and Bogota, Colombia. It’s a good thing Oka likes to travel, because airports are certain to be a part of his future as the company continues to expand: Tanta Cocina Peruana, Chef Acurio’s newest project, opens in Chicago this month and Oka is part of the training team. And the next La Mar is due to open in Miami this November.
Oka, 30, is like Peru itself, a colorful blend of diverse cultures. “My blood is Japan, but my heart is Peru!” he exclaims, promising later to work on his English, which is already quite good. Born in the country’s capital of Lima, he decided by age 16 that he wanted to pursue a career in the culinary arts. He represented his nation at the Madrid Fusion gastronomical summit in 2009, two years after winning the Girotonno competition in Cerdeña, Italy. “I like winning,” says Oka. He’s currently busy winning the hearts (and palates) of San Francisco’s discriminating diners, one carefully marinated cuttlefish at a time.
Can ceviche become the next sushi?
That’s the idea. One day, next to a sushi bar, there’ll be a Peruvian cebicheria, no? More and more people are interested in knowing our food because it’s interesting, a mix of different cultures, like me. The food is like that — it’s real fusion. Sometimes you get Peruvian dishes with Chinese techniques, sandwiches with an Italian influence. It’s a secret in the world of food no longer. We want to promote our country by our food. It’s our weapon to conquer the world!
How important is ceviche to Peruvian culture?
It’s the national dish! We have a lot of types of seafood in Peru. It’s important for us. It represents happiness, parties. Usually, close to the beach, there’s a lot of cebicherias. But we only eat it in the daytime in Peru.
Sometimes it’s [heavily] marinated, cooked in lime. Because of our Japanese influence, they teach us how to eat raw fish, with the wonderful textures. Tuna, seabass, halibut, add lime, seasoning, chilies — it’s more like sashimi.
What Japanese techniques or flavors do you employ?
Ceviche is 100 percent Peruvian, but the technique we use to cut the fish is Japanese; how to treat the fish.
How long have you been living in the United States?
One and a half years, but I left Lima six years ago. I love San Francisco. Culturally, at the beginning, it was hard. Everything was different. Now I’m very happy for this different style of working, in the management area. For a chef, living here, you have everything: vegetables, fruit, good quality fish. And people are very conscious of sustainability and those types of things. In our country, and in Latin America, we try to protect the environment, but it’s not 100 percent. Here there are 100 percent sustainable restaurants.
How do you ensure you’re sourcing sustainable seafood?
We work with Seafood Watch very closely. We have an agreement to work together. Every year we renew it. It’s important. They teach us a lot and we protect the environment.
When did you first realize that you wanted to pursue becoming a chef?
All my life I’ve been surrounded by friends who love to eat and cook. My grandma is the best cook in the world; she makes amazing food every day. My dad loves to buy fish every day.