When we ask Zarate what he’s cooking at Cochon, he hesitates.
“Should I tell you?” he replies, realizing that he shouldn’t, and then he smiles. “It’s a competition!”
So he says he can’t give away much about what he’ll be doing with a whole Walnut Keep Red Wattle pig when he battles other A-list L.A. chefs like Republique’s Walter Manzke and Terrine’s Kris Morningstar. But Zarate will, no surprise here, take things in a Peruvian direction when he makes six courses of pork from an animal provided by farmer TC Gemmell.
“I’m going to do what I’m good at,” says the chef who once helmed Mo-Chica, Picca, and Paiche. “I think I’m going to work the pork in a different way. I’m not going to do pates.”
Zarate (who hooked up with Cochon at last year’s Aspen Food and Wine Classic and ended up judging the Grand Cochon finale there) already has most of his dishes in mind, and he says he’s extremely confident about the required challenge of creating a dish with pork, foie gras, and duck.
“I think I’m really solid on that one,” he says. “I came up with a really great idea.”
Then he grins broadly like he’s going to reveal a juicy piece of information.
“I have a secret about Cochon,” Zarate says.
We lean in closer.
“I’m going to win!” he says and laughs.
So yes, Zarate, is in good spirits despite a rough 2014 that left him without any restaurants.
“Obviously, I want to do [another restaurant in L.A.],” Zarate says. “I’m working on it, nothing is complete yet. I cannot deny that it was a very tough ride, but I’m very positive and very happy.”
He’s looking around the city for a restaurant space. He’s considering Downtown because he has history there. “I miss Mo-Chica a lot,” he says. He marvels at how much Downtown has changed in recent years. “I look around the area where Mo-Chica was,” he says. “I see these buildings. That was a parking lot. Now it’s a building where people live.”
He’s also drawn to Silver Lake and Echo Park.
“I’m definitely looking at locations and I’m looking for the right partner,” Zarate says. “I’m not desperate.”
Because he doesn’t have a restaurant at the moment, he’ll be prepping for Cochon in the kitchen of Manhattan Beach’s Manhattan Country Club, where he’s been doing some consulting.
“They’re sponsoring me and supporting me with a kitchen, which is nice,” says Zarate, who’s also been playing around with ingredients at home. He notes that one of the keys to success at Cochon is properly utilizing the whole animal. There’s only one tail per pig, for example, so it’s important not to screw up the preparation. But, again, he likes his chances.
Beyond Cochon and planning his next career move at his own pace, Zarate has largely been “taking it easy,” spending time with his children, and leisurely visiting new restaurants. He raves about a recent meal at Josef Centeno’s Ledlow, where he was dazzled by dishes like the deviled eggs and ham, and the 30-day dry-aged beef carpaccio. He says that might have been his favorite Centeno meal yet.
“The flavors blew me away,” says Zarate, who then goes through his phone to show me pictures of what he ate.
He still thinks about food constantly. We’re with him at Sushi Tsujita, eating the remarkably generous $15 bara chirashi lunch special, which makes Zarate remember when he cooked at Zuma in London. He recalls making his own version of chirashi with soy sauce, olive oil, chili garlic, lemongrass, and cilantro stalks, putting fish and everything else in empty Voss water bottles to let all the flavors merge for days. Co-workers loved the dish, but it never made it on Zuma’s menu, perhaps because someone at the top was jealous of this rising star’s creativity.
Now Zarate’s a famous, nationally recognized chef who’s releasing his first cookbook, The Fire of Peru: Recipes and Stories from My Peruvian Kitchen, in the fall. He’s spent two years working on it, figuring out how to create a Peruvian cookbook with recipes that can easily be replicated in America.
“That was the hard part,” he says. “I wanted to put all the Peruvian flavor in there.”
And, of course, he says his next restaurant will serve Peruvian food.
As we’re wrapping up lunch, we discover we’re sitting next to two Los Angeles Times journalists. They don’t cover food, but they’re quite familiar with L.A.’s dining scene, especially Downtown, so they recognize Zarate.
“I miss Mo-Chica,” one of them says.
Zarate smiles and says thanks. Then it’s time to leave and go eat at another restaurant.