The fire is back.
After a high-profile hiatus and last year’s closure of his Mo-Chica and Paiche restaurants, chef Ricardo Zarate is getting ready to launch a roving pop-up called Once. The “temporary restaurant” will debut August 6 at Santino’s in Santa Monica.
The Peruvian chef will take over the entire space for dinner service on Thursdays through Saturdays. Zarate will use the grill at Santino’s to prepare specialties like a family-style chaufa paella. That’s a Peruvian/Asian fried rice dish he recently tested with Hokkaido scallops, black tiger prawns, Chinese sausage, and Japanese tomatoes. Zarate served that version at a dinner last week co-hosted by reservations app Table8, which is handling all seatings for Once.
Zarate plans to have the pop-up at Santino’s for a month or more, and then he’ll “bounce it” to locations around Los Angeles and maybe even in other cities until he’s ready to open his own restaurant in L.A. He’s looking at locations for both a flagship restaurant and the first outpost of his casual Suave Rico chicken concept. His goal is to open something of his own next year.
Today, there was also the bombshell announcement that chef Perfecto Rocher has left Smoke.Oil.Salt—Los Angeles magazine’s No. 3 Best New Restaurant of 2014—and that Zarate is joining the restaurant as consulting executive chef.
“I’m not taking over the restaurant,” Zarate tells Los Angeles magazine. “They came to me to see if I can help them temporarily to maintain the consistency of their restaurant. It’s a big challenge. I admire what Perfecto did with Spanish cuisine. I’m up for the challenge to continue the success.”
But it’s Once that looks like the bigger undertaking, and Zarate is ready for his busy juggling act, which also includes promoting his new cookbook, The Fire of Peru, out in October.
“I’m finally back and I’m more awake then ever,” says Zarate, who admits that he “was lost” for a while after his abrupt exit from his Peruvian restaurant empire last year. “I’m very excited to say to the Angelenos who gave me an opportunity for all my success: Please come and visit me. I’m going to be here, in Santino’s.”
Once means 11 in Spanish. It’s a special number for Zarate, who was the 11th of 13 children growing up in Peru. He’s often been seen and photographed giving two thumbs up, but that’s actually a way he expresses 11. He will have 11 dishes on the Once menu each week.
He’s been working on a deboned and grilled branzino (inspired by reading the work of Argentine chef Francis Mallman) with vegetables and serrano and jalapeno peppers.
“The good thing about Santino’s is they have a beautiful wood grill,” Zarate says. “I’m going to cook on the wood. That’s what I’m good at.”
He’s playing around with a a pizza chancleta (sandal), “a mini pizza with smaller toppings like sea urchin, scallops, ceviche.” He’s considering different kinds of lomo saltado—including a vegetarian version, perhaps with beets and peppers, of the traditional beef dish.
Lomo saltado, of course, is a dish he was known for at Mo-Chica. It’s something he’s been eating since childhood. And even though he was one of the youngest kids in his household, he started cooking for his family even before he was a teenager. He remembers writing the menus for the week on the refrigerator and then going to school.
“The reason I’m calling [the pop-up] Once is it gives me these beautiful memories of when I cooked for my family.”
He also remembers being made fun of by friends who thought a boy shouldn’t be spending time in the kitchen, but he was unfazed.
“I was always the kid asking all these questions about food; I was not afraid,” Zarate says. “My friends would bully me about it when I was young, but it never stopped me. So even now, nothing’s going to stop me. I need to re-encounter what I really was. It’s all about the cooking, my passion. I’m going back to my roots. That’s the most important part.”
Once at Santino’s, 3021 Lincoln Blvd., Santa Monica, Thursdays through Saturdays starting on August 6. Reservations are required and will be available through Table8 starting on July 24.