Episode #45: Diego Oka
The chef of La Mar by Gastón Acurio in Miami, Florida.
Diego Oka is the chef of La Mar by Gastón Acurio at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Miami, Florida. He was born in Lima, Peru to Nikkei parents and has been cooking within the Acurio restaurants group almost since getting out of culinary school. He has been the head chef at La Mar in Miami since it opened and has seen how Peruvian cuisine has evolved there over the past decade, not to mention Miami’s broader culinary scene.
I’ve known Diego for years and he’s one of the nicest people you will ever meet. He’s an extremely talented chef and he has managed to find a way to still be creative even within a corporate environment. I have been to La Mar in Miami a few times and it’s consistently one of the best places to eat in Miami for me. He has this aeropuerto, it’s basically fried rice mixed with stir fried noodles, it’s a dish from Lima with a long story behind it and it is usually something found in no frills chifas and it’s never really that good, but Diego does his own artful preparation in a Korean bowl and it’s incredible. We talk about that dish, as well as what it was like when he helped open La Mar in Lima in 2005. This was the same year I first lived in Peru and, at least from my point of you, this restaurant was the catalyst that caused the movement behind Peruvian cuisine to take on a whole new life.
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Partial Episode Transcript
On becoming happy in the kitchen:
Nick: “I've never known you to be a stressed-out chef. I am sure you get stressed. You're still a chef. I know you get stressed out in the kitchen and pissed off at things, whatever. But I've never gotten a vibe from you that you hate your work, or you're frustrated or just unhappy. I think of the name Diego Oka. And I see someone that looks happy. Do you feel happy?”
Diego: “Yeah, well, I changed.”
Nick: “What do you mean?”
Diego: “Actually, we were talking about this. Martha is the chef of Pancita…”
Nick: “Martha Palacios, right?”
Diego: “Right. Martha. Martha now works with me right here. And Martha now lives in Miami and it's amazing. And we opened La Mar in Lima. And she was my intern. She started doing a family meal in the restaurant. And actually, yesterday, we were talking with my team in the cafeteria, while we were eating, and we were telling our experience, and she used to work next to me. I was in the pass and she used to garnish next to me. And it was crazy. I was a mean person.”
Nick: “Really? What would you do?”
Diego: “She said, like, ‘Oh, my God. You were so mean. Like, everybody was scared of you.’ I was so bad. One time I talked to a friend that is an artist, and she's very submissive. She's very quiet. But when she goes to a concert, she transforms. And I think chefs in the kitchen are different. And myself. I think my personality out of work is different. I don't know. I don't change it on purpose. I think it's like a chip in my brains activates when I'm in the kitchen or in the restaurants. And it's like, Okay, I'm gonna do Chef now. But I think it's unconscious now.”
Nick: “So you're saying you become a dickhead when chef Diego turns on? Or you become a happy?”
Diego: “I used to. Because before when I started, they will say I don't need mind you screaming. I didn't mind you stressed. And oh my god, they were so wrong. It is because we were taught like that. I think we were taught to be very strict. Very disciplined. I'm not saying it's wrong to have a lot of respect. But like, screaming, that pressure, the stress. I was like that in Mexico and I was like that in Columbia. And when I moved to San Francisco I went through a lot of sexual harassment courses. I had to be introduced to this new world. It was a kitchen, but it was also a new country. New laws, new style new culture. And of course they put me through this training. That is normal. They didn't put me in there because I was a dickhead. I think I understood that there are better ways, right? To manage a kitchen, the smarter, better ways for me and to manage a team as a leader. I think when you understand that, and when you develop your own style, you feel comfortable.
Now, since I've been in San Francisco, Miami. And it worked. I'm not saying that before didn't work. My team in San Francisco was was amazing. My team in Colombia was amazing. But there are different stages now of my career. Now, I'm more chill. I'm more relaxed. I talk. I teach by making an example. And making them realize what are the mistakes and how we can do it better. So maybe I'm more mature.”
On working at a Japanese restaurant in Lima:
Diego: “When I when worked at Astrid y Gastón, and I studied in a French school, France for me was like the top. France was for me the best. And I come from a Japanese family. For me eating sashimi, sushi, makis was normal. My parents told me, okay, now you need to work. And I never worked before. So, I didn't know how to look for a job. I didn't know how to go to an interview. And my parents told me ‘Why don’t you go to Ichiban and learn Japanese foods? You can learn more about your culture.’
For me, I thought Japanese food was so easy. I was ignorant. For me it was like, ‘Oh, I'm gonna cut raw fish and put it on a plate. It's so easy, right? I'm not going do rolls. I can do rolls here. Every time. But then I said, Okay, I'm going. I have no options. So I went to interview with Chef Keito. Keito Nakagawa. And I interviewed with him. It was a very small restaurant in the basement of the Sonesta Hotel. It was it was mostly for Japanese people. He told me ‘Okay, what do you want to be? Do uou want to be a dishwasher? Do you want to be a server?’ I said, No, I want to be in the kitchen. I went to culinary school. I told him I was with Gastón Acurio at Astrid y Gastón. He said ‘Well, yea, but you don’t know shit.’ Well, I didn't want to go home and say I didn't get the job. So, I said yes, I'm going be the dishwasher. So, he put me in the washer. I was a dishwasher for five months until the new guy came and they put him as the dishwasher. And then they moved me to the sushi bar.
But it was Gastón’s favorite restaurant. He used to go like every week. He saw me that I was a dishwasher because if you were eating in the dining room, the only thing you can see in the kitchen was me, like the dishwasher.”
Nick: “So Gastón would come in and he would see you back there washing dishes week after week?”
Diego: “Not only Gastón, like my uncles. But I didn't care. Like, for me, it was fun.”
Nick: “Do you think it was by design like this? Just to humble you. To humble you as the dishwasher before you get on the line and start cooking?”
Diego: “Oh, yes. You know, Miyagi style, right? The Japanese are like that. I really respect him. He is one of my biggest mentors. But he was screaming every day. Every day he was like screaming, hitting with a spoon, hitting you in the head. He kept putting in a private room talking to me that I was the cancer of the restaurant.”
Nick: “I’m laughing, but it's not funny. It's not funny at all. And I think there's so many other people that have had experiences like that. And it's why you probably started off being a dickhead.”
Diego: “But I loved it. I loved it. I still I stayed three years. Because I learned so much, I learned so much.”
Nick: “But was he acting that way to you the whole time? The whole three years? Or is that just him?”
Diego: “It was love and correction. He really liked loved me. But I think he loved me so much that he was very strict with me. He never raised my salary in three years. Because he said that I need to suffer. Because I had everything. Since I'm a kid I needed to suffer and work. So, he paid me at that time, it was like $250 a month. And I used to go by taxi to my house. I used to take a taxi to my house and I would spend more money than I earned.”
I didn't care at that time. I felt fortunate that I had food. I had a room to live. I have my house. I had commodities and I didn't need the money. It was just learning. It was never about the money. It never was. I think until you have a family, right? Yeah, money's not important until you have a family. You have take your kids to school.”
On opening La Mar in Lima:
Diego: “Gastón offered me to be in a project that he was building. He wasn’t the owner, but he was hired to create the menu. So, he put me as a chef there, when I was 21. It was called Soho room. It was small, trendy. It was super trendy at the etime when they opedn. There were lines. There was a bouncer to get in. And the food was by Gastón. I had fun. I loved it. But I was 21. Then I talked to Gastón. I said I'm 21. I'm not ready to be boss. I don't want to be a chef. I need to have a mentor. I need to continue learning. So I said, I think this is not for me. He said, ‘Okay, you're going to quit. And you're going to tell them that you have 15 days. And then I want you to part of my project. My new project, but it's not ready.’ I said, Okay. So then I went back to Astrid y Gastón for four months to work on the menu of this new restaurant, which would become La Mar.”
Nick: “Let's talk about that. Because this is the same time when I first got to Peru and I was living in Peru, the year that La <ar opened. This was 2005. That's when I first got to Peru. And I was living in Peru that year and for the next few years. But for me, that was the big shift for like Peruvian food. Like, at least from an international viewpoint, even more than Astrid y Gastón. Once La Mar opened, I feel like the floodgates opened. I've always been fascinated about that moment in time. Why that restaurant? Why did that place connect with people in the way that it did? And why does it still do it? And so when you were the four months at Astrid y Gastón making the menu, what was going on? Were you guys visiting a lot of other cebicherías? Going to Sonia and things like that?”
Diego: “I think the team that open La Mar were so lucky. And I feel the same. I feel like that was an important moment for Peruvian gastronomy to the world. It was a success. Gastón had it very clear what he wanted. And La Mar is what he wanted. Since the beginning. It was his idea and it's exactly what he wanted. No, he wanted to have this cevicheria to be next to a sushi bar or a taqueria in any place in the world. And it was this place where you can eat traditional food, but with good ambience, good presentation. Quality control, sustainable. So like the perfect cebicheria. Without losing something.”
Nick: “Something that could be an ambassador to Peruvian food. That could be replicated anywhere. How was it formed? How did it come together in the way that it did? Do you remember?”
Diego: “I remember it was the best time of my life. And I think it was the best time of our lives for all the employees and all the people that worked there. Because it was magical. I think the success, it wasn't one thing. It was many things that made it La Mar so successful and so unique. And I'm going to tell you again, I think that people that work there made the restaurant so successful? Besides that, we knew that we cooked delicious. That Gastón’s recipes were delicious, and we were using the best quality. But in my in those things are taken for granted. I don't think it was that. I don't think we were successful because we cooked delicious, and the quality was delicious. I think it was the external things. The decoration, the plates, the energy…the energy of the restaurant was amazing. All the cooks. All the servers. So, the servers had acting classes before service. They had acting classes before service. So, there was an actor that used to go, a clown. They used to make games, how to interact with a menu with ingredients. And we also participated in some of those classes. There was a day that they read all the most relevant newspapers before service so everybody was informed on what's happening in the world so they can talk about it with a guest. So, it was a combination of a lot of things. The music. I remember, we opened from, from 11:30am to 5:30pm. There was a line already at 10am. We could see the line through the window.”
Nick: “I remember, I was there the first month and I remember. I don't know if I ever waited in line, but I probably like, had somebody else wait in line and met them at the bar or something.”
Diego: “Yeah, crazy. And the best part is, we closed at 6:30pm and none of us wanted to go home. We stayed everyday until 11pm. 12pm. After service, after we cleaned, we stay there talking, hanging out, talking to Pepe [Carpena], going to the bodega in front to have some beers. So that was like every day. We were like a family. And we nobody wanted to go home. They wanted to stay there. Hang out. It's not like other jobs. Okay, six o'clock go home. It was cool, special, for sure.”
Nick: “Why did everyone feel like that? I think what I'm getting at…I think everyone feeling that like that definitely had an impact on the success of La Mar. And what it became. That energy of it and this positivity of it. Of this idea of Peruvian food and how much pride you should have in it. And because it's amazing, and there are these amazing flavors, and there's this power. I think you guys felt that power and I think all of those things, like having the clown teach the waiters and all of these things coming together to make it this positive thing. I was more than just kind of a business, not just something where you're clocking in and clocking out, but that you are part of something bigger than just working at some cebichería.”
Diego: “Oh, yeah. We all believed in Gastón’s idea. We all believed in the potential that La Mar was. We were proud to be there. Especially working for Gastón’s. We felt proud. We felt part of the change. And we felt like we were the best team. The best restaurant in the world and we were part of it. We were changing this vision, this image of a traditional cevichería. We were like the cool kids.”
Nick: “At the time, 2005 Peruvian cuisine around the world is still unknown. I remember people were like, where the fuck are you? What is Peru? What do they eat there? And they imagined like tacos and things like that. Just everyone around the world that I ever spoke with at that time was just totally clueless about what was in Peru at that time. But then here comes this restaurant, that wasn't a fine dining restaurant. It wasn't it wasn't Astrid y Gastón. It wasn't white tablecloths and all these things. It was this fun, loud place with a long line before waiting in lines where was even a thing. You know what I mean? Like in 2005, people didn't wait in line for food. In Lima, where everyone, you know, complains about everything, they were waiting in line.”
Diego: “Yeah, crazy.”
Nick: “It was this belief that it was a part of something bigger. I think that this one restaurant made everyone believe. I don't know.”
Diego: “Yeah, it was something unique.”
Nick: “But honestly, I don't think anyone else could have pulled it off. Except Gastón in that way.”
Diego: “Yeah, I think it was a time, it was a people. Everything was perfect. Even the location now. Because the location, if you remember that street was horrible and now it's beautiful. Actually, it was dangerous.”
Nick: “I think Gastón was seeing 10 years ahead of everything. And I think he taught all of you there to believe in that vision of what's going to happen in 10 years. And this vision that wasn't just of that moment, it was a part of something much bigger. Do you feel that? Or am I just projecting?”
Diego: “Of course. No, of course. Gastón has like I don't know, powers to see.”
Nick: “He saw something that I think that other people saw too, but I think he saw it in a totally different way. In a much bigger way. He saw the full picture and not just the one little restaurant. Not just having one restaurant. He knew what was coming. And if you listen to that speech he gave at whatever university it was, and I think it was it was like the same year…”
Diego: “It went viral. Viral before Twitter. Viral by email.”
Nick: “He lays it all out there, like everything that was going to happen. And basically it all came true.”
Quotes from this interview have been gently edited for context and clarity.
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Come to Peru with me and Itamae’s Valerie Chang!
Join Itamae Miami's’s Valerie Chang and I next May on a tour of Peru through Modern Adventure. For 7 days and 6 nights, we will move from Lima to the Sacred Valley as we try to understand what makes Peruvian cuisine so special. We’ll visit some of the country’s top restaurants and bars, explore Andean farms and markets, cook in earthen ovens, tastes piscos and local wines, and much more. There will even be a partial hike of the Inca Trail en route to Machu Picchu. It will just be a small group and space is extremely limited. Bookings can be reserved now. Here’s the full itinerary.