This project was produced for Annenberg’s Specialized Journalism multimedia boot camp, but it also may be the start of a bigger project telling the stories of Mercado La Paloma. Thanks to the instructors at USC, my partner Cara Rifkin, and our project advisor Rachel Neubeck.
Summary: Chef Ricardo Zarate is having a tremendous 2011. He became one of Food & Wine‘s Best New Chefs, opened a restaurant, and is planning the opening of another. While he expands his business, the Peruvian chef is staying true to the roots with his cuisine and his first restaurant, Mo-Chica.
The Chef: Ricardo Zarate
Ricardo Zarate first cooked for his family–all 12 brothers and sisters–at home in Peru. Today the chef isn’t doing much cooking. He’s too busy managing two Los Angeles restaurants and planning the opening of a third.
Picca offers Peruvian food that is “two steps up,” he says, from Mo-Chica, which has been widely praised itself.
L.A. Weekly restaurant critic Jonathon Gold raved about Zarate’s ceviche in his 2009 review of Mo-Chica, adding it to his list of 99 essential restaurants. Los Angeles Magazine named Mo-Chica No. 4 on its list of best new restaurants of 2009.
But Zarate’s road to success has been a long one, and he plans to keep working towards his goal of elevating Peruvian food to the level of Japanese, Italian, and French cuisine.
Zarate grew up in a poor area of Lima. The fact that all of his brothers and sisters finished university was unusual for his neighborhood, he says.
He moved to London to study English and the culinary arts. There, Zarate started as a dishwasher at Benihana, but he worked his way up to top kitchens in both London and L.A. After trying to convince investors to help him open a Peruvian restaurant for years, he decided to do it on his own at Mercado La Paloma.
“Ricardo is an amazing brother…. He’s really on his game,” says Damon Turner, the arts coordinator at the Mercado. “And he doesn’t really have the air about him. He’s really down-to-earth.”
The Space: Mercado La Paloma
In 2009, the middle of a recession, Zarate opened Mo-Chica with his own money at Mercado La Paloma in South L.A.
“The Mercado is a small business incubator that promotes health,” Turner says.
With support from the city and foundations, Esperanza Community Housing Corporation transformed an old garment factory into a space for restaurants, service businesses, arts and crafts shops, non-profit organizations, and community events.
Watch Mercado La Paloma: The Art (produced by Cara Rifkin) for more on the culture and community of the Mercado.
Venders rent the spaces for less than they would elsewhere and are chosen based on the quality of the products, Turner says. “Is it really indigenous, or is like ‘we got that from wholesale’?” he says.
Zarate says his success is the perfect example of the market’s mission. Still, Mo-Chica struggled at first because the food was too expensive for the neighborhood. “Trust me, after one month making $40 dollars a day and I have like six staff…I was thinking, ‘Oh my God, this is going to be a failure,'” Zarate says.
Learn more about the challenges of running a business in the community by watching Mercado La Paloma: The Neighborhood (produced by Megan Sweas).
Zarate’s cuisine attracted attention despite the location, and the attention has been good for the whole Mercado, according to Gilberto Cetina, Jr. of Chichen Itza.
The Mercado has become a destination for diners from all over L.A., and when Mo-Chica customers see that Chichen Itza, which is also on Gold’s list of essential restaurants, is in the same food court, Cetina says, they’ll often return.
“The fact that [Zarate is] finally getting the praise that his food deserves is telling of the space we have here,” Turner says.
Watch The Two Gilbertos: Creating Community Through Yukatan Cuisine (produced by Cara Rifkin) to see why the food is only part of Chichen Itza’s draw: