Los Angeles-based chef Ricardo Zarate tests the Las Vegas palate with his first restaurant, Once, pronounced on-seh, which means 11 in Spanish, a Peruvian Nikkei experience that melds methods from Japanese and Peruvian cooking. The pop-up restaurant only signed a yearlong lease at the Grand Canal Shoppes inside the former Table 10 space vacated by Emeril Lagasse on New Year’s Eve. Zarate spent a mere two months preparing the restaurant to debut on March 11, a swift changeover by Las Vegas standards.
Zarate, 44, named the restaurant for his spot in his line of 13 siblings born and raised in Lima, Peru. The chef, who already gained fame with his Peruvian restaurant Rosaliné in Los Angeles, wants to make tourists fall in love with the dishes that take their inspiration from his childhood and homeland.
“I’m coming with a very humble mentality because my goal is to incorporate myself into Las Vegas and in the meantime show who I am, as a Peruvian and my cuisine,” Zarate says while sitting inside his 160-seat restaurant. He’s surrounded with tables and chairs made from raw woods and a live plant wall that symbolizes the rain forest of the Amazon River. He looks relaxed in a short-sleeved T-shirt and khakis after he flew in from Los Angeles the night before.
Zarate talks of Nikkei, a Japanese word that refers to descendants from the country who live abroad. In Peru, the culinary experience of Nikkei really started in 1889, when 7,000 or so Japanese came to Peru to work mostly on sugarcane farms. After their two-year contracts expired, some of the Japanese workers stayed in Peru and in turn introduced Peruvians to their cuisine and incorporated native ingredients such as yucca, plantains, and maize.
Think of one of Japanese sushi chef Nobu Matsuhisa’s most famous dishes: yellowtail sashimi with jalapeño that melds the sublime lightness of the fish with Japanese yuzu and a kick of spice from the pepper. Zarate takes an approach from the opposite direction, using 70 percent of his ingredients from Peru, but adding a Japanese flair. His ceviche is probably the gateway dish to Nikkei dining with its mix of sashimi quality fish “cooked” in citrus and peppers. Zarate points to his red snapper tiradito that uses ingredients such as yuzu, ponzu, and an aioli leche de tigreas — an “upside down” version of yellowtail sashimi with Peruvian components and Japanese technique.
Zarate grew up in what he describes as a “shoebox-shaped cement house with a tin roof.” In the mornings he would wake up early to the aromas of food wafting through the house as his mother cooked breakfast for his family of 15. “Her cooking was passion, was love. That’s how I fell in love with cooking,” says Zarate, who named his Los Angeles restaurant for his mother.
After stints in London, including a brief time cooking at Zuma’s original Japanese izakaya (which now has a location at the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas), he moved to Los Angeles in 2009 and went on to debut a mini empire of restaurants that introduced the city to Peruvian cuisine and earned a nod from Food & Wine as Best New Chef 2012.
Then he walked away from all of it in 2014, closing three of the restaurants and leaving the fourth after his mother and brother, also a chef in London, died. “I just moved on to continue the grieving,” he says. “…something didn’t feel right. So as painful as it was, I had to let it all go,” he told Munchies in 2016.
Start over he did. In 2015, he published The Fire of Peru: Recipes and Stories from My Peruvian Kitchen, opening Los Angeles’ Rosaliné, an ode to his mother who influenced his cooking skills, last year, and now Once at the Grand Canal Shoppes in Las Vegas.
“Definitely the people don’t know me here yet, but like I said, I’m a very humble and competitive guy. I’m being quiet. And I’m waiting,” says Zarate, who has a goatee and a laser-sharp sense of humor. “I don’t care if I have two customers or 100 customers, I need to make sure everybody’s pleased if they’re going to come here because they need to taste what I’m trying to do with passion.”
That passion is a driving force behind Zarate’s cuisine. Originally, Zarate wanted to only serve a weekly rotation of 11 dishes on the menu, but instead, opted for 29 (2+9=11, get it?). Lomo saltado, a rendition of a classic dish prepared here in Vegas with filet mignon, comes with tomatoes, fries, and Kimlan soy. Pato frito represents Zarate’s take on Peking duck, which he fries. The shareable part of the menu dips into seafood platter stews meant for six and oxtail bibimbap, a riff on a Vietnamese dish with a sunny-side up egg and plantains. Those last two dishes remind him of making dinner for his family in Lima.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle so far has been finding employees who can work in the kitchen and understand the ingredients. So few even knew what the ingredients were. “As a chef, it’s hard coming into a new town, coming in with a new cuisine. If I was cooking Italian, I could hire people cooking Italian and they would understand the basics. Who am I going to hire here cooking Peruvian cuisine?”
Teaching his staff about the ingredients motivates him. His English with a delightful Peruvian accent gets faster as he describes ricotos, a spicy pepper, and quinoa, a staple Peruvian ingredient since the Incas ruled 5,000 years ago — yes, it long predates the ingredients increasingly trendy status on American menus in the past 15 years. “To me, by doing that, I’m already putting a little spice of Peruvian in their heart.”
Indeed, that’s the goal with Once for customers as well. Pieces of what Zarate calls “Peruvian Feng Shui” decorate the space. Miniature bulls with their horns facing the entrance of the restaurant hide throughout the room. Zarate describes how they cleanse visitors of bad energy. Cacos, little figurines carrying food and music, also find a home hidden in the lush greenery that represents the rain forest. Even a pair of tribal statues representing fertility face the bar, where Zarate hopes diners will fall in love with his cuisine.
And if Zarate has his way, Peruvian Nikkei will be the next big cuisine to take over American appetites. “I believe that Peruvian cuisine will become more popular in the United States. That’s why I chose Las Vegas to introduce it to the world.”
Note: Locals can receive a 15 percent discount by showing their Nevada IDs.
• All Coverage of Once [ELV]