On the first day of the Mistura food festival in Lima Peru last fall an early morning call from Franco Kisic, my Peruvian brother, reminded me that I had lunch reservations at Maido, and when I met Albert Adria that same morning at the event and I told him that I was going to Maido later that day.
I entered Maido a few hours later to the traditional Japanese greeting shouted out by the staff to find Albert already seated at the bar and we joked about who was stalking whom. Albert said it is simply because we both liked good food so it was obvious we would end up at the same place. We were all apparently going for the same experiences since these coincidental meetings continued over the next few days. Three weeks later I enjoyed Albert Adria’s interpretation of Nikkei cuisine at his latest restaurant Pakta in Barcelona, Spain. Nikkei cuisine is unique to Peru and is a blend of Peruvian and Japanese food philosophies. Japanese traditions have been adapted to Peruvian products to create a new concept and a new Peruvian tradition which in fact has now become extremely popular from London to Dubai to Chicago to New York, Asia, and Australia.
The dining room at Maido located on the first floor of a building in what seems like a residential area was packed that afternoon. Guy Savoy, the iconic French chef, was dining with his family. There were also numerous food critics, journalists, and people from the World’s 50 Best Restaurant list in town for the awards, announced a few days ago, and apparently everyone knew where some of the best food in Lima was to be found. Maido had won the 11th place on the first ever 50 Best Restaurants in Latin America awards by Restaurant Magazine announced just a few days earlier. I had missed visiting Maido on my previous visits because Lima has too many great restaurants and talented chefs and I didn’t have enough time to experience them all.
I believe that to cook well you must have generosity in your heart and the desire to add a positive experience to the life of people that enter your world. I travel, meet, and have the opportunity to taste deliciousness coming from the kitchens of well-known and accomplished chefs and cooks but I don’t feel compelled write about or get to know all of them. Peru is a country that I have gotten to know well and have many wonderful friends there but some people have left a lasting impression because of their warmth, honesty and generosity. Mitsuharu Tsumura, affectionately known as Micha to his friends in Peru, is one of those people that I look upon with extreme affection and respect for their talent.
On my last night in Peru for Mistura I was at the crazy Gelinaz dinner event, and amongst all the mayhem and craziness of that night, while Albert Adria was showing me pictures on his iPhone of the octopus dish he had prepared for the dinner that night, Tsumuru came and sat beside me to talk about my experience at Mistura. It seemed a crazy coincidence that Albert, Tsumuru, and Nikkei cuisine seemed to be interlinked by some cosmic connection in my world. Mitsuharu had been working tirelessly on the Mistura event and he was genuinely curious as to if I had any suggestions on what could be tweaked to make the experience even better for visitors next time. Following our conversation, his book “Nikkei as Peru” co-authored by Josephina Barron and with an introduction by the Adria brothers, with 45 recipes from the Maido kitchen and some spectacular photographs, was released. The book traces the history of this fusion cuisine and all the cooks who are credited for its creation such as Rosita Yimura, Toshiro Konishi, Minoru Kunigami, Humberto Sarto, and all the spectacular restaurants serving this cuisine.
Tsumura is a very accomplished chef who has undergone a rigorous training in his skills in Japan prior to opening Maido. I know many young chefs ranging from 21 years to thirty something but I am still surprised by what they accomplish at such an early stage in their career and how focused and committed they are. 32 year old Tsumura has such a clear focus on his future and work which he approaches with such honesty and sincerity that his success is easy to comprehend. After finishing school he went to Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island where besides studying culinary arts he acquired the business skills to successfully operate a business.
After this training he was raring to go and open shop in Lima, but his father questioned his desire to serve sushi without ever having visited Japan. So this determined young man set off for Osaka where he still had family but where diplomas and connections were unimportant and he worked unpaid at Seto Sushi in exchange for a chance to sharpen his knife skills and learn the art of sushi making. After two years of a strict work regimen that began with washing dishes and sharpening knives, to filleting fish and finally being allowed to make sushi, he was finally ready to come home and start work at the Sheraton in Lima. At 25 his skill at managing a staff of 160 as Food and Beverage Manager gave him a shot at the position of a General Manager at 28. It was a major crossroad for him and he rightly chose to pursue his dream of opening his own place over going into the management path in his career. At that point his father who had supported his choice of this profession offered to bankroll him, allowing him to open Maido which is one of the premier Nikkei restaurants in Peru if not the world.
What do you think is the most exciting facet of the food scene in Peru right now?
Right now for me it is the products and how we are beginning to use products that we had stopped using or forgotten in Peru, for example Koshuro, an algae that grows in water that many restaurants are using now, and what we are beginning to create with potatoes as we have more than three thousand varieties of potatoes. In fact we were not even using five of those and now we have more than thirty that we are using of potatoes that come to Lima. It is also interesting how we are investigating and researching more about them. We are also using ancient techniques and adding them to our contemporary cuisine.
I think it’s good because people copy something it is because it is successful. It has happened to me when in another restaurant I saw one of my creations there. I felt good and proud that even though I did not get credit for it, that it was worth something and that my dish worked and was popular.
That is actually what Peru is. We all work together, we share recipes, purveyors in fact we share everything. In Peru we don’t hold back but share everything because union makes a forest. In Peru nothing would have happened if all cooks, farmers, journalists and everyone else had not come together to work at creating a valid cuisine. In Peru food is not only eating but has become a reason for national pride and at the same time a very interesting economy has developed around it in many regions of the country.
Totally, I think that it is a major part of our culture and Peruvians love to eat and the unusual thing is that if you eat out consistently for a month you will find different flavors, combinations, and tastes for each day. It’s not the same food with a different sauce but a totally new idea, from totally different worlds every day. Peru is like a sponge that has been absorbing all these cultures and their flavors over time and we have influences from Spain, China, Italy, Japan and Africa. So we have creole cuisine, Italian Peruvian, Japanese Peruvian and dishes like chaufa.
Actually I think they feel honored because many of the dishes in my restaurant are inspired by them. Rosita Yimura was one of the most well-known Nikkei chefs and I have her pulpo al olivo my menu and in fact during Gelinaz I am paying a tribute to her and my dish there will be named for her. This genius passed away but left a great tradition for us.
(I was at the Gelinaz dinner a few days later and witnessed this moving tribute, really impressed by this young chefs regard for the older generation and his respect for them)
You are successful and well-known internationally, people in food know who you are, so how are you going to maintain balance in your life and stay who you are?
What I do in my life helps me stay the same for example this year I am not running just my restaurant but am in charge of Mistura as well. I am constantly involved in new things. Every morning when I wake up I think of what I will do that day and it’s the same before going to sleep at night. I think of what is the new thing I will do tomorrow and not because I need to or it’s my hobby but because it’s my passion.
I believe your feet have to be on the ground, humility is the element that keeps you growing. You know Albert (Adria), he is so humble, he is ready to start from zero to learn, that is what keeps him evolving all the time. If you don’t keep learning in two months you can be out of your league because everything moves so fast. Your brain has to be ready to receive information and not think that you know everything.
I always ask this question of young chefs because I have seen many of them change so quickly with success and lose the essence of who they are and their cuisine changes too. Do you think that is true?
One thing I have loved to do since I was a kid is to make people happy and my happiness depends on how happy I can make people who are around me, family, friends, customers and I feel happy through them. My restaurant is a place where I have the opportunity to make people happy every day and that for me is reason enough not to change and so I will not let success make me forget those around me. Life depends on details like going to the tables or explaining dishes or greeting people.
I want to expand Nikkei cuisine around the world. I am developing a new brand of restaurants. I want to have only one Maido but for exporting Nikkei cuisine in a more casual way not like here because Maido is a creative restaurant where you have to be present all the time.
Where are you taking this concept first?
The first one we are taking to the beach here in Lima as a casual restaurant. There are plans for Santiago, Colombia next though we are still negotiating. First I want to branch out in South America, close to me where I can go often. If things go well I will go to Europe or other parts of the world. There is no rush and I want to take small steps. I am happy with Maido but I want to show the world what this cuisine is about. If we rush we might not do it well because of the pressure.
Truth be told I don’t have a personal family life though I do see my parents. I am single and living by myself because most of the time I am at work and I don’t have time for other things. It’s a good thing right now because I have more time to think and plan and work without worrying about other stuff. I don’t have the stress of getting back home early to a wife and kids yet.
Do you thing since Nikkei cuisine is spreading all over the world it is able to retain its essence despite being so far from home?
I think it is a good thing if it changes, keeping the essence in another country is hard, and you can be inspired by it. For example Albert in Pakta has to work according to the ingredients available in Barcelona. It will not mark sense to imitate the cuisine in exactly the same way without the Peruvian products. Nikkei cuisine was born out of the desire of Japanese immigrants to eat something similar to their culture and they adapted their cuisine by using local products.So I don’t think that cuisine just changes, but that it has to change.
I think you have to adapt your food in another place for example Colombia or Chile where you cannot find the same products or use the same amount of spice that we use here. Peruvians love chilies but other places people do not eat those.
How do you maintain your individuality in this complex food culture?
It is a constant challenge and you have to question yourself all the time. I change my tasting menu all the time according to my own philosophy. I didn’t open a book to look up new techniques as I did not want to see something for inspiration. I decided to go through memories of food my mom used to make for me or what Nikkei restaurants used to make here in those days. I keep my identity in this manner while mixing old and new techniques. I keep trying to change my perspective all the time.
Every Saturday I go to a specific market where they bring products from all over the country and talk to the producers and pick things which they later deliver to us. We work with fishermen from Northern Peru; we buy potatoes from a group of farmers who have formed an association that works with twenty restaurants here.
I am crazy about potatoes and I think that they are the most amazing product we have here in Peru. It goes very deep in our culture for example in the Andes it is not only food but a source of money. If you go to 4000 meters in the Andes there is nothing else growing there and then you see them using the same techniques since six or seven thousand years. Nothing has changed, if it rains there is a crop and if it does not then there is nothing. They depend on ancient rituals to encourage nature to give them rain. More than that it is how people there work together and help each other is very inspiring.
Everyone wants to learn about Peruvian food these days but which cuisine are you curious about?
Chinese cuisine is one I love and the techniques, the amount of preparation that goes into it. I have never been to China but I do want to explore Chinese cuisine.
(Laughing) Truth be told I don’t take vacations, I have traveled for food events but it has been seven years since I have taken a vacation. Right now I don’t feel like I need to take a break. I love Peru and Urubamba Valley and I love the Piedmont area of Italy.
Which other conferences do you go to besides Mistura?
I have been to some in Santiago, Chile, and Gastronomika in Spain three years ago.
Tsumuru’s very gentle demeanor and the way he crouched down by my side for our conversations and his respect totally won me over. Now when I think of Lima, I have another young friend who I look forward to seeing besides Franco and Diego Munoz of Astrid y Gaston. I have numerous other friends in Peru as I have written about in earlier posts, but more than that I have received the same warmth and affection from everyone I meet in that country. Peruvians have the ability to embrace anyone entering their world as is evident in their happy mélange of cuisines and cultures.