Peruvian Chef Mitsuharu Tsumura Talks About His Nikkei Cuisine
by Geeta Bansal
The best cooking happening in Lima the gastronomic hub of Peru these days is likely at Maido by chef owner Mitsuharu Tsumura, the leading proponent of Nikkei style of cuisine. The buzz about this singular cuisine has been building leading to the recognition of Nikkei as a bona fide Peruvian culinary concept in the last decade. Peru is a unique melting pot of cultures with migrant populations from China, Japan, Italy, Africa, Spain, and Mexico resulting in a cuisine with nuances and flavors from all these areas. This Japanese Peruvian style of cuisine owes its origins to the migrant Japanese farm workers and masterfully blends Peruvian ingredients with traditional Japanese techniques.
There are many critics of the best of lists but in the case of a country like Peru phenomenal culinary talents like Mitsuharu Tsumura would have remained hidden from most food enthusiasts if not for them. It is food events like Mistura the biggest food festival held annually in Lima or the cultish Gelinaz food orgies and chef shuffles or these lists that introduce such talents to the international dining scene.In 2016 the 50 Best List acknowledged Maido as the highest climber as it shot up to number 13 among the 50 top restaurants in the world. All bets are on it moving up further in ranks especially in the Latin American restaurants this year.
The young chef’s phenomenal cuisine has a heart and soul in that shines in its unforgettable taste and flavor. While a few Peruvian chefs are more prominently featured in media headlines this young chef has been quietly perfecting his art, overtaking them in the last few years with explosions of taste and flavor at his tables. While he does source ingredients that represent the bio diversity of the region it’s not in your face kind of information about ecosystems and personal philosophies. That trend has gone as far as it can go and is uninteresting and exhausting for an average diner to comprehend. Maido was recently refurbished and a private dining room has been added upstairs but the space is as warm and welcoming as always.
The traditional Japanese greeting from the moment guests step off the stairs leading up into the restaurant sets the tone for the experience. Maido offers both a traditional Japanese and a Nikkei menu with an option of pairings of wine, sake or non-alcoholic beverages but the tasting menu is the way to go. The snacks that arrive at the table like black rice cracker with octopus or an onion terrine with sole tartare, a mackerel ceviche with leche de Tigre awaken the palate for the delectable courses that follow. On a recent visit, delicious sea urchin rice, cassava soba and especially the choripan, a squid hot dog atop a minuscule bun, left me wanting many more. (Note to chef: these should at least come as duos)
In his mid-thirties, Tsumura has a passion and clear focus for cuisine that took him to the Johnson & Wales university on Rhode Island followed after graduation by a rigorous training for two years in Osaka, Japan where his family hails from. He started there at the bottom, cleaning dishes and sharpening knives before making it to the sushi station. After returning home to Lima, bankrolled by his father, he opened Maido at just 28 years of age now the top Nikkei restaurant in the world. Often seen hobnobbing with guests in the dining room with its rope canopy displaying flags of Peru and Japan, his passion for his work and humility are apparent. When we spoke about humility he said, “I believe it’s the element that keeps you growing. You have to always be ready to start from zero and keep learning and continuing to evolve.”
Last year he opened Sushi Pop a casual delivery based concept that he hopes to expand with several locations. His fare will soon be available at his new restaurant Aji opening at the MGM in Macau this year. In his book “Nikkei es Peru” released in 2013, he tells the backstory of the emergence and prominence of his cuisine in the culinary landscape of Peru.
Nikkei cuisine has gained popularity worldwide recently. As one of the main proponents of this cuisine, do you feel that it’s well represented?
Truthfully, I haven’t seen it much, but the ones I know are like Albert Adria’s Pakta in Barcelona which I count as one of my top dining experiences. I should say it was mind blowing because it had the Nikkei with true Japanese and Peruvian flavors. I have been to Chotto Matte in Soho, London where I saw a very interesting interpretation of this cuisine in sushi with Peruvian flavors. Some of these places have achieved a surprising level of flavor and techniques and Nobu Matsuhisa I would say is one of the pioneers of this style of cuisine in the world.
I have seen others though I would not call them Nikkei restaurants in themselves but there are other Peruvian restaurants like LaMar in Miami. It’s a Peruvian ceviche restaurant but with a Nikkei chef at the helm. At restaurants in Miami or San Francisco you also find the Japanese influence within this Peruvian concept. When I travel, I don’t particularly want to go to Nikkei restaurants because I also want to visit restaurants serving other cuisines.
Are Japanese or Nikkei cuisines meshing together with Peruvian cuisine?
Yes, and you find many Nikkei dishes on the menu of a Peruvian restaurant and in restaurant like CevicheUK and Lima Floral or Lima London the concepts have been described as Latin American. They all serve Peruvian cuisine but a very wide ranging concept and when you go through the menu you find there are many Nikkei sauces or dishes included. I believe that Nikkei has now become not only a Peruvian concept but a intrinsic part of Peruvian cuisine. Along with ceviche there is tiradito which is a Nikkei dish. Japanese Peruvian dishes are found on Peruvian menus for example the popular causa dish comes with a tuna tartare and a ponzu or soy sauce from the Nikkei cuisine.
A few years ago, there was talk of Peruvian cuisine as the one to watch. In your opinion, has the focus shifted to the Nikkei version of Peruvian cuisine?
I feel what is booming in the world is the ceviche, ceviche bars or tigers milk (Leche de Tigre) which are hugely popular. Every single Peruvian restaurant in the world will serve you ceviche as well as Nikkei dishes like causa or sushi. I have been saying this for a while that the reason why Nikkei cuisine works in Peru is because it has developed very naturally in this country. It’s because most Nikkei restaurants started as simply Peruvian and not Japanese restaurants.
In my book, I talk about this history which shows that the chef’s that started cooking Nikkei 60 or 70 years ago were not cooking Japanese cuisine. They were cooking Peruvian food but giving it a twist with Japanese influence. This is what is happening around the world with Nikkei becoming more prominent. Actually, even the ceviche in Peru has been influenced by the Japanese. The way we make it to order now instead of pre-marinated for a few hours is a result of the Japanese influence. The tiradito which is a combination of ceviche and sashimi is Nikkei so I would say both ceviche and leche de Tigre are more popular concepts in the world when talking about Peruvian food. That is the first thing people associate with Peru just like for Japan it is sushi that first comes to mind.
Is the Peruvian potato of which there are so many varieties becoming an over exposed ingredient in conversations about Peruvian cuisine?
I believe the opposite and believe it is underexposed because though we talk a lot about it we are not capable yet to take it to the world. We have amazing varieties of potatoes here but we are not able to export them overseas. There is a magical place for potatoes in our culture which goes beyond the many different preparations. There are two kinds of potatoes the commercial and the indigenous Peruvian potatoes which are still grown the same way as 6000 years ago. A small farmer who has been growing them dependent solely on rain and within a community of farmers who take turns helping each other work the land is the real story behind these potatoes. Even the tools used are the same for thousands of years and the same practices are being followed.
For these small farmers the potatoes are like their treasure because one will have a variety that no else one has. So when we talk about three thousand varieties of potatoes it doesn’t mean that you will find them everywhere. One piece of land may be the only one suitable for that variety and if that farmer stops growing it will become extinct. So it is unique, especially if you grow just 60 kilos of that variety in the world.
You often speak at congresses and food events around the world. What is the most significant aspect of Peruvian cuisine that you share with the audiences?
I believe that Peru has three basic things that I like to share. One is the biodiversity of products with its microclimates, in fact 75% of all the microclimates of the world. In order to understand the way we cook here based on the regions, it is important to share that. The next point is that Peru has an unusual amount of influence from other parts of the world compared to other countries. Each countries cuisine has influences from outside and there is no place in the world that this has not happened. For example, tempura is not Japanese but a Portuguese import but in Peru the Nikkei or the Chifa (Chinese style fried rice) are not separate cuisines but part of our Peruvian cuisine which has many cuisines within it. So, all the little parts come together to make the whole. The Chifa is Chinese fried rice with a Peruvian flavor and very popular and people eat it every day in Peru.
I try to relate to the audience that Peru is a multi cultural country, and way more than a melting pot. Many countries have a melting pot but the pot in this country is very unique because we have Italian, French, Chinese, and Japanese dishes which are on menus in Peruvian restaurants. This mix of flavors has built the Peruvian cuisine and to comprehend it is important for realizing the uniqueness of Peru.
Besides that, I talk about what Peru means to me and that is flavor. Peru is a country that has one of the ten important cuisines in the world each one having their own specific identity. Some cuisines are very light in flavor while others are more robust. I like to say that Peruvian cuisine is like hard rock. It’s salsa, it’s has so many peaks, it’s so powerful to the point of being overwhelming. This is where Nikkei cuisine comes in as it tones it down a little bit because that’s the Japanese way. It’s more calm, Zen, as the spices are pared down. Peruvian Chinese is like a song and if you go into any home and see the way they fry the onions with the Peruvian aji chilies before making the stew or how they prep the pumpkins to put in it, is the base of that song. If you came here twenty years ago, you would have eaten rice with a stew as that is what we ate at home. It looked plain and not so pretty but when you close your eyes and tasted it you were in heaven. So for me Peru is very strong, full of flavor.
You started cooking fairly early when you were 20 or 21 years old and since then you have traveled and trained in Japan. Have these outside influences changed your cooking style and the way you think?
I feel it changes every day and looking back I can see how much. For example, a dish from 2010 had dauphinois potatoes, braised short rib and deep fried potatoes and so it was pretty simple and straightforward. It was tasty but looking back I am amused but in my defense, that was the style at that time. I have to say that my style of seasoning my food has not changed at all though the way I plate it has. The seasoning has not changed since I was 15 years old but the ingredients I use has increased many fold and the aesthetics have changed. Six or seven years ago, there were not that many products coming to Lima and so we didn’t have the opportunities to do these creative dishes.
Has social media contributed to the changing aesthetic?
Yes, it has and we all want our food to look amazing, romantic and all that. Whatever you do you have to remember that first you eat to nourish yourself, and then because it’s tasty and gives you a kick when you put it in your mouth. So aesthetic can never be more important than the taste. For me taste and flavor is important over everything else.
One question you are probably asked often since last year’s 50 Best awards must be: What you are aiming for next?
Yes, it’s a question that I am asked often and at the risk of being impolite I am not really focused on that. I believe that the only thing in my work is to continue to develop, investigate and move forward. There are many good restaurants in Latin America and for me to be in the top five with the other fine restaurants is amazing enough.
Has all of this attention helped bring in more business?
Actually for me the best part is that most of the chef’s on this list who own or work in restaurants have all become good friends. As a result, we all feel happy for each other and also do many collaborations and events together now. I feel we all celebrate each other and though the competition is there it all takes a backseat. As for me I am more concerned about the guests who come to my restaurant and watching the expressions on their faces as they dine. It is important to me that everyone goes out the door with a smile on their face. It doesn’t matter if I know who them or because of who they are, they are my customers who sometimes travel from other parts of the world to eat here. I feel a huge responsibility to give them a great experience for and is important not only for me or my restaurant but also for our country. We represent Peru in a way and must show our best.
Are chefs in Peru a close-knit community?
We are, and all of us get together once every two weeks to put our heads together to see how we can improve our performance. We have a couple of projects that we are all working on together and you will hear about them soon.
These lists and ratings bring in business. Have chefs become more competitive as a result?
I do believe we are in a more competitive environment and I see it as a positive. This kind of competition makes you reflect more and improve and develop your cuisine. It generates new ideas and this healthy competition is good for such development.
Is it a good or interesting time to be a chef or cook in Peru right now, with access to all these forgotten ingredients and new products?
It’s like being in Disneyland. It’s like not having a map to follow and you go along not knowing what you will find. You always find new things, new recipes. When you travel in Peru where you really learn to cook is in people’s homes. Often times in Northern Peru the best meals I have had are in people’s homes. The way they cook rice, or treat their lamb or use everything they grow is incredible. It’s a great time to be a chef but also a moment when we have to comprehend and take a stand regarding where we going regarding sustainability of the products. My tasting menu is focused on the sea because we have many issues regarding the sustainability of its products.
Our job is also to make the society aware of these things and what they should support and what are they many options in underused products.
How do you build the progression of your 15 course menus?
There are two things I take into account. First thing I consider is how I want that diner to feel and to experience. As you have seen my menus go up and down like if give sea urchin or something with a strong flavor in one course then the next flavor is not going to be stronger but lighter. That will be a palate cleanser for the next course. In my tasting menu, there are five hot dishes and two warm and eight cold. I like to break it up and make it interesting. There of course a sequence regarding the order of the courses.
If I am doing a menu about the sea the first course may be sand with a surprise in it and the next like dipping your feet on the edge of the ocean and then further in the rocks, then the deeper part of the sea at 10, 15, or 20 miles farther into the sea. That doesn’t mean there will be only seafood but there will be other elements conceptualized as part of the ocean. It’s a play on the ocean and where I love to fish.
Who is your best or worst critic on who you test your new ideas or dishes?
That person is definitely my dad. He tells it like it is and sometimes I get mad and say I’m never going to call you again but I do. He will say I want to tell you the truth because I want this menu to be successful and this is my opinion and (laughing) I am your father after all and I don’t care what you think. I also call on my friends who are chef’s or food critics for their opinion on menus or dishes.
How do you handle negative comments?
It depends not only on what is said but how it is said. I really listen to people and if they criticize my food I reflect on it unless they are just being obnoxious. In weekly meetings with my kitchen team I tell them that usually people are right. If you don’t taste the dish they are tasting and see if it’s really undercooked or over-salted then you cannot do a good job. There are things like if the customer wants a steak medium rare and it doesn’t come to the table that way then as a chef you cannot insist that you are right. I appreciate feedback not because I doubt my capacity as a chef but I feel if out of ten people seven comment about the same dish then it’s a sign that something needs to change.
A few years ago when speaking about which cuisine interests you other than Peruvian, you had mentioned Chinese cuisine, and now you are opening in Macau. Will Chinese cuisine be featured on your menu at Aji restaurant?
Of course, and not because I will be in China but because Peru itself has Chinese food within its cuisine and I want to share that. I want to show how incredible it is that so many thousand miles away we have those elements in our cuisine and on the other hand to introduce ceviche to them. The wok technique is very popular in Peru and every Peruvian restaurant has one in the kitchen. In other countries like Argentina, Colombia, Brazil etc. unless it is an oriental restaurant you won’t see one. In Peru we even make our popular Lomo Saltado dish in a wok.
I will serve dim sum which I also have on the menu in Maido, along with the fish sandwich and the steamed Bao which is Chinese. I have also had a soup dumpling on my menu with lamb stew and beans. As a concept Peruvian hot food is mainly stews so they go very well with the Chinese dumplings. So it’s not like a fusion or creating something new. So my intent is really to show what Chinese food means in Peru.
Are Peruvian chefs working together to promote the country’s cuisine?
It’s not just chef’s, the government or journalists that help promote Peru but also Peruvians. Out of 32-33 million people in our country at least one third that is around 10 million are Peruvian ambassadors around the world. I am just pulling out numbers but out of that ten at least two million are able to travel abroad and have the resources to do so. When they travel, they talk about Peru and spread the word. It’s all teamwork and very unique to Peru.
Other chef’s like Joan Roca, Ferran Adria, Alain Ducasse, and Massimo Bottura who have been here as well as visitors who fall in love with Peru talk about it and have focused the eyes of the culinary world on us. That exposure has been very beneficial for us. We Peruvians are very easy going and like to share our country and show our best. It is no longer just a tourist destination with Machu Picchu, but a culinary destination.
Besides the new openings around the world and in Peru, what are the other dreams you want to realize maybe ten years down the road?
I am going to share something I have not shared before. Ten years from now my dream is to have one restaurant that will not be Maido because I feel that Maido has a cycle like everything else which will run out at some point.
The restaurant I envision right here in Lima will have a concept focused on casual, comfort food. I want to bring Nikkei back towards the home style of cooking and while restaurants I open abroad will continue. My biggest passion is to cook and the most important thing for me personally is to be happy all the time and right now my happiness lies in Maido. Right now, life is hectic with one or two day trips to Europe or Asia but I honestly I don’t want to have this stress of the lists, stars or reviews. I am 35 years old now and hope to keep my energy for the future. I love what I do and very happy right now but want to be able to have people come in to a casual place, have fun and share the joy. I want to enjoy the ride in my life after all we are here for a very short time.
Cheers to that Chef Mitsuharu!