Diego Oka’s Culinary Journey Comes Full Circle at La Mar by Gastón Acurio

“I’m Peruvian, 100 percent,” says Diego Oka, the executive chef at La Mar by Gastón Acurio, a Peruvian restaurant located in the Mandarin Oriental on Brickell Key in Miami. “My heart is Peruvian; my family is Japanese.”

Oka moved out of Peru when he was 23 years old, then moved to Mexico for four years, Colombia for two, San Francisco for three, and he’s been in Miami for two years.

He attended culinary school right after graduating high school. “But I think, at that point, I wasn’t 100 percent sure that I wanted to be a chef.” Clearly, it all worked out.

Oka met and worked for Gastón Acurio during one of his culinary school internships. “He offered me a head chef position in a restaurant/bar that he was outsourcing. He was making the menu,” Oka says. “But in that bar/restaurant, I realized that I wasn’t ready at the age of 21 to be in charge of a kitchen and teach other people how to make things.”

After six months of manning that kitchen, he told Acurio that he still wanted a teacher to be able to perfect his craft. “So he said, ‘Okay, I have a great project that is coming, and I want you to be part [of it]. It’s my new cebicheria, and it’s gonna be called La Mar.’”

In this “Table 42” vignette, we bring viewers into Foodable Top 25 restaurant La Mar, where Oka shows us how to make tuna tataki. 

“We’re gonna cover the tuna in salt and we’re gonna burn it. It’s a Japanese technique — cooked outside, but very raw inside. Then we put it in ice to continue cooking, so it’s like a shock of ice.” When cutting the tuna, Oka says it’s important to cut against the lines seen on the fish. A touch of Peruvian pink salt is added to the sashimi, and then leche de tigre — blended and strained with lime juice, fish stock, celery, red onion, garlic, cilantro, and chiles — with a hint of salt is made. From there, a reduction, a tamarind-based aji panka sesame soy sauce, is poured over the sashimi, and house-made tahini — caramelized, blended toasted sesame seeds — is dolloped throughout the spread. Cucumber, daikon, carrots, pickled ginger, sesame seeds and sesame oil, and chopped chives are added for good measure. To complete, the dish is decorated with sunflowers, giving it a vibrantly colored finish.

“La Mar has dishes that we’re never gonna change,” says Oka, adding that 50 to 60 percent of the menu generally stays the same. He says dishes like the Cebiche Classico and the Lomo Saltado will always be on the menu. “Our menu here in Miami is very traditional. We like traditional flavors, but with a twist.”

La Mar is a casual restaurant that caters to diners who want to share plates, but it’s optional. “Big plates, small plates. You can find Italian influence, Chinese, Japanese influence in our menu.” The concept can also be found in Peru, where the design aesthetic is consistent. 

“Miami has been changing,” says Oka. “In two years, I feel and see that Miami’s been like… great culinary level, great chefs, great restaurants. So we have to be adventurous and offer what we think our customers are gonna like.”