Every Chef’s story is different. How they got their start, who was their mentor, what culinary styles they are known for, what their favorite ingredients are– are all different. But with that being said, the passion that chefs share for their craft is often the same.
When tasting his food or hearing him talk about his career, you can’t help to feel chef Diego Oka’s passion. As the current executive chef at Miami’s La Mar in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, Oka has had an impressive career in his 15 years as a culinary professional.
Early in his career, he pleaded with celebrity chef Gaston Acurio to let him intern at his restaurant. Fast forward 15 years, he has traveled the world working as the executive chef at renowned restaurants. He has been the head chef at Acurion in Peru, La Mar Cebicheria in Colombia, La Mar Cebicheria in San Francisco, La Mar Cebicheria in Mexico City and now at La Mar at Miami’s Mandarin Oriental Hotel.
Although, Oka has been instrumental in developing Acruio’s La Mar restaurants around the world, the Miami location is the first in a hotel, which Oka says is much different than a free-style restaurant.
We sat down with Chef Oka and discussed his experience, challenges, how he has learned and why he loves his job.
Foodable: Tell us about your culinary expertise?
Diego: You never stop learning all the things you want to know as a chef, I specialize in Peruvian food. I’m Peruvian, but by background is Japanese, but I was born and raised in Peru. So basically, I love Peruvian food, I love to show the culinary style of my country. For 11 years, I have been working with Gaston, learning more about Peru and everything.
Foodable: What are your favorite ingredients to work with?
Diego: Potatoes, they are very versatile. You can do many things with them. In Peru we have 3,000 types of potatoes. So we can play around with any dish, every variety. But also another one of my favorite ingredients is garlic. I love garlic, it gives a special touch to the food. I love garlic, I can eat garlic every day, I can eat fermented garlic. So I used a lot of garlic in my recipes.
Foodable: What about equipment?
Diego: For sure, my knives. Without them, you can’t do anything! With a knife you can do so many things, you don’t need equipment if you have a knife. Of course, machines help you to do it faster. But, handling and using the girth weight of the knife is very helpful. And also, you use a knife to finish a lot of the details when you are preparing a dish, better than a machine.
Foodable: What dishes are the most popular amongst customers?
Diego: Ceviche for sure, we specialize in ceviche. We have eight types of varieties of ceviche and they are the most popular dishes here at La Mar in Miami.
Foodable: What have been some of your challenges as a chef?
Diego: I have been very lucky in my whole career; I have been surrounded by great people who teach me and guide me. One of my biggest challenges is that I am very young. I graduated culinary school when I was 18. One of my first positions as executive chef was in 2005 when I was 23 years-old and it was challenging. I was very nervous; I was insecure because I had to manage older people than me who had more experience than me. Then when I was 24, I opened three La Mar restaurants in Mexico City. Everything went pretty good, but I was a little insecure due to my age and handling and leading a team while being so young. So I had to learn, while also being a leader.
Foodable: What do you love the most about being a chef?
Diego: Everything, everything, absolutely everything. I love what I do. I told you before I have been very lucky to be in places and cities surrounded by people who support me. My experience being a chef, being a cook for almost 15 years has been awesome. I wouldn’t change a thing.
As being a chef, I had the chance to live in Mexico for a year, 2 years in Columbia, 3 years in San Francisco, 2 years in Miami. I have learned more about my country. I have traveled and worked in Italy.
To be a chef, it’s more than just cooking. Cooking is very easy. You have to be a team builder; you have to be gracious with your clients. You have to be smart and be able to control multiple things. It’s a complete career. Chefs make people happy. There are a few careers that give you that chance to make people happy when they come to your restaurant.
Foodable: Why have you chosen Miami as your current culinary city?
Diego: I chose Miami because of the Miami Mandarin Oriental hotel. I had been in Miami before for vacations when I was young. Peruvians come to Miami for the beach and shopping.
But when they [the hotel] asked me to move to Miami, I didn’t know a lot about the city. But, I did know a lot about the Mandarin Oriental hotel and the corporation. So because I was so used to working in free-standing restaurants, which are managed differently than the hotel– I pushed myself to be more organized, to learn more about business, to have more control and to learn how to be part of a big corporation based in Hong Kong. I moved to Miami because of the hotel, to learn from them, to learn how they operate, how they manage. Hotels are often much more organized than free-standing restaurants, so that is why I landed in Miami. I wanted to learn from a big corporation.
Foodable: What is your favorite dish to make and why?
Diego: My favorite dish to make is the one I have never done. I love to create, make new things, make last-minute creations. That is my favorite thing about cooking. I think everybody would be bored if you had the same favorite dish, and you were always asked to cook it the same.