Miami Chefs Create Their Own Culinary Scene

Miami Chefs Create Their Own Culinary Scene
  • Miami Star chefs come together to discuss the culture of South Beach culinary scene

  • Foodies love these Miami Beach restaurants for their unique cuisine

The greatest minds in culinary, all at one table: What would you ask? On this episode of Foodable’s At The Chef’s Table, Miami’s chef community unites in their desire not to follow in the footsteps of New York or Los Angeles but to grow their own culinary culture. Along with focusing on their own passions, these Miami chefs also emphasize the importance of evolving with their community.

Grown, Shannon Allen’s healthy fast food concept is just one of those striving to solve the problems today’s health-conscious consumer is facing. “I think if you’re not going towards farm to table, if you’re not sourcing local ingredients, you're going to answer to a customer that’s very smart, has dealt with health problems, has food allergies, is very aware of what they are putting in their mouth and that it affects not only how they feel but also their lifespan,” she explains.

Grab a seat at the table with host Paul Barron and Miami star chefs Giorgio Rapicavoli, Diego Oka, Paula DaSilva, Cesar Zapata, and Shannon Allen.

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Executive Chef Diego Oka: Bringing Peruvian Passion to the Kitchen and Why He Loves “Everything” about being a Chef

Executive Chef Diego Oka: Bringing Peruvian Passion to the Kitchen and Why He Loves “Everything” about being a Chef

By Kerri Adams, Editor-at-Large

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.

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Full Circle: Student Becomes Teacher at Miami’s La Mar

La Mar by Gaston Acuiro, Instagram

La Mar by Gaston Acuiro, Instagram

Peru native and culinary mastermind Diego Oka knew at 21 years old that he wasn’t ready to be a chef. What he wanted, and needed, was a mentor to continue teaching him until he perfected his craft and could teach others.

That decision, that honesty with himself, has come full circle and led Oka to where he is today — executive chef at Peruvian restaurant La Mar by Gastón Acurio in the Mandarin Oriental on Brickell Key in Miami. The job was offered to Oka by Gastón Acurio, who he met during one of his culinary school internships.  

Now, Oka is the teacher. In this “Table 42” episode, he shows viewers how to make tuna tataki using a Japanese method — covering the tuna in salt and burning it. 

“Our menu here in Miami is very traditional,” Oka said. “We like traditional flavors, but with a twist.”

Cochon 555 Heats Up Miami With the Heritage Breed Pig Movement

South Beach became pig paradise on April 3, when more than 200 porc lovers gathered at The Ritz-Carlton for the eighth year of the Cochon555 Tour. With each city stop, five chefs — all individually assigned a different heritage breed pig — go head-to-head in a downright delicious cookout. Miami was no different, and in this episode of "On Foodable Weekly," we step away from the studio to meet founder Brady Lowe and discuss the origins and the future of the event, as well as chat with the five Miami chefs competing this year and pick their minds on their menus.

Five chefs, five heritage breed pigs, five winemakers, over 36 dishes, and a whole 'lotta hungry mouths to feed. It seems like this event comes with a lot of work on its plate, but Lowe believes it's worth it.

"When you work with heritage porc, you're starting with a pristine product. You don't have to work that hard to really make that product shine, and the great part about having species variation is that you start to taste very unique differences," Lowe said. 

What's Cooking? Chefs Tell All

Each chef receives one heritage breed pig — and they have to use all of it, snout to tail. They have seven to 10 days to cook a maximum of six dishes and 90 minutes at the event to impress guests and celebrity judges alike. The winner will represent Miami in the Grand Cochon555, where the qualifying chefs from the 10 cities will fight to be crowned King or Queen of Porc in this feasting finale.

Who was named Prince of Porc in South Beach? Diego Oka of La Mar By Gastón Acurio reigned supreme, using the Large Black heritage breed pig to make his Peruvian dishes come to life. He admitted it was his first time breaking open a 200-pound pig since culinary school, but his seemingly continental yet "100 percent Peruvian" flavors, rich with Asian and African influences, made sure he didn't go home squealing.

Xavier Torres of Drunken Dragon, who was given the Hereford breed, approached his dishes knowing that while people loved porc, they are often intimidated by the pig head. His solution? He familiarized the pig cheeks with a pastrami spice, and sliced it as ham to top his salad. Alex Chang of Vagabond was all about strategy, doing his best to stray away from anything too complex for the guests' palates to figure out and infused Mexican, Chinese, and Japanese influences.

Anthony Le Pape of the Ritz-Carlton, South Beach and his team had a sweet twist, delighting guests with a smoked ham hog ice cream, while Michael Fiorello of Beachcraft decided to cure a whole pig head — tongue, ears, skin, and all — for 72 hours and sliced it to look like deli meat. Watch the video to hear more about their kitchen game plans.

The Piggy Bank

But Cochon555 isn't all fun and games. The purpose of the event is to spread awareness on the use of local, heritage breed pigs and the use of environmentally-conscious ingredients. The tour is benefiting Piggy Bank, a charity that promotes socially-responsible farming and encourages farmers to raise heritage breed pigs by gifting them in exchange for a business plan.

"We're looking at an ecosystem on tour that all it's been doing is creating both supply and demand at a very sexy event where consumers get to come in and eat what they want, drink what they want, but every single layer at Cochon555 is education," Lowe said. 

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.”