The inspiring story of Victoriano López, executive chef of La Mar, San Francisco (CA, USA)
Victoriano López didn’t go to a school of haute cuisine, he likes to write recipes on paper, is eager to learn, and when you talk to him, it’s like talking to a lifelong friend. He’s chef Gastón Acurio’s right hand, who affectionately tells him: “shorty” and manages several of his projects in the United States.
He was born in the hamlet of Chavín, in Ancash, in the Peruvian Andes. His grandparents and parents are farmers of potatoes, corn and wheat, but everything they harvested was for self-consumption, a business opportunity was impossible 30 years ago. There was no electricity or drinking water, not even roads. Victoriano barely finished elementary school. He always thought he wanted to do something different. And to find a better future, he decided to emigrate to the capital, at age 16.
In Lima, he realized that his passion was cooking, he started chopping tons of onions and potatoes. And 24 years ago, Victoriano went to ask Gastón for a job, he waited for him outside the A&G restaurant, in Cantuarias. “I went over and said: ‘Mr Gastón, Good afternoon’, and he told me. ‘What! How do you know me?’ ‘I watch your TV show and write down all your recipes’. ‘And what can you do?’ ‘I know how to do this’, and I left my resume paper, and he said: ‘Ok, I am opening an upcoming project Bohemia’, at that time he didn’t tell me which one, he told me ‘if you would like, come in one week’, and when I came back, he gave me the job”.
And he learned from the best, from the father of Peruvian cuisine, and his natural talent for cooking, did the rest.
We talked with the executive chef of one of the most famous restaurants in San Francisco. Every day they serve an average of 700 diners. La Mar is dedicated to Peruvian cebichería and is one of the restaurants of renowned chef Gastón Acurio, located in 7 cities around the world: Lima, Buenos Aires, Bogotá, Doha, Santiago de Chile, Miami and San Francisco. He told us his story and his experience at the hotel trade in the American country, where he arrived without knowing a word of English. Now, his children are graduated from American universities.
Por Fabiola Gálvez
How did you start to cook?
Before Gastón, I worked with a friend who had a food cart in San Martín de Porres, I used to sell salchipapas, I worked there for almost a year, and then another friend who was a cook of great things, cooked menu for 2000 people daily in Huachipa and there I worked 11 months, it is as if they make you join the military service, that they are going to make you chop onions and potatoes but by bags, if you don’t like it, you run away, you go at your own risk but I was there, that was in 1991.
What the APRA (political party) left us, all we have experienced at that time was chaos. And so I got a job in San Isidro in Saint Tropez, it was an international restaurant with french style, there I met a 60-year-old chef, he was Italian, his name was Alfredo, it was a very famous restaurant, as Gastón says.
Reading other interviews, they said that you went to look for Gastón at his A&G restaurant in Cantuarias.
Saint Tropez, was in his last years and had to look for work. I did not have a curriculum that said I was graduated from a Cooking School (and he laughs) I had my a sheet of paper with my personal information that was where I worked, which was in Saint Tropez. At that time it was the boom of the cevicherías: Al Fresco, La Sal, Las Brujas de Cachiche, there I left my CVs in those places. And was able to arrive to Astrid & Gastón, it was the last paper I left.
Young Gastón, with Astrid, went out there, so I wrote down everything because he did something new, he did not do what we did in the restaurant, different ingredients, of a very high category. In the other job we used rabbit, lamb, loin, sea bass but we didn’t use EVOO, so it caught my attention and I said “how I can get to work with him”.
What position did you start with? The first year you started that you will never forget?
Beginners always start with cold cooking, he (Gastón) spent 10 minutes hanging around the kitchen. Now there are printers and they worked with a ticket, but before the waiter came all in writing, arrives: ‘trio of shells’, arrives: ‘fish a lo macho’ and every time you hear it you have to cut and slice instantly. I remember the first day, at that time A&G was totally French. It was a Roman salad, loin carpaccio, which we made with scallops, sole, salmon and marinated with olive oil, drops of lemon, dill. There was no ceviche, yet. In Bohemia, it was also like that, international cuisine, for the first time it offers lomo saltado. Those things we will never forget, and apart from the demands, that man… when I told you that he was demanding he was super demanding, everyone was afraid of, everyone was quiet, and that was what I learned.
What situation do you think helped you the most to develop yourself as a chef?
(Laughs) I am a very curious person, as we say in Peru “meddler” but I am not a meddler, I am curious, I help you and I get involved. At that time cooks were very reserved, they didn’t want to teach you.
Were they very jealous?
It was a secret, and that kind of chefs, they have stayed with what they know to do, maybe they are going to go to the grave with that, but I am a person that learns and everything that I learn, I write it down and I pass to the rest of people what I’m doing, and that’s what we did with Gastón, and he liked that, I wrote down everything, I organized and it was passing (the notes), Gastón has started to do it too, I made the recipes for other restaurants, I used to do recipes like files.
Exactly, that’s what he liked because memorizing is simpler, He always told me: ” ’shorty’ you remember this”. I was always there night and day. I was not the ‘snitch’ but I solved the needs of the person, of the company, so I gained his trust and he sent me to cook. “Hey, you have to go at such a place”, I went to Máncora, one day on July 28 (National Day), and all the applause were for Gastón, “How delicious you have cooked, we have eaten great all week”, but he didn’t attend to, so you gain his trust. And from there, I went to international conferences. For example, in 2016, the first time we went to Madrid Fusión, and then, when he won the awards, I went to cook in The Netherlands, representing him, for the Queen of The Netherlands. Through him I met many chefs: Ferrán Adriá, Andoni, Los Roca, Albert, Arzak, everyone, and I entered to their kitchens, and thanks to him, I learned many things, and plus his requirements, I got the best of every opportunity.
In the United States, how many La Mar do you have, I have seen on the web that they are in Miami and San Francisco, is there also one in New York?
There was one in New York there, what happens is that we closed after 2 years. I casually came to New York, but due to life circumstances, some you win, some you lose.
Of course, after all the restaurant is numbers
If the numbers accompany the restaurant, it will be fine; otherwise, the restaurant will be closed. I arrived in New York in 2011, I didn’t speak anything in English, nothing at all, we got a sous chef who spoke English, Spanish, to communicate with everyone. It was very difficult because we had the restaurant next to Eleven Madison Park in Madison Square. Gastón and I, put the bar very high, and the truth is that we did not get through it. The first problem was the rent, the second, the location and the third, several things: maybe the lack of experience, how to handle the United States, you know? that wages are handled per hour, not the salary per month, they have to do block in and block out, if they don’t have a break, you get a ticket, quite a lot of problems.
Are labor laws very rigid?
Too much, it will always be in favor of the worker, not for the employer.
To me, personally, it was a failure but from that failure, we learned a lot.
And then, they gave me the opportunity to manage Tanta Chicago, I lived there and we opened from the first day, with all that experience, and then, in 2015 I asked to go to San Francisco, I came here and it was fine but I said: “we could correct many more things”, I told Gastón, and he didn’t think about anything, and he said clearly that yes and so I arrived in San Francisco.
And now in San Francisco, we have converted, just like La Mar Lima but 3 times larger. Today we had 200 people at lunch and at night I have 500 people.
Do Americans know how to eat a ceviche?
Do they understand the dish or have they asked you to modify something?
No no no, here we make a ceviche just like in Peru. From Monday to Friday, customers are 99% American and on the weekend, 5 or 10% are Peruvians.
We have not changed anything, we sell it as is, spicy, but we do look for better products, Gastón always demanded that, better quality, and sometimes, the best will always cost.
Do you work with producers? Could you mention some of them and any special product that you love for your dishes?
Yes, in the season we have Farmer’s Market here in the next block, on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, by coincidence now, Mr David is sowing yellow pepper, fresh rocoto.
Do you know how much the pound cost?
20 dollars a pound.
Does the pound not reach the kilo?
Not even half a kilo, USD 20, is expensive.
With the fishermen, the fish here is very large, we work with artisanal fishermen, but they do not bring it directly to you, it is not like in Peru, the artisanal one take their boat and they get tons of fishes, they have more equipment.
I have turned this La Mar into all seasonal products. The other week of crab called Time’s Crab feast which is great, and we will be full of crab until January, we will make tiradito, ceviche, picantes, soup.
How is a day in the life of Victoriano in the United States?
It has changed a lot, I will tell you, I would not return to Peru until the day I retire.
How long have you been in the United States?
You got used to it then.
Almost. What happens is that I have family here.
Look, in Peru I worked from Monday to Saturday, 16 to 17 hours a day, you rest one day.
It’s different here, right now I rest 2 days, Sunday and Monday. In the morning, I study English, at noon I go to work and at 10 pm I am at home. I go out on weekends, I research a lot of food, I eat out with my family and friends, with my wife and always, looking for new things, that’s my life. Actually, It has changed very much.
I have 3 children, they are grown up, a son who is 24 years old already graduated from university and went to live in Miami, my other daughter is 20 years old, she’s in university and I have the youngest child who is in high school and now I’ve noticed, if I had lived here, I would have enjoyed my family more.
After all your lived experience, what does cooking mean to you?
To me, cooking means a tool of opportunity for those of us who have not been able to study in haute cuisine schools, where we can learn and grow professionally. Also, from the kitchen, we help to value the work of many small farmers and artisanal fishermen.
To young people who are just beginning to study cooking or maybe they don’t have opportunities, what would you say?
Last year I set out to help the boys of the Pachacutec school and now I have two boys here working.
Just like me that have been in the restaurant for many years and you realize who is who, then you have to enhance it, I always tell them, guys: “you are too young to be thinking about money, ok money is necessary, but if you are not professionally prepared, with all the knowledge, you will not make money from one day to the next, money will be made when you are well prepared and well built as a house, a well-made base”. Many times the guys say: “I went to University, I graduated chef, I am not going to chop onion”, hey, what’s wrong with you, right? Gastón studied in Le Cordon Blue, 5 years, and he was cooking, he was chopping onions for 10 years, I know Misha, the same, all those people, have worked like this and they are successful. There, many times, young people are wrong. You prepare a good ceviche, but what else do you have to offer? When you are young you have to absorb everything, and most importantly, learn the administrative part.
After 9 years in the United States, will you not return to Peru?
(Laughs) we are focused here right now, there are new projects, which we have to achieve. La Mar Miami, with my friend Diego Oca, Tanta Chicago is very prosperous and see more projects that are prosperous.
Next Project: “Jarana Latina”, they will open in New Jersey, Miami, and possibly in Santa Clara, in the South of San Francisco.
Thank you very much, chef Victoriano! A Dreamer, fighter and passionate about cooking. It is the story of a dream, which came true.
La Mar, San Francisco, is one of the restaurants of chef Gastón Acurio, present in 7 cities around the world (in the United States, there is also La Mar Miami). Located in one of the most beautiful areas of San Francisco, the jetty Pier 1 ½, which can be reached by car or boat. They have a large dining room, ceviche lounge and a patio with views of the harbor. It’s nice to enjoy a fresh ceviche with views of the San Francisco Bay. They use only seasonal and high-quality products, whole fish, crabs, urchins. In the menu, there are ceviche, causas, rice, anticuchos, lomo saltado. In addition, in its offer, there is also vegetarian ceviche, one of the best selling dishes, or vegetarian nigiri. Ideal for lunch, dinner, or grab a bite. Happy hour, 7 days a week, from 3 to 6 in the afternoon.
If you are a passionate chef, send your CV to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reservations in: Web: https://lamarsf.com/
La Mar SF
Pier 1 ½, the Embarcadero
San Francisco, CA
Telephone: (415) 397 8880