The great rewards of patience and smiles
Chef Mitsuharu Tsumura, who goes by Micha, can be called the father of Nikkei cuisine, a fusion of Japanese technique with Peruvian ingredients. While it has existed for over a century, he made it a cuisine type. His restaurant Maido, in Lima, is currently #10 on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list and #1 on 2019 Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants list. Enthusiastic and passionate about his work, his restaurant, his friends and Peru, he spoke with Ann Hill, Director of Dining at Aspire Lifestyles to discuss what drives him to keep improving and expanding creatively.
Aspire Lifestyles: What do you want the world to know about the cuisine of your country and the cuisine of your restaurant?
Mitsuharu (Micha) Tsumura: What’s interesting about Peruvian cuisine is the ingredients. We have chefs in Peru who discover new things each month that we use in our restaurants. From there it develops a need in the market for products that didn’t have value before. Nowadays you come to Lima and these products are in the supermarkets and eventually end up being exported. That’s our main goal – to show the world our products. My dream is to have Peruvian ingredients, such as chili peppers, used throughout the world, not just for Peruvian cuisine but that can be adapted to use in local cuisine, which is starting to happen. In the past when we traveled we had to take everything from Peru. Now there are purveyors around the world who can get you the products, which has really happened in just the past five years.
As for my cuisine, Nikkei is cuisine of the world, it’s not just a fusion of countries and not something that happened all of a sudden. Nikkei has been around for more than 100 years as the food that Japanese grandmothers used to cook, developed out of necessity. My role is to show the world that Nikkei cuisine was born and has the opportunity to remain and expand. The Peruvian restaurants that open around the world have elements of Nikkei cuisine and recipes on their menus such as ceviche and anticuchos skewers, which are the most popular that you see. One of the strongest influences on Peruvian cuisine is the Asian one – Chinese and Japanese, Right now we’re opening in Macau and will opening in Santiago. Right now we’re taking it easy but one but one day I would like to open a restaurant In the USA.
AL: One evening you get to take 5 chefs (present or past) to dinner at any restaurant in the world. Which chefs do you bring along with you and where do you take them (aside from your own restaurant)? Why those chefs and why that restaurant?
MT: That’s a very interesting question. We are very good friends with other Peruvian chefs so that’s a very hard question. Definitely I would go with Gaston (Acurio). I would really like to go with Fernan Adria and Albert, his brother. And Joan. But I’d also like to go with his brothers.
AL: Ok. We can say that the Brothers – The Adria Brothers and the Roca Brothers will count as one each.
MT: Also Virgilio (Martinez). There has been a big connection between the Roca Brothers who have been one of the biggest ambassadors of Peruvian cuisine in the world. For sure. The Roca Brothers and the Adria Brothers have really been the ones who spread the word in Europe when they came to Peru, that they fell in love with Peruvian cuisine and the country. We became really good friends. There’s a very nice connection. I would like to go with… hmmmm. Mauro (Colagreco) – he’s in France but from South America. Also Narasawa in Tokyo. I wouldn’t go to a restaurant. I would go to the beach and have a huge barbeque there. That would be perfect.
AL: Which restaurant, hotel or person or place most inspired your sense of hospitality?
MT: I think definitely, Will and Daniel of NoMad in New York. I really think they have taken hospitality to the next level. I stayed a few times at The NoMad in New York and it was ‘wow, this is really happening’. I came for a regular weekend and it really blew my mind and inspired me.
AL: What has been one of your greatest lessons so far in your culinary career and how has it shaped you into the chef that you are today and how do you express that to your kitchen team?
MT: It’s really simple but really hard. It’s something that I already have. I really believe that patience for anything meaningful in your life is the only way you’re going to continue doing what you like. People are in such a rush for a good position. What I learned is that even if things aren’t going well, keep trying. In the beginning it can be hard and people end up quitting. Maybe you’re in the right place but you must be patient. Everyone wants to rush.
A good example is rice. At the beginning I was making rice. People ask me the recipe for making sushi rice. There is no recipe because it depends on the water that you’re using, the rice, the kind of vinegar, the sugar, the altitude you’re in. I actually gave a speech recently about technology, hybrid food and creativity – what technology can do and what it cannot do. Some of the things it couldn’t do was make rice perfectly because there are some things that need sensitivity. The only way to understand what I’m talking about is when you make rice everyday, everyday, everyday. In the restaurant, you make one thing every day of your life, nobody is going to be able to make it better than you because you’re focused on that one thing, making it as good or better everyday. But nothing is perfect. Everything can improve. Creativity wouldn’t be as powerful as it is today if people didn’t strive to make things better. So not being satisfied by a good result is part of making your dreams come true. I’m trying to make it different and better all the time. Even how talented you are, how many things you know, smart you are, you make mistakes.
AL: Which musician or band would you like to cook for in a casual, private setting to chat, eat and maybe hear some of their music?
MT: I did it already! Juan Riviera. He’s an icon in Peru. One of the greatest singers in the world for me. I grew up with his music. The way he sings; his messages. The day he was in Peru giving a concert, he came to my restaurant, but I was in New York. When they told me Riviera was there, I said “WHAT? He’s in Lima and I’m in New York? No way!” So he came and had the tasting menu. That night about midnight I received a call from my chef who said that Riviera had a great time at the restaurant and mentioned that they were leaving the next morning to go do another concert and would like to have food catered for the plane. I said ‘of course, what time do they leave?’ My manager told me they needed to pick up food by 10am. I talked to my chefs and told them to make the same menu that the group had for dinner to have for lunch on the plane. Years went by and all of a sudden one of my managers said ‘Riviera is in town he wants to come and to meet you’. And I wanted to meet him – he’s the most famous person in the country! He came and I did a dinner for him.
AL: Do your friends and family cook for you?
MT: Yes but not very often. My mother does a lot. My friends do. Many of my friends love to eat and love to entertain but they call and ask ‘how do you do this and how do you do that?’ Many people in Peru love to cook and they’re always trying to experiment. Friends I’ve known for 25 years, we went to school together so it’s a different connection. I always say the best thing is to cook for others, to make people happy. There’s nothing better than someone cooking for you.
AL: How has W50B changed life for self and team?
MT: Regarding my team, of course it’s motivating. I believe that for us, we had to work hard at the beginning because of the concept. Before we opened Maido, there was either Peruvian cuisine or Japanese cuisine. No one was using the word or concept ‘Nikkei’. No restaurant had done that so when we did, we were the first. People need to understand that even though Nikkei existed, there were no restaurants or chefs that had that concept. When we started the restaurant wasn’t full. It was new. We weren’t Japanese, we weren’t Peruvian 100%. We weren’t focused on sushi. People were all about sushi, sushi, sushi. We were inspired to create new things that were not common, so sometimes you work for recognition and sometimes you work to make yourself and people happy. You cook because you want to give happiness to your customers. That’s the main motivation to become a chef. Seeing the smile on the face of a customer can’t be described. It’s better than anything else. Money doesn’t matter. People come from all over the world nowadays and you realize that people understand what you’re doing and like it. We’re trying to bring things from the Andes and from the Amazon to create a new Nikkei cuisine. Maybe we’re mistaken and it may not work out. The best thing is that we really enjoy it. It’s so much fun at the restaurant. We recently had a huge fish from the Amazon- 285 pounds. It was almost like a cow. We fileted it. The scales can be used as jewelry. We’re discovering so many incredible things that you’ve never seen before. There are more things to do for Nikkei cuisine with ingredients from the Amazon. Amazon Nikkei. I’ve been at congresses talking about Amazonian ingredients so I hope they can become famous all over the world.
I love Peru. It has been through so many difficult times and violence. My dream was that people will come see how great the country is, how great the people are. I really want to show people that Peru is a great country, something different. Our food is a way to bring people together and to be motivated by what we do.