Had Rafael Osterling pursued a career in diplomacy, the Peruvian restaurant scene might look very different today. Less dynamic. Less fun. Instead the trained lawyer opted for cooking, and his Rafael (ranked 30 in Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants 2016 list), Mercado and Felix Brasserie restaurants in Lima (Peru) have become a celebration of traditional native ingredients and cultural diversity.
As mentor to the South American finalist Elizabeth Puquio Landeo at S.Pellegrino Young Chef 2018, he’ll have plenty of career advice to dispense. Here he speaks to Fine Dining Lovers about Peruvian seafood, diplomacy and how water polo helped him become a chef.
Can you remember the moment you decided to become a chef – what inspired you and what obstacles did you overcome to achieve your dream?
I’m a lawyer actually, but by the beginning of ’92 I was going to go to diplomat school. Alberto Fujimori was the president of Peru. He shut down the congress and fired around 250 diplomats. Suddenly I was with no work! My father was the president of the congress, and he was arrested, so I chose the second option, which was to be a cook. The next day I was in the kitchen. To achieve the dream is very tough. I went to London and Paris, where it was quite military. Sometimes you’re angry and sometimes you just say, it’s going to pass. Just learn, be strong.
What was your biggest triumph as a young chef, and is there anything you would consider your biggest failure?
I returned to Lima to be in charge of La Gloria restaurant. There was nobody eating in the restaurant. But I stayed, and by the end of the year it was the best restaurant in the whole of Lima. The bad thing was I tried some new experiments and they crashed. New restaurants. They were good, but I didn’t know what I was doing. Sometimes you overdose on passion and just crash yourself.
As a mentor, what do you expect from your young chef, and what do you think you can offer her?
She’s a very nice girl and she has a lot of talent. She’s intelligent. So I think we’re going to do good. I want to stimulate her, but she makes things easy. I will upscale her techniques and get some nice history behind [her dish]. We have to know why she’s doing it, the emotion behind it. I think we’re going to do great.
What would victory in the S.Pellegrino Young Chef competition mean for a young chef?
One big step. If she’s a finalist, at least, she will get great exposure to the media. She will be considered by other chefs to be a very good cook. She will be in the gaze of every professional.
What skills from law and diplomacy have helped you in the kitchen?
Before all that I was a swimmer and water polo player for my country. To represent a national team you need a lot of discipline. With diplomacy… in the kitchen you’re two things: a cook and a kind of guest. They say every restaurant can have a good chef, but not every chef has a good restaurant. Sometimes you don’t know how to manage outside the kitchen. But diplomats serve that well. And law is very human, so it makes you understand and absorb things much more quickly.
How did Peru become such a prominent culinary destination?
I think it all started with Gaston Acurio. When he started a restaurant outside of the country, people were asking all about this new food. It’s fresh, it’s spicy, it’s a lot of fun, no? And they started coming over and checking out Peru. The nice thing about Peru is we’re like a mix of cultures – Japanese, Chinese, Spanish, French and Italian. We have biodiversity from the coast, the Indian zone and the jungle. Those influences and products represent a really good kitchen to explore with.
Tell us about some of your favourite native Peruvian ingredients.
The seafood. We have 2,200km of coast and the Pacific Ocean is a little hot, a little cold. We have a lot of lovely products from the sea and that’s what I love most. I like the chillies and potatoes, and the fruits from the jungle.
Which is more important in your cooking, celebrating heritage or embracing the new?
Even though El Mercado is quite Peruvian, specialising in Peruvian seafood, and an homage to Peruvian culture, I just cook what makes me happy. I cook for passion.
If you could only cook one dish for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Ha ha. Very tricky. Even though I’m Peruvian, I would say pasta. Pasta is so versatile and you can eat it every day. Just simple with olive oil and tomato. You’d never get sick of that.
What are you working on at the moment, and what are your plans for the future?
I just opened a new restaurant, Felix Bar. I’m starting to do a new cookbook of Felix. And I’m doing a new restaurant in Lima next year, and that will be it – I’m gonna quit! In five or six years, I’ll probably open a small restaurant with 40 covers. It’ll be my kind of retirement. I’ll do something funny, make some silly things, no?