Due to its long, multicultural history as a major port on the Pacific Ocean, Peru boasts exemplary fusion cuisine, combining Spanish, Japanese, African, Italian, and French influences. Lima native Diego Oka has been immersed in such flavors all his life. Now he takes this eclectic mix to the heart of Miami.
The grandson of Japanese immigrants, Oka spent his childhood sampling a variety of dishes and refining his palate, not because his parents were in the food business, but because they all loved to eat, and still do.
“My house in Peru is like a restaurant,” he says. “You can often see a 15-pound whole yellowtail, live scallops, live calamari, and a sea urchin in the kitchen. My dad buys fish directly from the vendors to make sure it’s the highest quality. On the other hand, my grandma lives with us, and she is the best cook. She plans the menus for the entire month, a different meal every day … but sometimes we repeat our favorites.”
A culinary journey
Growing up, Oka wasn’t sure he wanted to be a chef, but he enjoyed cooking and decided to go to school to hone that skill. In 2001, he graduated from culinary school at the Universidad San Ignacio de Loyola in Lima.
“Now, I am convinced this is my calling and I’m thoroughly enjoying this food-enriched, soul-satisfying journey,” he says.
This journey has taken him to some of the culinary capitals of the world, from San Francisco to Sardinia, Italy, but today Chef Oka calls Miami home, where he has lived for just under two years.
“When I arrived, I wasn’t sure what to expect in the 305 [area code],” he says, laughing, “but I’m learning more every day. And I’ve met amazing people in the industry who have made me feel very welcome.”
Oka is currently the executive chef of La Mar by Gastón Acurio, a Peruvian fine dining restaurant located at the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Miami.
A rewarding partnership
Oka’s relation with Gastón Acurio goes back to 2001, when the young culinary school graduate met the renowned Peruvian chef in a supermarket and asked him for an internship in his restaurant, Astrid and Gastón, in Lima.
“I couldn’t believe it when he said yes!” Oka recalls. “He was my idol, and I was so happy to go and work for him.”
That was the beginning of a long and fruitful collaboration that has brought Oka to become executive chef at several locations of Acurio’s franchise, including restaurants in Lima, San Francisco, Chicago, Bogotá, and now Miami with La Mar.
“La Mar is a concept that Gastón created, inspired in seafood restaurants called ‘cebicherias,’ to take Peruvian flavors all over the world,” Oka says.
Awards and recognitions
Peruvian cuisine is not new to the South Florida melting pot; it has actually been part of the Miami food landscape for many years, and the trend shows no sign of slowing.
“There are more than 200 Peruvian restaurants here, and they have a great reputation,” Chef Oka says, failing to add that his presence has contributed to such a reputation. The 31-year-old chef is undoubtedly a rising star in Miami’s culinary scene.
In February 2015, Oka was recognized among the “South Florida Food 50” as an influential culinary innovator and was featured in the Miami Herald. In October 2014, he participated in a James Beard Foundation Dinner, taking the Mandarin Oriental mystique to New York City.
He also won 7×7 magazine’s “Your City Your Chef” competition in San Francisco in 2013 and was praised for his innovations to classic Peruvian cuisine. But Oka still remembers fondly the very first contest he entered. It was the “Girotonno,” a tuna world competition that took place in Sardinia, Italy.
“It was in 2007,” he says. “I was living in Mexico at that time and went to Italy with another chef, Hajime Kasuga. It was a great experience to go there representing our country … and then to win!”
A master in the kitchen
Every chef has a favorite gadget. Many favor time-saving equipment like the RoboCup blender, but Chef Oka isn’t among them.
“I prefer a good knife above anything else,” he says. “Without a knife, I would be like a hairdresser without scissors.”
When asked to define his signature cooking style, Oka sums it up in three words: “Flavorful, Peruvian, and divertido, fun!”