Marcel Larrea from Montreal’s Tiradito: 2019 Maverick Chefs
Every October, we announce the Canadians that have changed up the culinary scene. Our 2019 Maverick Chefs connect people in a unique way. Suzanne Barr is active in her community. Among other things, she uses her success as a chef to give others a start in the industry by helping them learn valuable kitchen skills. (Read the interview with Barr here.) Marcel Larrea brought Nikkei to Montreal, and the cooks out of the kitchen. Jean-Christophe Poirier created a piece of his Quebec home town in Vancouver to give the West Coast a taste of the East. Our Mav Sommelier Bryant Mao connects with people every day, introducing them to wines and drinks made by Canadian producers around the world.
This week, we hear from Marcel Larrea to find out more about Nikkei and his unique service style.
Standing out in a city known for its culinary variety and prestige is a mean feat. Larrea rose to the challenge and then some when he opened Tiradito in 2016. First, he serves up Nikkei, a culinary style dating back a century or two, created by Japanese-Peruvian people. Larrea brought Nikkei to Canada and has been a prominent advocator for the culinary style (which is not “fusion” cuisine, FYI). Second, he changed up the service to allow his chefs to connect with guests and receive tips. In one restaurant, Larrea connects foodies to the Japanese-Peruvian cuisine, and connects the cooks to the guests.
What inspired you to become a chef?
My family. My parents are really into food. They love going out to eat. My mother was a great cook at home. I tried out many jobs when I was young. If I wanted to be a jeweller or if I wanted to be a fashion designer, my father let me do it. I ended up choosing to be a chef and my parents support that.
What do you love about cooking?
I feel free, alive and happy when I cook. I don’t think too much about other things. It’s a way to escape and relieve stress.
How often do you change up your menu and what influences those changes?
We check the numbers and only make changes if we see something is not working. Usually, I don’t believe in big changes because I go to restaurants to show someone else a plate I have already tasted. If I went and that plate was no longer served, I would be very disappointed.
Most successful restaurants start with grandma in the kitchen creating a special dish. People go to have that specific dish. You shouldn’t change your menu drastically. Only change 20 or 30 percent of items on your menu, and only those that aren’t working well.
How do you replace items that aren’t working well?
I would replace them with something needed at the place. A plate doesn’t work for good reason. Maybe it contained too many items in the ingredients. I will adapt it for what is needed at the time.
At Tiradito, the ingredients are based around 60 percent Peruvian and 40 percent of everything that’s happening around Quebec. For example, if at the time, the mushrooms come from Quebec, I will do a ceviche with them. I play with that.
What was biggest hurdle you had to overcome to get to where you are today?
I needed a lot of discipline and to make sacrifices. Most chefs end up quitting the business because it’s tough. A chef’s ego — the “I want this menu to be like this because I want it that way” or “I want this menu to be this way because I want to prove something” — will kill you in this business. My advice is to remove your ego. As a chef you constantly have to prove that you are accountable for your menu and your choices. You can’t just carelessly present an expensive ingredient simply to try to make money out of it. This approach would lead you to bankruptcy. A chef’s ego makes everything hard in this business. But if you remove it, I feel you can succeed.
Was it difficult for you to separate yourself from your ego to go on to succeed?
Yes. At the beginning it was all about being in the kitchen trying to get my name in the news and create the best everything. But then I said to myself, “I have to create a place that works for everyone, where everyone is happy, where everyone makes money.”
Why did you choose to involve your chefs in the service?
I’m not happy when chefs don’t make much money. In other restaurants, waiting is not a career; it’s a way to make good money quickly. Waiters will go on to be doctors or lawyers. I decided that I want everyone in my place to make money, not just the waiters.
We asked Quebec and lawyers how to give chefs access to tips. You can ask waiters if they’re willing to share their tips with the kitchen, but it’s up to them. You can’t force them — that’s illegal and would jeopardize the whole operation. We learned that the cook has to serve the client directly and take payment. But they can only take credit card payments or cash in a particular area of the restaurant, so as not to pocket all the cash. All the chefs have full access to the tips and a decent salary. The quality of the work environment is important to us, so I did this to make everyone’s lives a bit better.
Did shifting to the chef as waiter dynamic throw up any challenges?
100 percent. It was a nightmare. It was a lot of work for me to digest, but we worked very hard on it and now it’s perfect. A chef’s schedule is exactly like the waiter’s. They arrive at their station, everything is done by the house, prep is done by the house and the chefs arrive later. He assembles my vision of the food. He only has to do five plates per station. I have three stations, so that’s a total of 15 items. On top of that, they have to know everything about wine, drinks and everything else. The more they sell, the more money they make.
My restaurant isn’t for those who want to create stuff; I do that. I share my world with my employees. It’s better suited to chefs tired not making any money, who want more time with their family. They can make the same money working three or four days here as they would being a chef somewhere else, without the stress of being a chef. Tiradito is more for people that want to interact with people, talk to people, assemble plates and make money.
How has the response been from your customers?
Very good. We call our service casual dining, not fine dining. It’s a simple Peruvian tavern. You come here, you don’t expect high class service — that we will to change our plates, and so on. And it’s an affordable restaurant. You don’t have to buy the most expensive items on the menu — it can be as expensive or as cheap as you want. You can come for any occasion: a meeting, a date, a bite and a drink — you name it.
How does food connect people?
Everything starts with food. It brings a subject for conversation. You can learn something without travelling. At Tiradito, we bring together people from all types of backgrounds and ethnicities, with differing food preferences. All of them gather together from different parts of Montreal to eat my food.
What is Nikkei?
The word Nikkei means to immigrate, to arrive at another place. Nikkei was established around 100 years ago. Japanese immigrants arriving in Peru married Peruvian girls and those kids are the kids that started doing certain mixes. We grab elements from Peru with Japanese influence to create a new cuisine. Although this new cuisine is now more than 100 years old.
Why do you think that this combination of two cuisines through the generations is important to the culinary world?
Peruvian cuisine is getting stronger year by year. For example, the New York Times have listed Peru as the best destination in the world for three years in a row because of the diversity of its cuisine. Peruvian cuisine includes a large number of recipes, every one unique. Many Japanese people live in Peru and Nikkei represents Japanese Peruvians.
Japanese Peruvians in fact created the name, Tiradito. It means lying down, so it’s a carpaccio kind of thing. Tiradito is sashimi and carpaccio.
Why was it important to you to promote Nikkei to Montreal?
When we decided to open Tiradito, the word came first. It’s part of Nikkei cuisine in a Japanese way. I saw that most of the restaurants in Quebec are Asian or a mix of Asian and another cuisine, and are always full. People love to eat little bites of Asian mix. I thought Nikkei would work here, and it did.
Is this emphasis on Nikkei not being fusion part of your goal to help people understand the cuisine?
Absolutely. People say, “I’m tired of fusion”. I understand that. When you grab Italian food and put that with French food, then mix that with Chinese food, people get confused. I wanted to make sure people know that Nikkei is a traditional cuisine that works, and we just implemented it in Quebec. We’re doing the same thing that Japanese people did in Peru. They immigrated to Peru and mixed their ingredients with local ones. We immigrated to Quebec and use the local ingredients to complement our recipes. It’s a Peruvian place I created in Quebec, using Quebec ingredients and employing Quebec workers.
What’s your best memory with food?
When I clean fresh fish — when I receive it, cut it and prepare it. That makes me happy.
I also have a memory of trying sashimi — tiradito — as a nine-year-old kid. It was a slice of white fish with wasabi. I remember dipping that slice of founder into that soya sauce with wasabi for the first time. I can’t forget it.
Of all the dishes you have ever made, which would you pick as the perfect dish to serve at a gathering?
In general, I would say the ceviche, as a starter, instead of oysters. It’s a way to share and to enjoy, and it’s very representative of Peru.