To run a Peruvian restaurant in Miami, you have to learn to speak with pompano, chef Gaston Acurio said Wednesday from the 20th-floor presidential suite of Brickell Key's Mandarin Oriental.
"If a fisherman brings me pompano fresh from the sea, I have to understand the pompano, talk with the pompano, decide whether it's lean and good for tiradito, or maybe it's greasy and better for grilling," Acurio said. "But no matter what, I will find a recipe for that fish, because of the trust I have in that fisherman. And who is going to win? The customer."
Acurio -- Peru's most celebrated chef and one of the world's most prolific restaurateurs -- was in town to host a media preview of his forthcoming La Mar, which is scheduled to open in February in the Mandarin space that formerly housed Cafe Sambal. A complete gutting is ongoing (Wednesday's event was on an adjacent terrace), with the cevicheria pushing to open in time for the South Beach Wine and Food Festival.
La Mar in Miami will be the 40th restaurant that Acurio has opened, including La Mar outposts in San Francisco and Chicago. He opened his Lima flagship, Astrid y Gaston, in 1994 with his wife, Astrid Gutsche. It ranked No. 14 on this year's World's 50 Best Restaurants list and No. 1 on the list of Latin America's 50 Best Restaurants.
In Miami, Acurio said he hopes La Mar can keep a spotlight on Peruvian cuisine, driving people to check out the lesser-known Peruvian restaurants that dot Miami-Dade's strip malls and side streets.
"The idea is, maybe people will taste something here that they like, and that makes them want to try more dishes like it at the place up the street," he said. "We are not here to compete with other Peruvian restaurants. We want to grow together."
Before the wild-haired chef left his suite for the luncheon, where he served dishes like a Japanese-influenced ceviche with ahi tuna, tamarind and sesame oil, Acurio returned to the concept of talking with food.
"Any ingredient, for example a lime, you need to smell it, touch it, talk to it, understand it," he said. "That way, you respect and you admire the food you are cooking. If you do that, every day, you are a chef. If not, you are a robot."
La Mar's classic ceviche (Mandarin Oriental); Gaston Acurio (Evan S. Benn/Miami Herald)