Carla Choy Photography

The 2011 F&W Best New Chef's latest project comes on the heels of a successful fast-casual opening earlier this year. 

August 15, 2017

The bestselling dish that West Hollywood hot spot Rosaliné calls chaufa paella isn't actually paella, and chef Ricardo Zarate is happy to admit it.

The shareable entree is a bold, bright, meaty, hearty, comforting and umami-to-the-max Latin-Asian mashup with pancetta, Chinese sausage, fresh shrimp, a bagoong (Filipino fermented seafood paste) aioli and fried Japanese rice crisped in a 900-degree Josper combination oven/grill. 

"I understand that it's not paella," Zarate says. "But it has the elements. I'm very specific about telling my staff to say that it's chaufa, Peruvian fried rice, in the style of paella."

And when pressed, Zarate has no problem explaining the dish's name.

"Spanish people were in Peru for hundreds of years stealing Peruvian gold," Zarate says. "Now I'm stealing the paella."

Zarate laughs deeply. It's nice for him to be in a position to joke around, when you consider all that he's been through.

Zarate, who was named a Food & Wine Best New Chef in 2011, had established himself as L.A.'s undisputed king of Peruvian food before he had a really rough 2014. His mother and brother died that year. (Rosaliné is named after his mother.) Then Zarate left his restaurant empire; Mo-Chica, Paiche and Picca have all since closed.

Zarate told me in 2015 that he departed his restaurants because he felt like he was in a Ferrari going 300 miles per hour and realized he wasn't driving. I asked if he got out of the car voluntarily, or if he was shoved.

"It sounds better if I say I jumped out of the car," Zarate said with a smile.

He says now that he has no regrets, that what's happened to him has made him a stronger person and a better chef.

"I'm cooking without boundaries, making my food without worrying about anything," Zarate says.

And he's cooking in a grand space with a kitchen that meets his ambitions. Using the Josper at Rosaliné is a big step up from 2015, when Zarate was serving chaufa paella at his Oncé pop-up at Santino's Santa Monica. Back then, Zarate used a makeshift, "very illegal" grill that he constructed outside. It involved stones and wood and a rack he got from the kitchen.

"The conditions we were cooking it under taught me a lot about perfecting the dish," says Zarate, who now crisps the rice with his Josper in less than a minute.

Back when was cooking at his pop-up, Zarate still maintained his sly sense of humor despite his setbacks. He told me in 2015 that ending the run for his pop-up would be easy because he had become "an expert at closing restaurants."

But now Zarate, who also debuted his fast-casual Mamacita in Hollywood this year, is back to opening popular restaurants. And the chef, who released his The Fire of Peru cookbook in 2015, has gotten more aggressive with Peruvian flavors.

"That's how I love to eat," Zarate says. "This is the first time it's about me. I'm cooking with this passion that's a special tribute to my mother. Before, I was cooking for the American palate, not trying to go too spicy, trying to accommodate everybody. That was the old me. I was very careful to please certain markets. Right now, it's basically kind of like I don't care."

So Zarate's using aji limo, a tiny, aromatic, ultra-spicy Peruvian chili, for his kampachi ceviche. He's cooking with aji charapita, another small chili that packs a serious punch.

During the time that Zarate was out of work, L.A. restaurants got even bolder with multicultural flavors. So Zarate knew there was no reason for him to hold anything back when he made his return.

"The best thing that could have happened in my life is what happened to me," he says. "I had the best two years out of the business. I was privileged to see what's going on in Los Angeles, all the flavors. Everyone was becoming more aggressive. I saw that and said, 'Now I'm going to come and play my game.'"

But while the chef is making no compromises when he brings the heat, he understands that he's cooking for a wide cross-section of L.A. at his destination restaurant in West Hollywood. So Zarate offers vegetarian and vegan versions of his chaufa paella. He's been glad to see chef Tal Ronnen, who runs high-profile vegan restaurant Crossroads, visit Rosaliné regularly for a vegan feast.

Visit Rosaliné on any given night and there will be guests at almost every table having conversations about this dish. And if you'd like to talk to Zarate about what you're eating, he'll probably be by the Josper in the open kitchen. Zarate's got the fire inside him again, and he says he hasn't taken a day off in about three months.

"It's my choice," says Zarate, a chef who's had a lot of time to think about momentum, both how it starts and how it ends. "I was on a rollercoaster. I knew I needed to hold tight, scream as much as I could and never lose focus."