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Mitsuharu Tsumuru, Nikkei Chef of Maido, Lima, Peru

Mitsuharu Tsumuru, Nikkei Chef of Maido, Lima, Peru
Geeta Bansal

Mitsuharu Tsumura is a very accomplished, innovative Peruvian chef who has undergone a rigorous training in his skills in Japan prior to opening his Nikkei restaurant Maido in his hometown of Lima, Peru. Nikkei cuisine is unique to Peru and is a blend of Peruvian and Japanese food philosophies. Japanese traditions have been adapted to Peruvian products to create a new concept and a new Peruvian tradition which in fact has now become extremely popular from London to Dubai to Chicago to New York, Asia, and Australia.

I know many young chefs ranging from 21 years to thirty-something but I am still surprised by what they accomplish at such an early stage in their career and how focused and committed they are. 32 year old Tsumura has such a clear focus on his future and work which he approaches with such honesty and sincerity that his success is easy to comprehend. After finishing school in Peru he proceeded to Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island where besides studying culinary arts he acquired the business skills to successfully operate a food enterprise.

After this training he was all geared up to open shop in Lima but his father questioned his desire to serve sushi without ever having visited Japan. This determined young man set off for Osaka where he still had family but where diplomas and connections were unimportant and so he worked unpaid in exchange for a chance to sharpen his knife skills and learn the art of sushi. After two years of a strict work regimen he was finally ready to come home and start work first, at the Sheraton in Lima. At 25 his skill at managing a staff of 160 as Food and Beverage Manager gave him a shot at the position of a General Manager at the age of 28. It was a major crossroad for him and he rightly chose to pursue his dream of opening his own place over going into the management path in his career. At that point his father offered to bankroll him, allowing him to open Maido which is one of the premier Nikkei restaurants in Peru, if not the world, and won 11th place at the first ever 50 Best Restaurants in Latin America awards by Restaurant Magazine. After our conversation, his book "Nikkei as Peru" co-authored by Josephina Barron and with an introduction by the Adria brothers, with 45 recipes from the Maido kitchen and some spectacular photographs, was released. The book traces the history of this fusion cuisine and all the cooks who are credited for its creation such as Rosita Yimura, Toshiro Konishi, Minoru Kunigami, Humberto Sarto, and all the spectacular restaurants serving this cuisine.

My conversation with Mitsuharu at Maido:

What do you think is the most exciting facet of the food scene in Peru right now?
Right now for me it is the products and how we are beginning to use products that we had stopped using or forgotten in Peru, for example Koshuro, an algae that grows in water that many restaurants are using now, and what we are beginning to create with potatoes as we have more than three thousand varieties of potatoes. In fact we were not even using five of those and now we have more than thirty that we are using of potatoes that come to Lima. It is also interesting how we are investigating and researching more about them. We are also using ancient techniques and adding them to our contemporary cuisine.

Peru is the most popular destination for food right now, and many chefs are traveling here and taking ideas and concepts for use in their kitchen. How do you feel about this?
I think it's good because people copy something it is because it is successful. It has happened to me when in another restaurant I saw one of my creations there. I felt good and proud that even though I did not get credit for it was worth something and that my dish worked and was popular.

Do you think that events like Mistura where people demo dishes and share techniques with others is building a better society of cooks and chefs who are exchanging ideas instead of competing?
That is actually what Peru is. We all work together, we share recipes, purveyors in fact we share everything. In Peru we don't hold back but share everything because union makes a forest. In Peru nothing would have happened if all cooks, farmers, journalists and everyone else had not come together to work at creating a valid cuisine. In Peru food is not only eating but has become a reason for national pride and at the same time a very interesting economy has developed around it in many regions of the country.

Does food have a social aspect according to you?
Totally, I think that it is a major part of our culture and Peruvians love to eat and the unusual thing is that if you eat out consistently for a month you will find different flavors, combinations, and tastes for each day. It's not the same food with a different sauce but a totally new idea, from totally different worlds every day. Peru is like a sponge that has been absorbing all these cultures and their flavors over time and we have influences from Spain, China, Italy, Japan and Africa. So we have creole cuisine, Italian Peruvian, Japanese Peruvian and dishes like chaufa.

You use very modern techniques in your own dishes. How is that perceived by traditional Nikkei masters?
Actually I think they feel honored because many of the dishes in my restaurant are inspired by them. Rosita Yimura was one of the most well-known Nikkei chefs and I have her pulpo al olivo my menu and in fact during Gelinaz I am paying a tribute to her and my dish there will be named for her. This genius passed away but left a great tradition for us.

You are successful and well-known internationally, people in food know who you are, so how are you going to maintain balance in your life and stay who you are?
What I do in my life helps me stay the same for example this year I am not running just my restaurant but am in charge of Mistura as well. I am constantly involved in new things. Every morning when I wake up I think of what I will do that day and it's the same before going to sleep at night. I think of what is the new thing I will do tomorrow and not because I need to or it’s my hobby but because it's my passion.

I believe your feet have to be on the ground, humility is the element that keeps you growing. You know Albert (Adria), he is so humble, he is ready to start from zero to learn, that is what keeps him evolving all the time. If you don't keep learning in two months you can be out of your league because everything moves so fast. Your brain has to be ready to receive information and not think that you know everything.

I always ask this question of young chefs because I have seen many of them change so quickly with success and lose the essence of who they are and their cuisine changes too. Do you think that is true?
One thing I have loved to do since I was a kid is to make people happy and my happiness depends on how happy I can make people who are around me, family, friends, customers and I feel happy through them. My restaurant is a place where I have the opportunity to make people happy every day and that for me is reason enough not to change and so I will not let success make me forget those around me. Life depends on details like going to the tables or explaining dishes or greeting people.

What do you see yourself doing ten years from now?
I want to expand Nikkei cuisine around the world. I am developing a new brand of restaurants. I want to have only one Maido but for exporting Nikkei cuisine in a more casual way not like here because Maido is a creative restaurant where you have to be present all the time.

Where are you taking this concept first?
The first one we are taking to the beach here in Lima as a casual restaurant. There are plans for Santiago, Colombia next though we are still negotiating. First I want to branch out in South America, close to me where I can go often. If things go well I will go to Europe or other parts of the world. There is no rush and I want to take small steps. I am happy with Maido but I want to show the world what this cuisine is about. If we rush we might not do it well because of the pressure.

This business is a constant pressure, so how does it affect your personal life?
Truth be told I don't have a personal family life though I do see my parents. I am single and living by myself because most of the time I am at work and I don't have time for other things. It's a good thing right now because I have more time to think and plan and work without worrying about other stuff. I don't have the stress of getting back home early to a wife and kids yet.

Do you thing since Nikkei cuisine is spreading all over the world it is able to retain its essence despite being so far from home?
I think it is a good thing if it changes, keeping the essence in another country is hard, and you can be inspired by it. For example Albert in Pakta has to work according to the ingredients available in Barcelona. It will not mark sense to imitate the cuisine in exactly the same way without the Peruvian products. Nikkei cuisine was born out of the desire of Japanese immigrants to eat something similar to their culture and they adapted their cuisine by using local products. So I don't think that cuisine just changes, but that it has to change.

What about the perception of customers who eat your food here and then will dine at your other locations? Are they not expecting a similar experience?
I think you have to adapt your food in another place for example Colombia or Chile where you cannot find the same products or use the same amount of spice that we use here. Peruvians love chilies but other places people do not eat those.

How do you maintain your individuality in this complex food culture?
It is a constant challenge and you have to question yourself all the time. I change my tasting menu all the time according to my own philosophy. I didn't open a book to look up new techniques as I did not want to see something for inspiration. I decided to go through memories of food my mom used to make for me or what Nikkei restaurants used to make here in those days. I keep my identity in this manner while mixing old and new techniques. I keep trying to change my perspective all the time.

How do you source your products?
Every Saturday I go to a specific market where they bring products from all over the country and talk to the producers and pick things which they later deliver to us. We work with fishermen from Northern Peru; we buy potatoes from a group of farmers who have formed an association that works with twenty restaurants here.

Which product are you enjoying working with the most?
I am crazy about potatoes and I think that they are the most amazing product we have here in Peru. It goes very deep in our culture for example in the Andes it is not only food but a source of money. If you go to 4000 meters in the Andes there is nothing else growing there and then you see them using the same techniques since six or seven thousand years. Nothing has changed, if it rains there is a crop and if it does not then there is nothing. They depend on ancient rituals to encourage nature to give them rain. More than that it is how people there work together and help each other is very inspiring.

Everyone wants to learn about Peruvian food these days but which cuisine are you curious about?
Chinese cuisine is one I love and the techniques, the amount of preparation that goes into it. I have never been to China but I do want to explore Chinese cuisine.

Where do you go on vacation?
(Laughing) Truth be told I don't take vacations, I have traveled for food events but it has been seven years since I have taken a vacation. Right now I don't feel like I need to take a break. I love Peru and Urubamba Valley and I love the Piedmont area of Italy.

Which other conferences do you go to besides Mistura?
I have been to some in Santiago, Chile, and Gastronomika in Spain three years ago.

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