LA Chef Sergio Perera

(Originally published April 17, 2013 on Examiner.com).

(Since this article was written Chef Perera has left the City of Los Angeles).

“One of the things I really learned from Arzak as well as his daughter Elena, and even Ferran for that matter, is that when you talk about being a creative chef, you have to think like a child, you really do. You have to allow yourself to be astonished by everything you see, be vulnerable, and have fun,” noted Chef Sergio Perera as he spoke both about his past experiences and his upcoming pop-up starting in two different locations at Cortez Restaurant in Echo Park on Monday, April 29th and then at the Vienna Caféon Melrose on May 4th.

(The Echo Park location will be on Mondays and Tuesdays, while the Melrose location will be on Saturdays and Sundays. The Echo Park spot will run initially for six weeks. Whereas the Melrose place will run the first and may or may not continue at this location depending upon how it goes. Both spaces will have very limited seating of less than thirty people. So this will be a very personalized dining experience. For more details, please see the Amalur Project website for details).

Perera’s playful, passionate and thoughtful approach to cuisine is both a reflection of the world renowned chefs he’s trained with and his own desire to serve guests innovative plates of delicious food in fun unpretentious surroundings.

Born in Zaragoza between Madrid and Barcelona, an area known for its amazing meats, Perera grew up in a family of great home cooks. From and for his family he learned and made very traditional Spanish food. When Perera got his first professional job, at seventeen years of age, in the kitchen at Arzak, Sergio learned a completely different way of looking at traditional Spanish techniques and ingredients. Rather than learn classic French technique at a culinary school, Perera’s early professional education was in Arzak’s kitchen. At this time in the mid-nineties, Arzak was already experimenting with different types of gelatin, and freezing techniques though not quite as elaborate as what Ferran would do later. Perera remembers specifically when Juan Mari Arzak had taken a trip to eat at Michel Bras’s place in Southern France where liquid nitrogen was first played with in a kitchen. Arzak brought this idea back to Spain that Bras didn’t pursue which Ferran later took even further. Perera frequently saw Ferran at Arzak’s restaurant well before el bulli became well known outside of Spain.

While working in Arzak’s kitchen, Sergio also quickly became good friends with a Spanish speaking Japanese chef from Kyoto staging at Arzak. In part due to Perera’s fascination with martial art and samurai films, Perera was drawn to Japanese culture and fascinated with Japanese food. Perera and the visiting Japanese chef frequently exchanged recipes.

This Japanese chef’s parents also happened to very close friends with a family who owns a small kaisekirestaurant just north of Kyoto, Minokichi, founded in 1716. At this time, in the mid-nineteen nineties it was unheard of for Western chefs to work in Japanese kitchens. Nonetheless, Perera asked his new friend what was the likelihood that he could visit Japan and experience a Japanese kitchen for a few days. His new friend arranged for this to happen at Minokichi. So in 1996 Perera ended up going to Kyoto.

Perera recalls the first time he drove into the country side to get to Minokichi as if being in a painting since the location was so picturesque. He fell immediately in love with the nature of the place and the newness of everything he experienced.

In Kyoto, Perera didn’t necessarily get to work when he first got to Minokichi. He however was allowed to observe, and like a small child was fascinated by everything he saw. Perera was especially amazed by every one’s work ethic, and the respect every one in the restaurant had for one another as well as for the ingredients. He had seen this in Spain, but never at this level. Every one took his or her job seriously, and worked like one big family. The dishwasher was just as important as the head chef. The dishware itself was either antique or handmade by the chef himself. Perera stayed for more than a few days.

He was allowed to continue to observe all that he wanted, and during his first three months at Minokichi he washed dishes, cleaned plus learned how to sharpen knives. Learning how to sharpen knives was essential to everything. He wasn’t allowed to touch any food before he learned how to sharpen his own knife. So he practiced and practiced on double bevel, single bevel and even Western knives. He also learned how to wash rice and certain vegetables properly. “There are certain things you don’t do, and certain things you take care of in a certain way. Everything had its purpose no matter how minuscule,” Perera explained.

The experience was humbling, but rather than feel like a hot shot after three years at Arzak, Perera felt like a kid since everything was so different and since he fell so in love with the culture, and the craft. “The whole being of kaiseki is the artistry, the seasonality and the poetry.”

Perera ended up spending a year at Minokichi, before the family that owned Minokichi helped him get his next position at three Michelin star Kitcho, the most famous kaiseki in all of Japan also in Kyoto, for the next six months. Here he learned some similar techniques to those he had used at Minokichi, but many other original techniques as well. He recalls having to learn how to do katsuramuki with imperfectly shaped potatoes cutting his thumb numerous times as he practiced on huge buckets of potatoes until he perfected his technique which had everything to do with knowing how to sharpen your blade, knowing how to hold the blade, and knowing the correct pressure. It was all so exact.

By the end of his year and half in Japan, he was allowed to cut the larger simpler fish. Plus he focused on making the broths, the dashi that has stayed with him ever since, for even when he now does Western style broths or consumes, he always starts with traditional kombu.

Coincidently when Sergio went back to Spain and started working at Mugaritz (currently ranked the third best restaurant in the world), he learned that Chef Andoni Luis Aduriz had been doing the same thing. Which is why this was a perfect segue back to Spain. Perera stated “no one is doing what Aduriz is doing at Mugaritz. The whole reason that Perera was attracted to Mugaritz is that the cuisine to Perera is a Spanish interpretation of what Kaiseki is. Everything is similar. Arzak made Perera aware of Aduriz, and the introduction. Aduriz worked for Arzak and at el bulli with Ferran for three years, and then Martín Berasategui outside San Sebastian for another two years before opening his own restaurant.

According to Perera, Ferran was always inspired by Japanese cuisine particularly traditional kaiseki that’s very minimalist, yet very beautiful. Perera noted that even with only two ingredients on a plate, kaiseki still has many layers. Though Aduriz hadn’t trained in Japan himself, Aduriz and his incredibly gifted team have visited Japan numerous times to do research. Perera explained part of what made Aduriz so great is the lab team he has assembled. Each member is brilliant, and the team has been together for over seven years.

Aduriz lab wasn’t high tech like Perera expected it to be since Aduriz had worked at el builli’s. Nothing resembled el bulli. Rather Aduriz’s lab is ingredient driven where its obvious that a lot of time and thought was put into new approaches to food. Here is where Perera learned a lot of interesting and unique techniques, for example, freezing certain fruit then thawing them out to play with textures; breaking down sugars and proteins to see the impact on flavor; making watermelon look like raw beef; making small potatoes look like rocks. Aduriz was the guy who developed the sous vide egg. He developed that technique. It took him two years to figure out at what temperature the white and yolk coagulate at the same time.

After almost two years at Aduriz, Perera took some time off to help a friend open a restaurant, Half Moon Bay, in San Francisco. Perera had another friend working at the original Jean Georges in New York City, so next Perera went to work in that kitchen for a year. Wiley Dufree just left to start WD-50, so this was a while back when Jean Georges was still working in the kitchen along with a lot of the original staff. What really attracted Perera to this restaurant was that Jean Georges was one of the first classically trained French chefs to incorporate Asian cuisine in a really beautiful and amazing way.

So this was a new twist on Perera’s fascination with Asian and its cuisine since Jean Georges was doing French Asian food incorporating flavors and ingredients not only from Japan, but from Thailand, Vietnam, China and other Asian cuisine. Here Perera was exposed to a ton of herbs and spices he had never seen before. In Japan, the spices used are relatively simple especially in comparison to China where hundreds of different spices are used.

What was also new and different for Perera working at Jean George was the kitchen atmosphere. The kitchen environment in the US is completely different than those of kitchens in Europe and Asia. In Europe, everything is very structured, and militant. Every single person in a European kitchen considers his or her job as his or her career, his or her life. Whereas herein the United States, there are a lot of younger guys who don’t care or respect the environment as well as possess a sense of entitlement. Certain things that wouldn’t be allowed in Europe, or Asia, people get away with here.

After Jean Georges, Perera then got an opportunity to be the head chef for a catering company where the chef just left and he was given full reign to do what he wanted to do dependent upon what clients wanted: some food was creative, some was dull. Catering in NYC is a big thing; events included private clients, as well as events at Radio City Music Hall. This was around 2000. Learning how to travel, adapt and improvise were huge lessons learned from this gig.

After doing this, Perera next staged in a number of places in NYC trying to find something that reminded him of Mugaritz, so he went to Le Bernardin for a week, which was wonderful but not what Sergio wanted to do. He also staged at Momofuku and WD-50. Even though Chang’s team was great and Wiley is amazingly creative, these locations still lacked something that he wanted to do at that time. He thought about venturing to Chicago for Aliena, but Perera decided that if he was going to do this kind of cuisine at this level, he was better off just going back to Spain where molecular gastronomy began.

So that’s indeed what Perera did next, returning to Spain to work at a couple places in the Basque country including a very contemporary tapas place for a year and half, and then heading back to Mugaritz for a season in 2008. He then headed back to San Francisco to help his friend at his restaurant before heading down to Los Angeles.

Chef Sergio Perera’s latest Amalur Project pop-up starting April 29th in Echo Park is one of several pop-ups he’s done recently showcasing his cuisine. These past and present pop-ups are previews of upcoming projects Perera currently has in the pipeline with his investors, who he routinely cooks for and describes as adventurous eaters.

The present upcoming pop-up will occur in two locations: First starting Monday, April 29th and Tuesday, April 30th in Echo Park at Cortez Restaurant where the initial run lasts six weeks and then second, at theVienna Café on Melrose on Saturday, May 4th and Sunday, May 5th. If the second location goes well, these dates may also be extended, but for right now this second location is scheduled only for this one weekend.

Both the Echo Park and Melrose locations will have limited seating, approximately twenty six or so seats, and both will also have wine and beer (though customers are welcome to bring their own beverages). The menu will be a four course tasting menu for $55 (vegetarian option available) and a separate a la carte bar menu with items to share. Reservation information is available on the Amalur Project website.

These pop-ups will incorporate what Perera has learned about the Los Angeles food scene and Los Angeles food culture since he first moved to Los Angeles in 2008. According to Perera, “…if diners in Los Angeles have to think to too much about their food and what they’re eating, they get turned off by it. There needs to be a certain level of comfort and something that they recognize for them really to understand their food and really enjoy it…”

When Perera first moved to Los Angeles, he thought about opening the first molecular gastronomy restaurant. He was going to open this restaurant with a good friend who had worked at El Bulli for four years and was going to move down here to LA from San Francisco. The restaurant was going to around 30 seats. Much smaller than Jose Andres’ Bazaar that came a couple years later. Looking back, Pererea’s glad he didn’t open this restaurant.

When Bazaar opened in 2010, Perera was actually back in Spain working with his good friend and mentor Albert Adria who was opening up restaurants in Barcelona. Perera met Ferran’s younger brother in 2006 and reconnected with him at a food conference in 2008. Now Perrara returns to Spain twice a year to help Albert, his brother Ferran and their team with their upcoming projects; this September Perera is again returning to Spain to help.

In becoming a creative and innovative chef, Albert Adria is now Perera’s biggest and most influential chef, friend and mentor. According to Perera, “the El Bulli team of chefs is the most hard working and creative team of chefs out there in the world right now. They are family to me. We help each other out. My great friend and brilliant chef Francisco Mendez will be heading the new “Mexican” restaurant that Albert and Ferran are working on. Francisco “Paco” Mendez is a perfect example of combining beautiful and rich tradition such as that of Mexican cuisine with innovative techniques such as El Bulli. Watch out for this guy. He is going to be big.” Perera would also love to do a project with Adria some day.

Perera now is no longer interested in working at such a big restaurant like Bazaar doing six hundred covers a night. He had done that kind of volume back in NYC when he headed the catering company, as well as when he first came to Los Angeles at Asia de Cuba. With that volume, at that level, Perera finds it is just too difficult to be creative and consistent.

Perera wants to do food that approachable and affordable in an environment that personal. That’s why Perera is so fascinated by the food scene in Copenhagen that’s artistic and technique driven but, aside from NOMA, is affordable and approachable. Every restaurant in Copenhagen is using nicely sourced food, creatively done that’s fun

At his upcoming pop-up, this is exactly what Perera is aiming to achieve: Nicely sourced food creatively done that’s fun and served in a down to earth personal environment. To that end, Perera and his team, including chefs Jacob Kear and Steve Monnier, will be both cooking and serving the food to the guests. Perera is looking to create a dining experience, not a scene, that’s fun and whimsical as well as personal. By choosing smaller venues with only two table turns per service, Perera’s team will be afforded the opportunity to be exceptionally creative with his plates for the limited number of covers he and his team will be cooking for and serving to. With the $55 price point, Perera is also looking to make his upcoming pop-up dining experience both affordable and accessible.

Perera with his fun and whimsical approach to cuisine maintains his child like perspective. This perspective allows him to be creative, and reflects the mentoring he’s received from many of the world’s top chefs like Arzak, Aduritz and the Adria brothers, both Albert and Ferran: All of whom continue to think like ingenuous children, continue to have fun and continue to remain open to the world of possibilities.

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