Monday, September 03, 2007

A Peruvian Chef In Montreal: Mario Navarrete Jr.

Mario Navarrete Jr. is a young, Peruvian-born chef, who has garnered many accolades during his career.

He has attained considerable experience at some very well-known restaurants across three countries and two continents (in Lima, he worked at the famed Señorío de Sulco; in New York at Daniel; and in Montreal, at Les Caprices de Nicolas).

Despite his international experience, it is Montreal, home since 1994, where Mario is leaving his mark as a chef restaurateur.

Mario's first restaurant, Raza, soon became one of Montreal's most talked-about places to eat.

Focusing on Nuevo Latino, his own take on pan-Latin cuisine, Raza soon caught the attention of Montreal's food establishment.

Photo: En Route

In 2005, Air Canada's in-flight magazine, En Route, named Raza one of Montreal's best restaurants, raving:

"This is the kind of food that makes diners drop their cutlery, stare at each other in disbelief and recite panegyrics. Exotic, compelling flavors, an artful presentation and an expert technique are the hallmarks of chef Mario Navarrete Jr.’s beatific cuisine."

According to another article:

"Before running his own restaurant, Navarrete rose through the ranks at different high-end kitchens. He cooked under Nuevo Latino superstar Douglas Rodriguez at Alma de Cuba, and with Guillermo Pernot, of Pasión, both in Philadelphia, and also at Montreal’s famed Les Caprices de Nicolas, then in its golden phase".

The same writer exclaims, Raza "scored [an impresssive] 28 out of 30 [points] for its food in the 2006 Zagat [Montreal] guide... and continues to rack up accolades in the media. Restaurant critic Lesley Chesterman wrote of Mario's Nuevo Latino food in Gourmet magazine: “Peruvian (...) dishes are the mainstay of his menu, all represented in an utterly sophisticated manner”.

In the Montreal Gazette, Lesley Chesterman also discussed Raza in context of Montreal's restaurant scene:

"...if there's one demand Montreal foodies make on their upscale restaurants, it's continuous innovation. Yet, looking back at 2005, it seems that need was rarely met. This year, chefs played it down. Switching their focus away from the new, they appeared to be relying on signature dishes and re-jigged classics. Some ... went out on a limb. But the only two innovators I encountered this year were Laurier Avenue neighbors, Junichi Ikematsu at Jun-i, and Mario Navarrete Jr. at Raza."

Mario certainly doesn't seem leery of innovation. The same author names a Raza soup the best of 2005, writing: "Best soup: Raza impressed with its sopa puree de zapallo, marshmallows de canela, aceite de trufas, y emulsión de leche, which translates to pumpkin soup with marshmallows. Drizzled with truffle oil and capped with a frothy milk emulsion, this bright orange soup would fit in at any fancy French restaurant. Yet by garnishing it with cinnamon-sprinkled marshmallows, chef Mario Navarrete Jr. added a sweet note few French chefs would dare include."

Another writer was impressed by Mario's purple corn martini, commenting, "The twist: At Nuevo Latino restaurant Raza ... upscale chef Mario Navarrete Jr. pays homage to his Peruvian roots with the homemade chicha martini. Power to the purple!"

Mario was also a featured chef at Les Bonnes Tables du Festival 2007 which is part of the Montréal en Lumière festival.

As if all this fame wasn't enough, Mario was also chosen to prepare a signature sampler meal at the Manoir Hovey, the five-star resort in Quebec's wilderness.

For one night only last winter, Mario was asked to offer an eight-course tasting menu, which included "white fish ceviche, an empanada stuffed with foie gras and roasted pineaple infused with star anise and served with phyllo pastry and orange zest".

In an interview prior to the event, Mario said, "It will be an honor to showcase my version of Peruvian cuisine at Manoir Hovey”, and admitted he was "looking forward to cooking alongside Manoir Hovey’s chef Francis Wolf: the two became friends while working at Daniel, one of New York’s top restaurants".

Mario wrote about this experience in his blog, revealing his awe at how far he has come, as well as his loyalty to his culinary home, and his staff:

"A few days ago, I cooked for Manoir Hovey, considered one of the best 100 hotels in the world. was an honor to be in that kitchen and of course, with a larger team, I was able to do my Nuevo Latino in a place away from Raza... that day, my sous-chef Rodrigo was in charge of Raza, and like a father worried for his child, I told him to call me in case of anything... at the end, everything turned out well in both Manoir and Raza... and the team, I can say that's fundamental, to have people who have your same principles is basic. Personally, my team is very young and inexperienced but, experience makes the teacher and I believe that working with them, and teaching them step-by-step like a child learning to walk, I will be sure that later they turn into firm steps...thank you to my team, and a personal thanks to Rodrigo..."

I first read about Mario in a lengthy interview with Panamanian chef Elena Hernández at her blog, El Amor Por La Cocina, in which he tells us his philosophy and how he entered the world of cooking:

"It all began with a dream...without dreams there are no goals, without goals there is no success, without success, there is no life...'to dream costs nothing' is a well-known saying my mother always told me.

At twelve, my father taught me how to bake bread. But it was at 18, in the state of Virginia, where my mentor Andrew Siff showed me the basics of the kitchen, the respect for the product and the profession in his acclaimed Ironhorse.

Scallop @ Raza
Photo: El Amor Por La Cocina

In 1994, I arrived in Montreal, where I studied Culinary and Pastry Arts, working in restaurants and hotels in the city, such as Cafe Ferreira, Les Caprices de Nicolas, Bice, Le Prelude (Hotel Germain).., but what I wanted to do was something different, something that had to do with my Latin roots. That's when, for the first time, I had in my hands a book called Nuevo Latino by Douglas Rodriguez... which changed completely my way of thinking... by projecting myself into the futre, a dream began to grow, and thanks to that book and its content, I searched for a name...

The dream of Raza had been sown... It was the beginning... It was then I went to Peru and Mexico to learn and have a basis in the products and regional cuisines of those countries. Back in Montreal, I researched information about Nuevo Latino... where were the places where I would learn... and with whom...

I decided to go to Philadelphia and learn from Chef Guillermo Pernot in his restaurant Pasión and at Alma de Cuba of Master Chef Douglas Rodriguez, the creator of Nuevo Latino. Then, I went to New York City... where I entered in the kitchen at Cafe Boulud (one Michelin star) and Daniel ( two Michelin stars), of the well-known Chef Daniel Boulud.

After this culinary education, both Latin and French, I returned to Montreal, with a lot of strength, energy, and security in order to launch into a new stage of my personal, and professional, life.

Photo: El Amor Por La Cocina

The dream was not only a dream, but a reality... Raza opened its doors on February 8, 2005. The rest is history... a day-to-day history...May people be talking about it for years... and when I am no longer here, my children, my grandchildren, my friends and colleagues, remember that Latino food is about family, customs, religion, love, tradition.... and, of course, Raza.

Foie gras empanada, with pork, and apple chutney@Raza
El Amor Por La Cocina

For all of my fellow Latin Americans, for my people, for my indigenous brothers and sisters who cultivate the Earth, potato, yucca, corn... for all of you, thank you.... Thank you... Without you, there would be no concept, no dream, no path, no goals..."

Soon, Mario seemed to be everywhere. Featured in Canadian foodie media, and then in US based media, he soon came to the attention of Prom Perú, the Peruvian Commission for the Promotion of Peru, for inclusion in their work on Peruvian cuisine, Perú Mucho Gusto, the no-holds-barred campaign promoting Peruvian cuisine via their book and website.

Mario also has his own Spanish-language blog, Nuevo Latino, where one can keep up on his career.

Mario and his mother Carmen.
Photo: Nuevo Latino

Recently, Mario opened his second restaurant in Montreal, Madre, so-named in honor of his mother, Carmen.

This restaurant has also become very popular but the emphasis of Madre is different than that at Raza, as Mario explains at his own blog:

Photo: Nuevo Latino

"Madre is the product of my past, present, and future. Being a child and eating those succulent dishes, with that intense flavor, and of course, much, much love.

Madre is a very special restaurant, I don't want to say that one is better than the other, they are different.

Raza, my beloved Raza, is where I can let my emotions go, that positive rage and to make others know who I am and what my cuisine is.

Madre is... the feeling for my mother, to honor her... As they say, we have only one mother... and to recall Latino dishes that mothers give their loved ones."

114, Ave. Laurier Ouest, corner Saint-Urbain
Website: Raza

2931, Rue Masson, corner 6e Ave
Website: Madre

Click here for the Peru Food main page.

TAGS: Peru, Peruvian, food, cooking, cuisine, cocina, comida, gastronomía, peruana


Pablo said...

I love Peruvian food. I heard there is a new store coming up on the internet where we can buy Peruvian food related products Lets see!

SabineM said...

I ate at Raza last night. I am writing about it on my blog and found yours by accident. I will put a link to your blog, so my readers can see your beautiful photos! LOVELY post!

::Alejandro:: said...

Thanks for the comment and link, Sabine.

S Lloyd said...

Mario is a great Chef with amazing food. For that this may be of interest, I did a review of one great dinner I had at Raza: