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Why I Quit My Restaurant Empire to Start from Scratch

My dream was to open up a Peruvian restaurant, which came true with Mo-Chica when I moved to Los Angeles. However, despite all of the accolades and success that I received with my restaurants, something didn’t feel right.

When you first decide that you want to be a chef, you go into it with a lot of emotion, and that doesn't always mix with the business side of being a chef. However, making it as a chef doesn't always mean making money. I learned this the hard way.

Since the moment I left my family in my home country of Peru, I told myself that I was always going to work toward my dream, or at least something that was meaningful to me to make it worth being away from them. This means a lot of things to different people in the food industry: open a restaurant, be an executive chef, be a celebrity chef, or just discover yourself through food.

My dream was to open up a Peruvian restaurant, which came true with Mo-Chica when I moved to Los Angeles. Then I was somehow named "Best New Chef" and "Best New Chef, People's Choice" in 2012 by Food & Wine. A few years later, I found myself with a mini-empire of four Peruvian-inspired restaurants. However, despite all of the accolades and success that I received with my restaurants, something didn't feel right. So as painful as it was, I had to let it all go and start from scratch again.

Mo-Chica's ceviche. Photo via Flickr user Larry

Leaving four restaurants behind was really fucking painful—like falling-off-a-ten-story-building-and-landing-head-first painful. You have to remember that, at that time, Peruvian restaurants were non-existent in the mainstream restaurant world, and my restaurants broke that paradigm. It was all through blood, sweat, and tears, too.

I can't begin to tell you how many dinners I cooked back then in order to convince would-be investors to take a stake in opening up a fine-dining Peruvian restaurant, to no avail. Thus, I opened Mo-Chica all by myself, at the expense of my entire savings account and a few loans from family members—$30,000, to be exact. I thought everything was on track but I started to realize that my dream was getting lost as my business grew. I was losing focus about the main reason why I started cooking in the first place: passion.

Seco de Cordero at Mo-Chica. Photo via Flickr user Larry

Sometimes you get frustrated with people in this industry who get caught up with the restaurant glamour side of things instead of just the food. I lovingly call the cooking industry "the recycling industry" because—in addition to meeting people who have a passion for food similar to yours—you meet people who are just failed in many other fields and find a second life within this industry. Those are the ones that you have to look out for.

For me, that meant being true to myself and identify that my restaurant ideology is one fueled by passion—not business.

You tend to meet the latter type of person a lot when you win a few national awards like I did. You make a lot of friends in that new world, and you want to please each and every one. This is not possible, but you will still try with everything you've got. Also, when you are this committed to something that you built with your passion, you are more easily bullied. It makes you extremely vulnerable.

Shrimp Causa Sushi. Photo via Flickr user Larry

For a lot of people, it's really all about the money. That is the American dream, but that wasn't my dream as a proud Peruvian-American. I feel very proud and privileged to live in this country but simply put: I was raised with different values.

One day, I was like, "Fuck, this is not going to work." Everything was too much for me, and I'm not afraid to admit that. There just comes a time when you have to confront your inner demons. For me, that meant being true to myself and identifying that my restaurant ideology is one fueled by passion—not business. In my eyes, each restaurant was supposed to be a reflection of me, and that was not the case anymore. In addition to my strong emotions, I left behind 250 employees that I was helping during a tough economy, too.

Zapallo at Picca. Photo via Flickr user Larry

The same year that I left behind my restaurants, my brother died suddenly in a car accident. He was also a notable chef, but in the UK. He had a few restaurants, and we always competed with anything we did, like most siblings do for their entire lives. I had finally convinced him to move to Los Angeles, where I was living and cooking, to collaborate on our own restaurant. And then he passed away.

That was it for me. My brother dying put things into perspective, and I realized that the time was now to move on with my life. It was time to detach myself. I have been working purely out of passion ever since.

Stepping out of everything for a year and a half was the best thing that could have happened to me at that time. It was like a new start, and as a chef who needs inspiration to thrive, it was amazing. I even wrote my first cookbook. I am also opening up another restaurant that is going to be a 100-percent reflection of me, finally.

Dulce de leche churros. Photo via Flickr user Larry

I am not going to lie: I am one lucky motherfucker. If you would have told me 30 years ago—as a kid playing soccer with no shoes in Peru, because I couldn't afford them—that I was going to make it this far, I would have never believed you.

I just hope to encourage other people to never give up on their passions because of money. Always remember this.

As told to in Spanish to Javier Cabral