Have you ever met with someone who has such passion, drive, and vision that their enthusiasm will continue to inspire you when you go your separate ways? That is what it was like meeting the very talented Chef Marcel Vizcarra. The award winning Chef Marcel is known in St. Augustine food circles as the creative genius behind La Cocina International Restaurant. After amassing a dedicated following through his flavorful and artful food, bigger things are on the horizon for this talented chef: his very own LLAMA Restaurant.
I met Marcel as he and his wife, Anna Baster, and close friends were completing the demolition work inside the new restaurant. Even after working day and night for a week, demoing and cooking at La Cocina, Marcel’s excitement over his new venture was not dimmed. After touring the old Fratelli’s space, we sat down over drinks to discuss Marcel’s journey to LLAMA.
Marcel is a native of Peru who found his way into fine dining while most of us were working on Algebra problems and nursing secret crushes. “I was eight years old when I started cooking with my mom. [Now] she is my hardest critic. I wanted to conquer her [opinion]. Whatever she likes, everyone likes so I started challenging myself.” Even as a young man, he felt a call to the kitchen. A distant relative, Hiro Nakagawa, chef and owner of Ichi Ban Japanese Gourmet, challenged Marcel to work one year in his kitchen. If he could “handle” a year under Hiro’s tutelage, then he should invest in a career in the restaurant industry.
“He was like my Master Miyagi of the Karate kid. I learned a lot from him…discipline, discipline, discipline. He always told me ‘The harder I kick you, the better you will be.’” Working a year and a half for his uncle, cooking for the President of Peru and other high profile customers, was a literal a boot camp where Marcel learned how to navigate the rigors of the kitchen and fine dining. After his time with the demanding Hiro, Marcel knew that his future was in the restaurant industry. This decision lead him to study at the prestigious Le Cordon Blu Lima where his training was completed under some of the best chefs in the world.
Marcel found his way to the United States in 2010 and fell in love with historic St. Augustine. He started working at La Cocina International where he was given the opportunity to push the boundaries of cuisine in St. Augustine. In our beautiful city, Marcel sees the opportunity to introduce new flavors, concepts, and cultures through his expert cooking. Peruvian cuisine is currently being celebrated in the major cities of the world. Marcel explained that this unique cuisine is comprised of many world cultures which paint a picture of Peru’s rich history: the indigenous Inca, the European settlers, Spanish, Italian and German, Japanese immigrants, and the influences brought by West African and Chinese slaves. The American palate finds Peruvian cuisine familiar and yet exotic. Marcel is confident that St. Augustine is ready for this new culinary adventure.
Currently LLAMA Restaurant is set to open in late September or early October. The overall concept is to “bring in new ingredients. To give the people of St. Augustine a new experience. Even with service.” Marcel’s vision is to start with an everyday brunch and dinner service. His menu items will be familiar to American palates, but though these dishes, he plans on introducing other cultural flavors. During brunch service, there will be a mimosa bar featuring fresh, tropical, fruit purees. These fruits range from the familiar mango and pomegranate, to the exotic sweet purple Peruvian corn with cinnamon. Marcel is dedicated to providing the hight quality, locally grown, and seasonal ingredients. Many of his native Peruvian fruits and vegetables are not commonly found in the United States. To overcome this obstacle, Marcel has partnered with Micro Greens of St. Augustine to grown his exotic produce.
For dinner, Marcel will utilize the plentiful local seafood at LLAMA Restaurant as well as other locally sources proteins. Patrons will be able to order traditional ceviche, a dish that he started to make at La Cocina for Peruvian friends. Word escaped about his delicious ceviche and customers have sought him out for this delicacy. When LLAMA opens, you will not have to know the chef to order this famous dish. As far as seafood goes, Marcel will not offer the fried plates that are so prevalent in St. Augustine. For an example, using what is fresh that day, he will create delicate, expertly seasoned filets served on a cake of rice and beans, garnished with micro greens. Local seafood will also be creatively featured at brunch.
For dinner service, Marcel wants to introduce Peru’s famous lomo saltado, which is a perfect bite of this multicultural cuisine. This dish is a mix of Creole ingredients and Chinese technique. In the Peruvian stir-fry, “No soy is used. It is very smokey and flavorful.” Marcel envisions topping an all American burger with this flavorful mix of vegetables, beef, and traditional Peruvian spices. When duck is in season, Chef Marcel will feature this succulent protein with oranges and native spices. “I want to do something that people know well, but introduce a different flavor.” Marcel’s approach is to give diners the option of trying something completely new, or enjoying an old favorite – all crafted with passion. “I care a lot about presentation. We put pride and flare [into all our dishes].”
For guests who are longing for a more authentic experience, Marcel will offer a tasting menu. It will be a six-course meal featuring the three regions of Peru. Guests will start their culinary adventure on the coast with traditional ceviche and an octopus carpaccio, with olive aioli. From the coast, Marcel will take us to the mountains: fried pork belly with a mint salad. The final region is the rainforest where customers will dine on Arapaima, a native fish, wrapped in banana leaves and cooked over charcoal. This package of perfectly cooked fish will be opened in front of the guest creating a total sensory experience. To finish the meal, diners will be served homemade ice cream made from fruit that grows in the Peruvian jungles.
Marcel wants to create a memorable, delicious experience for his guests. The inside of the small restaurant was inspired by the architecture of Peru. “I took my wife, Anna, to Peru and she absolutely fell in love with the architecture, the style.” He has turned the design, and front of the house operations, of his restaurant into her capable hands. The interior is painted white with dark wooden ceiling beams. It truly will look, feel, and taste like you have entered a new, exciting world. As Marcel grows LLAMA Restaurant, he envisions outdoor garden dining and a lunch service.
When I asked if his mentor, Hiro, would be proud of his accomplishments Marcel thoughtfully answered, “Yes. I think so…I learned a lot from him. He passed away a few years ago. Sometimes I dream of him. He pops out and asks me, ‘How you doing? You doing great?’” Marcel has achieved so much at the young age of 27, I believe that many people are proud of this inspiring chef. Look for great things to come from Marcel Vizcarra.
Photos courtesy of Marcel Vizcarra.
Writer Cassie Oborne grew up in the beautiful Gulf Coast city of Naples, Florida. She graduated from Flagler College, where she studied English and Secondary Education. After graduation, she and her husband made St. Augustine their permanent home. She has spent the last 16 years exploring and eating her way around the ancient city.