There’s a smile on chef Ricardo Zarate’s face, and a cadence to his speech that has been missing in recent years. Zarate was once on top of the LA culinary world, winning national best new chef and restaurant awards and inking cookbook deals based on his success at Mo Chica, Paiche, and Picca. His failures were just as swift and as public, with a few different comeback tours promised over the past half-decade. Zarate stuck to consulting gigs and management deals that saw him lead openings like Rosaline (he has since departed) and Silver Lake’s now-closed Causita, but he has struggled to find something permanent and stable. Until now, he says.
“To be honest, this happens to a lot of chefs,” says Zarate from the dark interior of his next project. “I mean, to open a restaurant costs a million dollars. I don’t have it. So then we sign contracts, we decide on shares and all that, and then when they don’t need you they kick you out. It’s part of the business. Finally, I’m independent.”
The first new project for the unencumbered Zarate is Colibrí, a Peruvian comfort food pop-up in the Los Balcones space in Hollywood. The name, which means hummingbird in Spanish, is fitting, given the public sense that Zarate has flitted from project to project in recent years. Even the length of his Hollywood pop-up is not guaranteed, with that whole stretch of Vine slated for a redevelopment so massive it has already taken out a different nearby restaurant.
There’s a peace to the impermanence, Zarate says. “Obviously my goal is to one day have something permanent,” he says, “but in the meantime, I am a chef. I love to cook. If it’s in the street, okay. I’m not afraid of that. If this is two months, or eight years, or one week, I’m still going to do it. This is what drives me.”
His biggest recent smile comes from thinking about Colibrí phase two, a second pop-up that he’s running out of the shuttered Onizuka restaurant at 514 N. La Cienega Boulevard in West Hollywood. Unlike the Hollywood location, here Zarate will focus on Italian Peruvian food, which — just like Nikkei (Japanese Peruvian) and Chifa (Chinese Peruvian) cooking — occupies its own formalized lane in Peru. “This food has deep connections,” says Zarate. “It’s not something that we just created. It’s huge.”
He points to chefs like the internationally lauded Rafael Osterling, to South America’s history with tomatoes and pasta, and to the Peruvian custom of panettone (or panetón) at Christmas as just a few of the more popular examples. The “we” that Zarate refers to is partner Michael Fiorelli, a friend and well-known LA chef in his own right. The duo is building Colibrí West Hollywood’s Italian Peruvian menu together, pulling ricotta and fennel sausage from Fiorelli’s Italian American upbringing and acids and heat and seafood from Zarate’s youth spent in Peru.
“This is not fusion,” says Zarate. “It’s a style. We’re going to be the first ones to bring it here, and it’s going to be a lot of fun.” The project, opening next week, is currently slated to run only as a two-month residency, though that could change. In the meantime, the pair are just happy to be cooking on their terms. “Everyone came out of 2020 re-prioritizing what’s important to them,” says Fiorelli, who left his role as the executive chef at Olivetta and the overall Boujis Group last fall. “Success, in quotations, looks different now. That’s the benefit of two months here, we just get to show up and have fun and learn and cook. It’s not like there’s this weight, where everything is riding on this.”
The frenetic hummingbird energy is palpable between the two — and it’s not just them. There are plans for music and art events, including a ceramicist (the same person who made Colibrí’s plates) throwing pieces right at the front of the dining room. Beto Mendez, who operates the local El Zarape chain of Mexican restaurants, will also be cooking on-site at the Colibrí West Hollywood space, running Tacos on the Alley as an attached pop-up with its own bar, menu, and hours. Diners will enter through a narrow corridor alongside the building to find a poured cement bar and breezy open laneway, ideal for tacos and cocktails and late nights. Mendez will operate Tacos on the Alley until 2 a.m., Thursdays through Saturdays, during the full run of Colibrí West Hollywood.
Zarate says that he’s embracing the energy and feeling the freedom of going fully independent, even if it means these early projects are smaller, a bit more chaotic, and much more ephemeral than some big gilded restaurant build-out. He’s moved past all that, he swears, and is only focusing on what makes him happy: cooking great food. “It’s hard for me to describe how excited I am to talk about this menu with Michael,” says Zarate, flashing that smile again. “We’re going to take the jackets off. We’re just going to make the best dishes, and the rest will happen. Fuck the egos.”
Colibrí West Hollywood opens with its Italian Peruvian menu on Tuesday, April 11, keeping hours from Tuesday through Saturday, 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. at 514 N. La Cienega Boulevard, West Hollywood, CA 90069. Tacos on the Alley will operate with its own regional Mexican menu from Monday through Wednesday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., and Thursday through Saturday until 2 a.m.