Man on a Mission

Talk with Jose Luis Chavez for a few minutes, and you’ll understand how he ended up in New York City. The chef and co-owner of Manhattan’s Mission Ceviche veritably crackles with urban ambition, hustle and energy.

Chavez’s road to New York began in the mountains of his native Venezuela. After two years of “wasting my time” in college, he took a job at a bar in Merida, Venezuela. When the chef didn’t show up for work one day, Chavez “jumped into the kitchen.” It wasn’t long before the bar fired the chef, and hired Chavez to replace him. This sort of rapid rise within the ranks would become a recurring theme in Chavez’s career.

Next, Chavez found himself working as a dishwasher at a restaurant on Margarita Island off the coast of Venezuela. Within six months, he was running the kitchen. Eventually, the owner of the restaurant suggested to Chavez that he had outgrown his position, and should consider moving to a more dynamic gastronomic environment, Peru.

Chavez sparked to the idea immediately. Thanks to high-profile chefs like Gaston Aucurio, Peruvian cuisine was rapidly gaining popularity. Also, Chavez’s father is Peruvian (his mother is Colombian), and had a solid family base there. So Jose Luis moved to the small town of Chaclacayo—about 45 minutes from Lima—where he moved in with members of his father’s family, and enrolled in culinary school.

Chavez caught the eye of one of his professors, who also owned a restaurant in the Miraflores district of Lima. The professor hired Chavez to do some line work in his restaurant, with Chavez eventually relocating to a tiny apartment in Lima. He would attend school from 2:00 pm to 6:00 pm, then work at the restaurant from 7:00 pm to 4:00 am. Six days a week.

After graduating from culinary school, Chavez got a job as a restaurant manager in Lima. Here he created the menu, oversaw all inventory, cooking, guest relations and more. While the restaurant job was satisfactory, Chavez was restless. He had always dreamed of owning his own business.

After a failed attempt at a catering business, Chavez set up a stand in the Mercado in Lima, where, in the evenings, he sold his dishes to go. During the day, he made lomo saltado sandwiches, and sold them to surfers on the beach.

During his time in Lima, Chavez met the woman who was to become his wife, a native of upstate New York, where the couple relocated in 2012. Chavez worked a short stint in a pizza by the slice joint in New Paltz, NY, and then a restaurant for eight months. His wife then secured a job in New York City, and the newlyweds moved there.

Chavez’s first New York job was as a line cook at the newly opened Tommy Bahama Restaurant. A year later, he was a sous chef at a Michelin star restaurant in the New York Palace Hotel. He parlayed that experience to become a sous chef at New York’s iconic French bistro, Bagatelle. Here he gained increased responsibility, and gradually was able to help shape the Bagatelle menu. “I was working 14-hour days, but I was creating food—Peruvian food. It was special.”

In the summer of 2015, Bagatelle dispatched Chavez and his team to Cannes, France to open two pop-up restaurants during the legendary Cannes Film Festival. It was here that Chavez fine-tuned his ceviche restaurants amongst the international bon vivants. It was also here he met the man who would become his business partner.

Brice Mastroluca, a Frenchman who worked for a different Bagatelle location, was floored by Chavez’s ceviche, and suggested the two open a restaurant to introduce it to New Yorkers. A week later, they found a space on Gansavorth Street in Manhattan’s meatpacking district, and within months the first Mission Ceviche opened its doors.

While US diners were intrigued by Chavez’s ceviche, there was one bit of Peruvian culinary tradition that wasn’t being readily adopted. “In Peru, we drink the tiger’s milk (the citrusy brine that “cooks” the fish in ceviche). Americans weren’t drinking it. They were looking for bread, or rice to soak up the tiger’s milk,” says Chavez.

This led Chavez to develop his most successful menu item, build-your-own-ceviche. This allows diners to pick their fish, their tiger milk, complement (lettuce, rice or quinoa) and add various other elements to their customized ceviche.

Soon the buzz around Mission Ceviche took off, and the restaurant was getting lines out the door. Chavez and Mastroluca opened a second Mission Ceviche on Canal Street this past August, and there are plans in the works for a third in Mexico.

When asked what’s the one think North American diners should keep in mind about Peruvian cuisine, Chavez answers, biodiversity and cultural influences. (Yes, that’s technically two things, but regardless.) “The biodiversity and different climates give Peru its unique ingredients like potatoes, corn and Peruvian peppers. The coast, the mountains and the jungle—they all have their own ingredients and recipes you can’t find anywhere else.”

Regarding the cultural influences, Chavez points to pre-Incas, the Spanish, and more recently, impact of Japanese, Chinese and African immigrants.

Jose Luis Chavez wears his passion for Peruvian cuisine on his sleeve. His entrepreneurial energy and ambition mean that he will most likely be spreading the gospel of ceviche to many, many more people in New York City and around the world.