Williamsburg’s Llama Inn (50 Withers St.) is a lauded dining destination for Peruvian cuisine that was recently recognized by the New York Times, making it to Pete Wells’ list of 100 Best Restaurants in New York.
The kitchen is helmed by executive chef Erik Ramirez, who trained at some of Manhattan’s most elite establishments, like Eleven Madison Park, and is now a finalist for the James Beard Award for Outstanding Chef, drawing even more acclaim to the Brooklyn restaurant.
Ramirez’s right hand and local North Brooklyn resident, Sergio Nakayoshi, is Llama Inn’s Chef de Cuisine and a passionate champion of all things Peru and Peruvian food.
Greenpointers spoke with Chef Sergio Nakayoshi about the pressure associated with Llama Inn’s recent recognition, the many different influences of Peruvian cuisine, and his favorite things about North Brooklyn.
Greenpointers: You’re a chef at one of New York’s best restaurants. Tell us a little bit about your background and how you ended up at Llama Inn.
Chef Sergio Nakayoshi: I was born in Peru. My father is Japanese, and my mother is Peruvian. We moved to the United States when I was 12, and ended up in St. Louis, Missouri, where I went to school. I started in the industry as a dishwasher in St. Louis. I thought I wanted to be a graphic designer, but being in the kitchen helped me pay for my studies.
There were no Peruvian restaurants there. My mom is great cook and would cook Peruvian dishes, but I still wanted to eat Peruvian made by chefs.
A chef opened a restaurant in St. Louis, and I asked to come in for a summer job, washing dishes, and I ate the traditional dishes there like lomo saltado. I worked my way up the ladder from working the grill to a sous chef, eventually becoming the Executive Chef at Mango, the restaurant in St. Louis. I worked there for 10 years and that is where I learned how to cook Peruvian cuisine. I would absorb everything like a sponge.
I needed to keep growing, so I came to New York… because it’s New York. I decided I wanted to be a Peruvian chef, so I moved here to sharpen my skills… and knives. Then, I found a job at Llama Inn. Chef Erik has been a great mentor for the past five years. I saw his different approach when I first ate at Llama Inn. It was a completely different take on Peruvian food than what I knew. It opened my eyes because no one was making it like that. Chef Erik is one of the first ones to make Peruvian cuisine known in New York. I loved the concept and the food. That is what is so unique about Llama Inn.
Greenpointers: Llama Inn was recently featured in The New York Times’ list of 100 Best Restaurants in New York. Do you feel pressure to keep up with all of the positive press?
Chef Sergio Nakayoshi: Pressure is always going to be there. We are always trying to push ourselves and keep moving forward. We kind of have a chip on our shoulder because not a lot of people know about Peruvian food, so we feel pressure to push forward and teach people about our cuisine and culture. With regard to the recognition, of course, you always want to stay on top of your game.
Greenpointers: What do you think has made Llama Inn so successful?
Chef Sergio Nakayoshi: I think our success comes from the approach of how we cook our food, and how we present Peruvian food to New York. We are not necessarily a traditional Peruvian restaurant. Most of our dishes are composed of ingredients that are not commonly found in Peruvian food, because here we have varied produce seasons, and different ingredients than ones we get in Peru. Our approach would be limited if we stuck to Peruvian ingredients. We have to play with the ingredients we have here, staying with the same flavor profiles.
Our ceviches have always been our number one dishes. We keep pushing the boundaries on ceviches. In Lima, you wouldn’t find ceviche made with fruits, but we use fruit in our ceviche. We play with sweet and savory. We make a beet ceviche, which is vegetarian. It’s the same preparation using the same ingredients for the sauce like garlic, ginger, onions, celery, vegetable stock, and lime juice. We treat it the same way you would treat a fish, cutting the beets similar to a carpaccio, and playing with the idea of carpaccio turned into ceviche. We exploit all of the ingredients that are available to us and play with how to eat Peruvian food.
Greenpointers: How would you describe the cuisine at Llama Inn?
Chef Sergio Nakayoshi: Let’s start with what Peruvian cuisine is: a marriage of different cultures. Starting with the Incas, then the Spanish conquistadors, who brought new ingredients. They also brought the African workers, and along with it, the African influence. Then there was the Arab influence.
Another phase happened when the Chinese immigrants arrived to Peru to work on farms. They introduced the use of rice, ginger, soy sauce and the use of the wok. Then, there was a migration from Japan in the 1800s. (I am part Japanese, but I consider myself Peruvian.) The Japanese brought their knowledge of seafood. Peru is major seafood exporter to world, but Peruvians didn’t know how to use seafood. There were fisheries on the coast, but they were not using octopus or scallops. Lastly, the Italians brought in their cuisine and flavor profiles.
Around the 1940s, Peruvian food consolidated into a melting pot of all these different cuisines and cultures. It was not considered Japanese or Spanish or Italian or Chinese. It was considered Peruvian food. But every dish has an aspect of these different cultures.
Greenpointers: What is your favorite menu item at Llama Inn to cook?
Chef Sergio Nakayoshi: I’m a West Coast guy from Lima, and we are known for ceviche. I eat it every day. All of our ceviches right now, they are like our sons, we can’t choose a favorite.
Greenpointers: What dish would you recommend to guests going to Llama Inn for the first time?
Chef Sergio Nakayoshi: They have to eat the ceviches, but our menu is formatted in a way that everything is sharable. Peruvians are family oriented, so we think about how we eat with our families.
We structure our menu starting with anticuchos, or grilled skewers. It’s common to find skewers of offal meats, but we don’t use a lot of offal meats except for cow’s heart because that is the most traditional. But we also have a vegetarian one with Brussels sprouts. We also have a pork belly anticuho that has a Chinese influence, made with a peanut glaze.
When I come to eat with friends or family, we always start with anticuchos, then get ceviche in the raw section, then go to the middle section which is called “un poquito de todo” which means a little bit of everything. They are smaller dishes, so you can get three or four dishes from that section.
Lastly, we have a section called “the show must go on.” That’s where the big entrees are, made for two to three people. We have whole fish that comes with little sides like pickles, rice, and lettuce, so you can make lettuce wraps. The prime rib comes with a form of Italian brioche, so you can make sliders with it. We also have a take on fried chicken and waffles, but instead of waffles, we use a Peruvian donut with a glaze similar to maple syrup. We use influences of how people eat in Peru and marry it with how people eat in the United States.
Greenpointers: Where do you go in the neighborhood when you’re not working? Do you have some favorite North Brooklyn restaurants (other than Llama Inn)?
Chef Sergio Nakayoshi: I live in Bushwick. I was living in Chinatown when I first moved to New York, and I would eat around there. But then when I moved to Brooklyn, I saw more diverse cuisines. I like to eat at Win Son (159 Graham Avenue), Chino Grande (253 Grand Street), and Madre (214 Franklin Street). There’s a lot of diversity here and I really like it.
Greenpointers: What’s your favorite thing about the restaurant scene in North Brooklyn?
Chef Sergio Nakayoshi: What I love about Llama Inn and where it’s located is that you get to feel that it’s still New York, but Brooklyn is so much nicer. It’s a little less of a hustle bustle and feels more like a neighborhood. I appreciate the neighborhood feel.
This guy is one of the most epic and humble chefs I’ve met, his ceviche will literally make you feel younger and healthier. Llama Inn, is in.
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