Eduardo Vargas has been involved in more Shanghai restaurants than you’ve had hot dinners. The larger than life Peruvian is a legend in the city’s F&B scene.
With Azul – his baby – turning 20 this weekend, we decided it was the perfect time to sit down with him and hear his life story (pretty much) from the very beginning. Here it is, in his own words.
On first getting into cooking (and getting bored in paradise)…
As a teenager I moved from Peru to Canada, went to school in Washington, DC – a place called Georgetown University – then returned to Canada to study cooking.
After studying cooking, I got a job in Hawaii, so I moved to Hawaii to be a chef, and I lived there for around four or five years; a very nice restaurant called Roy's – kind of island, Pacific Rim cuisine.
From there I was a hired by an Italian lady: “My husband owns a resort in the Seychelles, we need somebody like you.”
I was 25-26 years old, so I took the job and moved to the island. I didn’t like it; Seychelles now is nice, but in 1995-1996 it was no good, underdeveloped. I didn’t last six months.
On a serendipitous stopover in Singapore…
I was supposed to go back to Hawaii, but my plane was via Singapore, so I stopped there for a week to take a look.
On the first or second day there, I was speaking to a guy who owned a restaurant, a Singaporean guy, and he said to me: “You’re Latino? I have a kind of Latino place. Tomorrow I have some VIPs, 20 people. Why don't you cook for me for one day? Just one day, I’ll give you cash.”
Sure. I'll do that. That will be fun. So I did, and after that dinner he offered me a job. I stayed with him for one year, and then moved to a bigger company called Brewerkz, where I worked for five years.
On arriving in Shanghai…
During that time in Singapore I was doing guest chef jobs across Asia, and I did two weeks of Peruvian food in a hotel in Bangkok.
They were impressed. They really liked what I did, and the hotel GM introduced me to [another Shanghai legend] Walter Zahner. Walter was the GM of a new restaurant opening in the first phase of Xintiandi.
So in January 2002, I came to Shanghai to open that restaurant. It was called Che, a grill with a Latino band and all kinds of Latin-style tapas on the second floor of what used to be Kabb, and is now Paul Pairet’s Polux.
On first opening his own place…
I stayed with Che for a year. Then Walter moved to T8, and I got the chance to open my own restaurant with some of the customers from Che; they liked my food and said we should do something together.
So we opened Azul. It was mostly seafood. The word Azul means blue, blue as in the ocean. At the time we had two floors; the first floor was a tapas lounge and the second floor was more dining style, with main courses.
Eduardo Vargas (far left) on the cover of the September 2011 issue of That's Shanghai
On piqueos – Peruvian tapas…
We have tapas in Peru, but we call them piqueos. And in Latin America it is more colorful, with more flavors and more spices. We use a lot of cilantro, lime, chilies.
A little more like a Thai taste, because in Latin America we produce many of the same items they produce in Southeast Asia. You see cilantro everywhere; you see lemongrass everywhere.
Lime – we don’t use the yellow one, we use the green one, like you use in Southeast Asia. We have a big coast, so we have a lot of seafood like Southeast Asia.
We have all kinds of chilies. Lots of different chilies. Chilies for flavor, not only for spiciness.
That's why it has a lot of similarities.
On the Peruvian melting pot…
Peruvian food is a combination of different cultures. If you go to Peru, you see a lot of European influences. The Spanish colonized Peru, bringing their culture – we’re all eating paella and omelets, we just add more spices, more cilantro… but it’s the same influence.
We have milk, cream, butter. Why? It is the 500-year legacy of the monasteries. Another example is bread – like in Spain and Portugal, all the bakeries were set up by the monks.
Then 200 years ago, boats came from Japan and China, setting up rice plantations and bringing their culture. Now we have maybe two or three million Asians in Peru. Even one of our presidents was of Japanese descent.
A lot of typical dishes in Peru are cooked in woks and are stir fries. Our ceviche style is derived from Japan. Japanese people like sashimi and sushi. You had the fresh fish coming in, but at that time, there was no refrigeration, so they would cure the fish.
And then the Africans. We have towns in Peru, small villages where 70-80% of the people are black. Why? This is where slave plantations were located, brought over from Africa by the Spanish.
Again, they brought their food; a lot of stews we have in Peru are similar to those in African cuisine.
And finally, we also have influence of our own culture, the Inca culture. If it were not for Peru, you would not have French fries in your life, because potatoes come from South America. We have 4,000 different types of potato in Peru.
Forget Michelin, Eduardo with the award that really matters.
On Shanghai then and now...
Shanghai in the 20 years has seen huge development and improvement. When I moved here it was all bicycles only.
Then there was a massive construction boom, and now it is all skyscrapers and shiny shopping malls.
It's good news. Less shady landlords for one thing – that was a real danger in this business back then!
On restaurants opened and names worked with…
I opened 239 on Shimen Yi Lu near the Four Seasons hotel, where Brad Turley was the chef after coming over from Three On The Bund.
I opened the sandwich shop iiiit! My chef at the time was Kellie Lee who went on to do great things. With Kellie, we also opened City Diner on Tongren Lu, a 24-hour diner – everybody would end up in there at four in the morning.
A steakhouse called Vargas Grill, an Asian restaurant called Bamboo, Mexico Lindo… the list goes on.
On lessons learned…
Number one, if you're successful in one place, that doesn't mean that you're going to be successful in every place.
Number two, you have to be patient in this country. Be patient with what you're doing. Be humble; try to work out how to slowly, organically grow your business.
Number three, it is important to be genuinely hospitable and actively engage with the community. The friends, partnerships and network I have developed over the last 20 years have built me a loyal customer base that continue to support me.
Lastly, I would say to learn from experience and failures. Each restaurant I owned has taught me valuable lessons that has contributed to my overall growth and resilience in the industry.
On surviving the COVID shutdown…
We started doing a lot of deliveries. At that time, I had eight of my staff living in the restaurant, cooking and delivering from there. I cooked with them; I did the delivery with them, dressed up in my hazmat suit.
On the highest of the highlights...
My family, my wife, my daughter. That is amazing. You know, that is the best thing that has happened to me. I love to spend time with my family.
The good friendships I’ve made; I have staff that have worked with me for 15 years. I have made a family through the company, through the business.
I’m not rich, but I have traveled all over the world and seen so many things. Can I retire? No. But I am comfortable.
It is my passion, my life. I would never change what I did in my life. Sure, I can improve on the mistakes I made. But I always keep going, always keep cooking...
On the Azul Group's resilience...
There is no such thing as the perfect partners, but in Alvin and AJ, who came on board seven years ago, the Azul Group has now found the closest thing to it.
We are now stable and growing; we have six concepts and seven restaurants, and we'll keep building. There is Azul, Colca, Bhacus, Xouk, two Azul Italianos, and our new Yunnan concept in 1000 Trees.
On Azul’s legacy of love…
There are so many stories over the past 20 years. Several times a guy has told me it is his first date in Azul – I look after them, we have a shot together at end of the meal… one year later, two years later, they're having a wedding. Or they are coming to the restaurant with a baby.
We’ve done so many engagements, so many birthday parties for the kids. I have 20 somethings coming up to me in the restaurant nowadays saying, “My dad did my birthday party in your restaurant on Dongping Lu when I was eight.”
This is what life should be about. Azul is a good place for celebration.
Fiesta Latina 20th Anniversary Celebration
To mark their 20th Anniversary, Azul in Shangkang Li is holding a Grand Fiesta Latina this Saturday with music, chef pop-ups and great drinks!
The event is free to enter, with food and drink tickets going for RMB20 at Azul on the day.
Sat Sep 23, 12 Noon-Late; Free.
Azul, Building 6, Shangkang Li, 358 Kangding Lu, by Shaanxi Bei Lu 康定路358号, 近陕西北路.