It took a pandemic to inspire the entrepreneurial creativity of Peruvian chef Lizardo Becerra.
Like so many chefs, Becerra had always dreamed that one day he would have his own place. But it wasn’t until the pandemic repeatedly shut down the Andaz Hotel in the ByWard Market, where he was chef de cuisine, that he took the plunge. It’s a brave move to open a restaurant these days, but Raphaël Express, named after Becerra’s four-year-old son, is a leap of faith and an expression of confidence in the future.
“With the comfort that comes from working in a hotel, you forget your creativity somewhat,” he says. But when in-house restaurant Feast + Revel closed and they decided not to offer takeaway, the 33-year-old decided to strike out on his own.
Originally from Peru, Becerra moved to Ottawa 10 years ago through a chef position at the Peruvian ambassador’s residence. He is passionate about the food of his native land and wanted his new place to focus on Peruvian dishes, which he learned growing up in Peru and further honed in culinary school. First, he looked at a small dine-in space in Gatineau, but the build was delayed.
“Then COVID-19 restrictions got worse through the fall. I began to investigate the growing trend of ghost kitchens.”
He stumbled upon a space inside the complex at 250 City Centre, owned by catering company Lunch. Within two weeks, Becerra opened the doors for takeout; he had designed a menu, employed three Peruvian cooks, and enlisted the help of his family and friends. The whole team is committed to bringing Peruvian fine dining to Ottawa as they continue to search for a more refined space.
Raphaël Express offers Peruvian delicacies such as ceviche of rockfish, tuna, or salmon. “We are using extremely high-quality, expensive ingredients, especially for our ceviche. It’s about giving the fish the space it deserves, which means we barely marinate it and are not disguising anything,” says Becerra.
Other classics include Peruvian-style rice with Pacific blue shrimp and B.C. octopus cooked in a lobster-based reduction, as well as anticuchos — marinated flank steak skewers cooked on the grill and served with chimichurri, rustic potatoes, Peruvian corn, and charred Brussels sprouts.
“Every time the government allowed for something new, we got creative,” he says. On July 28, Peruvian Independence Day, Becerra fulfilled his dream to open an airy indoor-outdoor eat-in space at the front of the building, which can seat a dozen or so people.
“It’s still a modest, humble space, but with the lights on around the patio at night, it’s romantic. It’s a fine dining experience in a warehouse. It’s a warique — in Peru, this means a hidden place where you eat.”