Restaurant Food Fight

Two Latin restaurants are embroiled in a food fight: Did fleeing chefs steal from one of Houston's best?

Two Latin restaurants embroiled in food fight: Chefs stealing secrets?

Latin Bites causa
One of Houston's best restaurants is accusing a new rival restaurant of stealing its presentation secrets. Here is Causa at Latin Bites.  Latin Bites/Facebook
Aji Peruvian anticuchos beef heart
Anticuchos (beef heart) at Aji looks similar to the Latin Bites presentation.  Aji Peruvian Cafe/Facebook
Latin Bites Roberto Castre
Roberto Castre, right, with chefs from Sur Peruvian and Lemon Tree.  Courtesy photo
Latin Bites causa
Aji Peruvian causa
Aji Peruvian anticuchos beef heart
Latin Bites Roberto Castre

Another popular Houston restaurant is accusing former employees of recreating signature menu items at a new, unrelated restaurant. Similar to claims made in July by Kata Robata against Sugar Land restaurant Mochi Sushi, South American restaurant Latin Bites has accused Aji Peruvian Cuisine of using recipes and plating styles from its menu. 

"I don't have anything against Aji," Latin Bites chef/owner Roberto Castre tells CultureMap. "We tried to talk to them because we saw they have similar dishes (to Latin Bites)." Castre contends that his former cooks who now work for Aji didn't know anything about Peruvian cuisine or fine dining when they started working for him.

"I taught them how to do everything . . . I taught them to cook Peruvian food in my way."

Castre cites both his tiradito presentation and a ceviche that uses yucca chips as examples of dishes that are unique to Latin Bites, but notes that images of similar looking dishes showed up in Aji's various social media accounts. "They just need to change the presentation. That's it," the Latin Bites chef says.

 "I taught them how to do everything . . . I taught them to cook Peruvian food in my way."   

Castre insists that he just wants to protect the work he's put in to make Latin Bites successful. "When we started the restaurant, we had no money, just $20,000 and 20 seats. We worked hard to make this."

Photographs of dishes from both Aji and Latin Bites do bear a strong resemblance to each other, but Eater notes that the two restaurants have different concepts. Aji is more casual with a menu of sandwiches and lunch service. 

For its part, Aji's owner vigorously disputes Ramos's accusations. Pilar Forkel tells the Chronicle that, while her cooks may not be Peruvian, she is. "I go to restaurants in Lima, and in Peru right now there are too many similar presentations to what Latin Bites does," Forkel says. "Google 'causa Limena' and you’ll see that what (noted chef) Gaston Acurio is doing looks exactly like Latin Bites.” Forkel declined to speak to CultureMap on the phone but did offer to email a statement, which has yet to arrive.

The dispute prompted extensive commentary from another Peruvian restaurant owner, Gerry Sarmiento of Piqueo. Responding to a post in the Houston Foodie Friends Facebook group Sarmiento writes, "Most of Latin Bites staff jumped ship last year (or was it the year before?) and came to work to Piqueo. Then they all jumped ship again (an unstable bunch) and went to Aji. Maybe I should claim some copyright rights for some of Aji's dishes also . . . just ludicrous, plain ludicrous. I just have to chuckle . . . "

Castre says he's seen some of the comments online and doesn't like the way he's being portrayed. "This isn't a war. This is an issue," he says. "All the Peruvians know I'm the one who helps people." Next week, Latin Bites will host a fundraiser to help a child afford a $33,000 wheelchair.

 "This isn't a war. This is an issue. All the Peruvians know I'm the one who helps people."  

Although the cooks signed a non-compete agreement during their time at Latin Bites, Castre says he has no plans to enforce it.

"If those guys leave, the owners are going to be in trouble. I don't want that," he says.

Instead, he's working with other restaurants like Sweets by Belen and Lemon Tree to promote Peruvian cuisine throughout Houston. 

Speaking about the chefs at Aji, Castre is optimistic. "They have talent. They can use it. I know that.

"Let's work together to fix this and promote Peruvian gastronomy."