Food by VICE

How My Ceviche Obsession Transformed My Life

My quest to find the perfect bite of ceviche has changed the course of my life. It led me to quit my successful career as a lawyer and start a pop-up called Ceviche Project. I haven't looked back ever since.

by Octavio Olivas Benitez
Jun 24 2016, 11:00pm

To me, ceviche is the purest expression of passion.

It is a very personal dish, because even if you have a recipe for it, you still have to rely on your passion for the perfect ratio of raw fish to acid. It is one of the hardest dishes to master because there are so many variables when dealing with raw seafood from around the world. This pursuit of the perfect ceviche has changed the course of my life. It led me to quit my successful career as a lawyer and start a pop-up called Ceviche Project.

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Spanish octopus tostada
scallop_ceviche_project_salsa_bruja Scallop ceviche with uni and pomegranate seeds

To call myself obsessed would be an understatement. I knew that I had to switch careers when I found myself spending upwards of $600 a week on sashimi and ceviches. On some days, I would eat raw fish multiple times a day. I have absolutely no regrets, since I considered it a class in the art of raw seafood.

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Pacific oysters with cilantro-Fresno chile mignonette

I found myself daydreaming about ceviches during every second of the day, no matter how interesting my cases were. This obsession has also gotten me in trouble. Any time that I see ceviche on the menu, I must order it—no matter what the place looks like. This means ordering ceviches out of food trucks, stands, supermarkets, and anywhere else I see it around the world. I have gotten sick, but that hasn't stopped me at all. I was born and raised in Mexico City, so I have a stomach of steel. Too much mercury is not a worry for me, either.

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I will never forget the first time I had ceviche in El Tecuán, Jalisco, Mexico. I was four years old and my dad had just caught a Sierra mackerel. He made me carry the fish to the kitchen and I was amazed by how he filleted it and transformed into such an amazing-tasting thing without having to cook it—just like that. The feeling of holding a slimy fish was a feeling that I would never forget for the rest of my life.

Ceviche has made my life complete, so the least that I can do for it in return is to share it with the rest of the world.

However, my love for the foodservice industry blossomed when I was studying abroad in the UK. I burned through three years' worth of pesos in a few months and I had to get a job washing dishes and bartending. It seemed counterintuitive to love working physically so much after studying my ass off to pass the bar. I thought it was only a phase, but I eventually found out that it was not—it was my calling.

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Octavio and his fish at age four

I was definitely lucky that my amazing wife supported me when I decided to stop being a lawyer—and earning all of the money that you make from being one—to start a pop-up. It turned out be a great concept, as I have sold out every service that I have done since my first on November 11, 2011. I think this is because my ceviche style is a combination of Japanese traditions with Mexican flavors, which are both cuisines that people really love. I never let the fact that I never went to culinary school, nor that I didn't study with any other chef in a professional kitchen, stop me.

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Bigeye tuna tiradito tostada with yuzu-habanero sorbet

Sure, it was a gamble to quit my old, cushy life, but if you don't take risks in life, is that really a life worth living? The plan is to do a full-time ceviche bar. I have partially achieved this already through a six-month pop-up at a nearby restaurant called El Chavo. Ceviche has made my life complete, so the least that I can do for it in return is to share it with the rest of the world.

As told to Javier Cabral

This post previously appeared on MUNCHIES in February, 2016.