When I think about chef Darwin Santa Maria, who has worked in the Sarasota restaurant scene for decades, the phrase "ahead of his time" comes to mind. He has hopped from project to project, bringing fresh Peruvian flavors along with him everywhere he goes, but he seems to have settled into his space on Tamiami Trail, a restaurant called Almazónica Cervecería.
Santa Maria, 46, came to Sarasota in 1989 after his family fled Peru because of violence largely caused by the revolutionary terrorist organization Shining Path. The family initially settled in Miami, but, after a visit to Sarasota to see Santa Maria's aunt, they fell in love with the town and relocated.
Santa Maria attended Sarasota High School despite not speaking English. "It took me about six months to learn the language," he says. "I had my dictionary and played soccer, which helped me learn."
Almost immediately after moving to the area, Santa Maria secured a job at Nick's on the Water, located in the now-demolished Quay building. "That's where I caught the bug," Santa Maria says of his love of cooking.
After graduating high school at 16, Santa Maria traveled to Miami to attend the culinary program at Johnson & Wales University. And while he had dreams of traveling after school, he felt a draw to return home to Sarasota.
In 1992 he kicked off his new career at Bijou Café and then developed his skills at Michael's on East. But it was his move to Fred's, a high-end restaurant in Southside Village (where Libby's currently stands), where he began to flex his culinary muscles. Fred's, known for its wine dinners, attracted diners from around the country. As a result, Santa Maria gained recognition and was named one of the country's top sous chefs by Food & Wine magazine. "I got my five minutes of fame," he says with a laugh.
Santa Maria's demeanor these days is relaxed and joyful. In the past, he says, he was known for his volatility in the kitchen if things didn't go just right, but he says he has a more Zen approach now. "I'm more patient now, because of my kids," he says.
After his Food & Wine recognition, Santa Maria opened a small restaurant on Clark Road and called it Selva Grill. At Selva, Santa Maria focused on his Peruvian roots, serving ceviche seasoned with leche de tigre, a spicy citrus marinade. He garnished dishes with fried plantains and utilized regional Peruvian ingredients like aji amarillo, an intense yellow chili. He helped set in motion a local love affair with Peruvian cuisine that remains strong, given the number of Peruvian restaurants in the area.
Business boomed at Selva, with reservations backed up for weeks to get into the eight-table restaurant. He eventually moved the business downtown, where it remains a Sarasota fixture to this day.
After leaving Selva in 2010, Santa Maria opened a brewpub called Darwin's on 4th in the Rosemary District. He was fascinated by brewing and began pairing his Peruvian food with house-made beer, a concept that was still relatively new to Sarasota at the time. As he became more adept at brewing, he helped open Darwin Brewing Company in Bradenton, one of the first craft breweries in the area, before working for one year at the excellent ceviche spot CeviChela. "Things didn't work out," he says of the former Siesta Key restaurant.
Santa Maria had grown weary of the Sarasota dining scene, but his wife Lellyse encouraged him to persevere. "To have your wife and family believe in you is amazing," he says. With her encouragement, he opened a restaurant called Darwin Evolutionary Cuisine while also working as a private chef for Major League Baseball star Manny Machado.
It was with Machado that he rediscovered his passion for craft beer. When Machado signed a deal with the San Diego Padres, Santa Maria traveled with him. "There was the craft beer again, craft beer and food, so I came back and started learning about it again," he says. He bought some small-scale brewing equipment and rebranded Darwin Evolutionary Cuisine as Almazónica Cervecería, to emphasize that beer is as integral to the menu as food. He is still awaiting permitting to start brewing his own beer again, but for now, he serves his favorite craft beers to accompany his menu. For now, he is right where he needs to be.