For our latest chef interview we sat down with Akiko Thurnauer, Chef/Owner of Family Recipe in New York City’s Lower East Side.
How did you get into cooking initially?
I come from a very food obsessed family. My father worked for a travel agency, so he was abroad all the time. His souvenirs for us were always related to food, so I grew up exposed to many different and unusual (for that time) ingredients. Also, my parents loved to entertain, so cooking and hosting was always part of my life.
I grew up outside of Tokyo and went to art school from the time I was 13. My first career was as a graphic designer, but always felt that I wanted to cook. My husband worked at a magazine, and I would make him bento lunch boxes and the reaction from his colleagues gave me confidence that I might be making something that other people would want. So, I walked into the kitchen at Nobu in TriBeca and asked for a job, and that’s how my career as a cook started.
What’s your culinary style and how has it evolved?
My style? Maybe it’s free-style! Well, like the reason I named my restaurant, my love of food and approach to cooking is rooted in my experience with my family. My mother always cooked, not just traditional Japanese dishes, she loved incorporating foreign ingredients too. Things that were not found in Tokyo in the 80s, like Porcini mushrooms or foie gras, she had a good sense to incorporate them into meals she made. She’s a purist when it comes to ingredients, so I grew up really appreciating real foods and quality ingredients.
As a Japanese chef, what’s your approach to cooking Japanese food in NYC?
There are a lot of good restaurants serving traditional Japanese food in New York. I knew I wanted to do something a little different. It can be hard because people have a stereo-type of what they think of as Japanese food, I use Japanese ingredients and flavor profiles, but my goal is to be innovative and create something new.
What’s your philosophy on hospitality?
My philosophy on hospitality also comes from my parents’ example. It’s not just about food. I want my guests to feel like I’m welcoming them as friends. It’s important to me that they can feel love in my cooking.
This is one reason why we work hard to accommodate guests with special diets like vegetarians or vegans and to make adjustments for people with allergies. Of course I want to serve ‘my food’ but if my guests can’t eat it, then what’s the point? I think it’s important to pay attention to the individual experience.
What were some of the challenges opening up a restaurant in NYC?
Regulations in NYC are very difficult, and everything takes so much time, which costs money. I opened Family Recipe on my own, without a business partner, so of course it’s a big risk, but the reward is the freedom of making my own decisions. When we opened I did everything myself, which was tough.
What do you think about Japanese knives?
Of course they’re the best! (Laughs) When young cooks come in with Japanese knives, I know they are serious. German knives can be good for butchering and heavy-duty work, but for detail and precision, it has to be Japanese.
Essential kitchen tool?
I’d say I can’t live without moribashi (plating chopsticks), a Japanese Mandolin and tweezers.
Do you have any new or favorite ingredients?
Recently I’m using black garlic. I love Greek yoghurt and put that in many dishes. My mom makes umeboshi, salted, pickled plums, which she sends me. For my stock I use agodashi – which is a different type of fish than typical katsuo bushi. The water in New York is much different than Tokyo, and I find unless you are shaving katsuo bushi fresh everyday, it’s hard to make a consistently good stock.
As far as other chefs, who inspires you?
As far as food philosophy, I really respect Dan Barber. Also, how can you not be inspired by what David Chang has built. I remember going into Momofuku Noodle Bar, on the second day after they opened and seeing him in there cooking. We chatted about his experience in Japan, and I clearly remember feeling his passion for what he was doing. What he achieved is amazing.
Many people think professional kitchens can be a tough environment for women. What has your experience been like?
Depending on who you work for, it can be tough. I’m small and it can be incredibly demanding physically. In some ways, I think women have an edge on the mental endurance needed to be a good chef. Having kids changed the course of my career, but in some ways, having employees is like having kids! I still work long hours, but am able to have flexibility.
Can you tell us about your favorite places to eat in NY & Tokyo?
There’s a lot, but recently I love eating at Yunnan Kitchen. The flavors are really clean, and I love small plates, because you can try a lot! Himalayan Café makes great momo dumplings. Their hot sauce is so good. My kids always want to go to Ootoya. It’s solid Japanese food, comforting flavors and they eat everything there!
If you go to Tokyo, I really recommend Waketokuyama in Azabu. Chef Nozaki is humble and warm and his food is really inventive and special. Kaiseki with absolutely no pretention. I was there on a rainy day and as we were leaving he came out with an umbrella to put us in cab. His sense of hospitality really stuck with me.