We sat down to chat with Chef Chikara Sono, the Executive Chef at New York’s Kyo Ya Restaurant. Kyo Ya is one of the most highly regarded Japanese restaurants in the United States, received a Michelin star and three stars in a New York Times review. Chef Sono serves Japanese kaiseki, a multi coursed cuisine focusing on seasonality.
Photo Credit: Hiroko Masuike / New York Times
Can you tell us a little bit about the place you come from in Japan?
I’m from Sapporo City, Hokkaido. We’re surrounded by the ocean, so there’s an abundance of fresh seafood. We have four very distinct seasons and a very long winter, so winter sports are really popular.
How did you you end up cooking in New York?
In Sapporo, I was working at Toyota as a mechanic full time and working part-time as a cook. I first came to New York as a tourist with the intention of staying a short time, but ended up working at a Japanese restaurant in Midtown. I gained experience working at a number of Japanese restaurants and izakayas. One of them was Kiraku, the only New York kappo restaurant (Japanese restaurant with chef facing customers behind a counter) using live eel, and another was the Kitano Hotel’s kaiseki restaurant Hakubai. I was spending my days off at a friend’s Italian restaurant, learning how to make dessert sauces. Around that time, I met Tony Yoshida, who is now the owner of Kyo Ya. We decided we wanted to open a restaurant together and three years later, in 2007, we opened Kyo Ya.
With no website, online reservation system or even a sign on the door, Kyo Ya is something of a hidden treasure. Were you surprised when Pete Wells reviewed the restaurant in 2012?
I’m so thankful to Pete Wells and Hiroko Masuike for the wonderful article and beautiful pictures.
Kaiseki and tasting menus seem to be having a moment both with Japanese and foreign chefs in the states right now. Why do you think this is? Why do you think it took so long?
To say nothing of kaiseki, until a few years ago, the only restaurant serving traditional Japanese food in New York was Hakubai at the Kitano Hotel. In that context, at Kyo Ya, we really wanted to bring traditional Japanese food to the next level. When we opened in 2007, a lot of people asked us why we decided to locate the restaurant where we did. (We are off on a side street and not really visible unless you really look.) Before we opened, I asked the owner for a location that was either in a basement or inside a building away from the main street. I simply wanted people to be able to come and have an enjoyable experience. Little by little, through word of mouth, people started to find us. Initially, we were serving only kappa ryori but after a while we started to serve kaiseki as well. We really got an incredible reaction. I guess there was a hidden demand for truly authentic Japanese food in New York.
Top chefs are embracing Japanese ingredients and techniques. Is there an example where you’ve been surprised or impressed?
Of course there are a lot of ingredients that inspire chefs, myself included. With new ingredients, the possibilities are endless and us chefs want to try them out if even if we risk making mistakes along the way.
With Japanese cooking, I think the key point is ‘umami’ and this is what a lot of top chefs worldwide are discovering and experimenting with.
Aside from Japanese food, what other cuisines excite you for cooking, eating? Any favorite stand out dishes?
I truly love Japanese food and spend my days off cooking and eating it. I’m also into Italian food and pasta, but my favorite pasta is mentaiko (spicy cod roe) pasta (laughs). Even though they don’t serve pasta my favorite restaurant is Eleven Madison Park (laughs).
Japanese kitchens have a reputation as being brutal on young apprentices. Do you have any stories you would like to share?
To be honest, I have nothing but good memories of my days as a cook. The only thing is all of the practice I did with katsuramuki (cutting a daikon into a long, continuous sheet) was with daikon I bought with my own money. Looking back, I wish I’d used the restaurant’s petty cash instead (laughs).
Can you tell us about a restaurant you love in NY? How about in Japan?
In New York, apart from Eleven Madison Park, I really like Hakata Ton Ton and En Japanese Brasserie. I’m a big fan of the chefs at those two restaurants, Koji Hagihara and Hiroki Abe.
In Sapporo, Japan, I love the izakaya Furusato. It’s the most difficult reservation to get in Hokkaido, but it’s well worth it. I always recommend this restaurant to customers who are going to Japan. I hope everyone will have an opportunity to visit this restaurant one day.