Chikara Sono, Executive Chef, Kyo Ya, New York

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.

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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).

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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.

 

Akiko Thurnauer – Owner Chef, Family Recipe New York

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.

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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.

Adriano Ricco – Executive Chef – STK New York

For this interview, we had a chance to sit down with Chef Adriano Ricco, Executive Chef at STK in New York City.  Chef Adriano shared his thoughts with us on the challenges of professional cooking, his Brazilian background and why he loves Japanese craftsmanship.

How did you get into cooking initially? What was your path into the kitchen?

I started flirting with the kitchen when I was still a little kid in Brazil. Both of my parents are enthusiasts when it comes to cooking and my great grandpa was a chef himself, so it was in the family. From there on, it was just a natural transition.

I did try out for a few different things before I ended up in the kitchen, but it was all somehow tied up together and that’s pretty much how I started. So, little by little, by doing lunches and dinners for friends here and there. People liked it so we came up with a catering company in Brazil and we set that up and were very successful with that. Then from there I decided to open up a physical location. It was a great learning experience, but I wasn’t ready. But the failure was a good thing, because it taught me what needed to be done. So I went back to square one and I just decided that I had to work for some high caliber chefs before I could have my own place. I started working for Alex Atala. His restaurant D.O.M. is now ranked fourth in the world, so that’s pretty big. I had the privilege and pleasure of working next to him and learning the culinary arts to the point that I became one of his sous chefs. And, from there on it was a natural progression. I worked for Laurent Tourondel, Terrance Brennan and a few others and then progressed to STK.

How would you describe your culinary style and how has it evolved over the years?

I would say it’s contemporary cuisine although I don’t like labels that much. It’s modern American, contemporary American and then if you stop to think of what American cuisine is all about it’s a big melting pot of races and ethnicities, so I think contemporary cuisine would be the best way to label my style and what I do.

 

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Who was a mentor for you?

Alex Atala has always inspired me and when I was younger I would always see him in magazines. He was rated the best chef in Brazil for 10 years. I thought that if one day I could work for this guy it would be the highlight of my career. It’s funny to look back to see how things go. It was the highest bar for me because he meant so much and because he also contributed so much to Brazil in terms of gastronomy and the culinary movement.

What Ferran Adria did for Spanish cuisine, Alex Atala did for our country. He has really put Brazil in the culinary spotlight. It was really a dream come true to work for him. I walked into his kitchen and asked ‘what do I need to do to work here?’ He told me that I would need to start as an intern and there was a long line of people but to email him. I emailed him and the next week I was working there.

It was a natural progression from that point on and I think that the biggest thing he taught me is to respect the integrity of the ingredients that we use. And just apply the correct techniques and it’s really about how passionate you are and how much passion you’re going to put into what you do. And that passion will translate into the high quality of the dishes you present to guests. Despite of all the challenges we have in the kitchen, and there are many, it is really rewarding when we put something together and you get an instant feedback, hopefully positive feedback. It’s what keeps me coming back for more.

What is your favorite ingredient in the kitchen?

I don’t know if I can pinpoint just one ingredient. They are all so important. I do believe the care and respect you have for the things you utilize in your dishes is what is going to set you for success. I do believe that everything starts with the basics. I couldn’t live without my veal bones, my aromatics and my mirepoix, which are the base of everything that we do in the kitchen. It starts with the scratch ingredients that you use – the aromatics, vegetables, bones as base for sauces. Most importantly, I would say I love all ingredients. They are all equally important and should be accorded the same respect.

What is your philosophy towards hospitality and to your guests?

The name says everything – it’s about being hospitable and catering to your guests every day. I remember that when I was being brought up, I had a different perspective of how to treat guests. I guess that was the universal mentality that chefs had back in the day which was they had to set the pace and course of a meal and would pretty much tell guests what they should or should not eat as we still do, but in a different way. I believe that has to do with the information superhighway that exists now. With a click of a button everybody knows exactly what food exists on the planet. I guess the lack of knowledge back then really empowered who had the most knowledge, which was us chefs. These days it is more driven by guests’ knowledge and expectations.

 

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What’s your favorite kitchen tool?

I couldn’t live without my knives.

I have to admit that I’m a little biased when it comes to that, because I am a big fan of Japanese art and culture, and martial arts have played a big role in my life. I’ve trained in karate for two decades and I was always fascinated by the discipline, respect and beauty of Japanese culture. And that translates to the knives. The care and attention to detail that’s given is just second to none.  It’s an art that has been perfected over 1000 years since the samurai were around and there was nothing sharper than the blade of a samurai sword which makes me a strong believer that there is there nothing sharper than a Japanese blade. And that’s the only thing that I’ll ever touch and I’ll ever use in my kitchen. I did not start with them – as much as I wanted to get my hands on one, it was kind of a prized item in Brazil. Although it’s a paradox because there is a large Japanese community in Brazil, but you do not find Japanese knives readily available. I got more exposed to Japanese knives when I came to the U.S. It was something that I was already very passionate about, as far as the Japanese martial arts and when I found out more about the knives it was just natural that I would choose only Japanese knives to work with and I wouldn’t trust anything else.

Do you have a brand or two that you’re into now?

I’m a big fan of Nenohi – that’s one of my favorite brands. Also, one of my favorite knives was a Masahiro which I really admire; they’re great knives. But, there are so many great craftsmen out there and now that I know more I’m starting to go for more of the artisan knives. The ones that are singular in style that nobody else has.

Marcus Ware – Executive Chef, Aureole, New York

Chef Marcus Ware sat down with us to chat about his cooking background, what hospitality means to him and some of his favorite kitchen tools. Chef Marcus is the Executive Chef at Aureole in New York City, Charlie Palmer’s Michelin starred fine dining restaurant.

How did you get into cooking initially?

I started cooking when I was about 14 years old. It was a weekend job cleaning in the cellars of a pub. One day the dishwasher didn’t show up and they asked me if I could wash the dishes at night. So I washed the dishes at night and got sort of introduced to the kitchen. One night led to two nights led to three nights and I sort of started coming back on my own time. Just being fascinated with what was going on in the kitchen.  The chef took me under his wing and that was it. So, as soon as I could leave school at 16, I did and started an apprenticeship at the Savoy Hotel in London. That was my baptism by fire, sort of in at the deep end.

How would you describe your culinary style and how has it evolved over the years?

I think it’s changed a lot. I’ve been exposed to a lot of different cultural influences in NY that I wasn’t in England. I started with a very solid French culinary background which is where my skill set and base were and still is. I’ve definitely absorbed a lot of Asian influences from being in New York. A lot of Japanese influences and influences using Asian ingredients. My food, I think, has become more American. America is a country I see as being very much multicultural with a lot of influences from different cultures. My food definitely reflects that.

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Do you have a mentor or chef who particularly inspired you?

I think a lot of the chefs who I worked for inspired me to work harder, to make myself better. If I had to pick one, it’s very hard. Philip Howard is one of the chefs I worked for who was really an amazing chef and I learned a lot from. And, as far as people who I really look up in the industry I would say Thomas Keller. Just being at the top of your industry for a long long period of time is something which is very hard to do. Consistency is the hardest thing in this industry and to consistently be one of the best is a great achievement.

What is the most important ingredient for success in professional cooking?

Self discipline. Self discipline not just in what you do, but in every single aspect and how you work….cleanliness, being disciplined in being clean and organized, being disciplined when you make something and it doesn’t quite turn out right. Being disciplined enough to say no, as much hard work and effort you put into it, you have to say no it’s not good enough and start again. I think self discipline on a lot of different levels and a lot of different aspects is the most important thing.

What’s your philosophy towards hospitality?

When you work in the industry for a long time, some of it gets lost as far as how much of it you are doing it for your customers. At the end of the day, you really have to treat customers like they are a guest in your own home. If you do treat them that way, then most of the time you’ll be successful. I think that some of that does get lost. It’s hard to maintain it.

What’s one kitchen tool you couldn’t live without?

A sharp knife. If you don’t have a sharp knife, you can’t do anything.

What are your thoughts on Japanese knives?

I started out my career very French influenced using Sabatier and Henckels. Halfway through my career, I was introduced to Japanese knives. Now all of my knives are Japanese knives. They have a certain feel to them, and they cut a certain way. I’m definitely a big fan of Japanese knives; that’s pretty much all I use now.

Do you have a particular knife in your knife kit that you tend to go to more often than others?

I love using my Nenox knives. They are by far the most expensive knives I have, but they are the nicest to use. And the Glestain as well. I’ve had a Glestain chef’s knife which I bought 7 years ago. I still have the same one and it’s standing up well. It’ s passed the test of time.

What is an ingredient you started using recently or one that really excites you?

I’ve been exposed to more Asian influences and Asian ingredients and I’m still exploring some of them. I think one of my favorites is yuzu.  I love using that. It’s very subtle and it’s very very mellow but it takes using it in the right applications. It’s become a very popular citrus, but I’d say it was one of my favorite ingredients. I’ve also become a very big fan of some of the Japanese seafood…uni for example. We get it from two or three different places. Sometimes we get it from the West Coast, sometimes we get it from Japan. I buy fresh uni which is untreated and just taken out of the shell. The saltiness of the sea water keeps it nice and fresh and you can really tell the difference when you eat it.

Chris Greway – Executive Chef, Morimoto, Philadelphia

We sat down with Chef Chris Greway, Executive Chef at Morimoto Philadelphia to talk about his cooking background and what it takes to make it in a professional kitchen.

How did you get into cooking initially?

My father owned a specialty food shop when I was growing up. I just kind of fell into it, wasn’t really good at school and so found something I was really good at. I started out in the meat department; my father was a butcher. I learned from a bunch of old school guys how to butcher meat and chickens and doing that 8-10 hours a day. This was outside of Philly, in Bucks County. He used to have a store on South Street, the name of his store was Gerard’s and he had five stores at one time in the late ‘80’s.  So it was a good business and I found something that I was good at and loved to do so I went to the C.I.A.

After the CIA, were there other places you worked before coming to Morimoto?

After the CIA, I landed a job at the Gotham Bar & Grill, the day after my graduation, with Alfred Portale. That was quite a learning experience. I spent two years there. Also, I worked with Rocco DiSpirito briefly and opened Café Boulud with Daniel Boulud.  This was in 1998, with Alex Lee, Daniel Boulud and Andrew Carmellini came later. It was a great time and I was there when we got the initial three star review in the New York Times, so that was great. And then I went on and worked with Bill Telepan and we got three stars there. Very high volume,  lots of power lunches and catering and did the whole farm to table thing, doing that before it was trendy.

How would you describe your culinary style and how has it evolved over the years?

My style has evolved a lot here at Morimoto, since I haven’t had a lot of Asian influence up to date. Before it was a lot of French, Italian, new American, but it always starts with the ingredients. Fortunately, here at Morimoto we are able to get our hands on the best ingredients in the world. Wagyu beef, bluefin tuna, imported fish from Japan, you name it. Just having the best quality ingredients and letting them shine and treat them minimally with seasonal touches. I would say the style is East meets West.

Who was a mentor for you?

I would say that it’s been evolving and cumulative, since Alfred Portale and Bill Telepan. Even Rocco Dispirito a little bit. Every chef  I’ve worked under, I take a little bit from. Whether it’s technique or recipe, I just incorporate them all together and polish them up, dust them off and make them my own. So there is no one person, but if there was one person, I would say I really admire Alfred Portale for what he has done over the course of his career and is still doing. Gotham Bar & Grill is still relevant after 25-30 years.

What do you think the most important ingredient is for success in professional cooking?

It’s easy – you’ve got to be dedicated and willing to work the hours nobody else wants to work and go above and beyond. And you also have to be a great self-promoter if you really want to reach the top.

What do you look for in new hires?

I look for them to be very interested in what’s going on, to have a certain quickness about them in the kitchen, a natural ability if you will. I don’t look for them to necessarily have a culinary degree or anything like that, but just a good aptitude for working in kitchens and working with the ingredients and working clean.

What’s one or two kitchen tools that you couldn’t live without?

The good old fish spatula is one that I couldn’t live without as well as a good knife. You can do a lot of things with those.

What are your thoughts on Japanese knives?

I used German knives in culinary school and at Gotham Bar & Grill. Wustofs and those kinds of things.  I got hooked in the late 90’s when I got my first Masamoto carbon knife. I keep sharpening it up and still use it. Yeah, it’s more of like a honesuki now after all these years, but it’s still a good knife.

Do you have a go-to knife in your kit?

I use my Glestain slicer a lot.

What’s an ingredient that you’ve used recently or one that inspires you?

There are so many great ingredients, but I feel like a little bit of citrus in everything makes a dish really pop. You can always incorporate it – it doesn’t always have to be the star, it can be underlying, but a little burst of acidity makes all the flavors marry..yuzu, lemon, lime, I like to mix all of them.

What is your philosophy towards hospitality?

Basically treat the guests with respect and give them great food and great service and hopefully they’ll come back and return the favor.