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The story of how Kato’s Jon Yao, a 25-year-old, self-taught chef, found himself running one of the most exciting restaurants in the country.

May 02, 2017

Sometimes, the greatest things are the ones that were never supposed to exist.

So what you should understand first about Kato, which serves wonderful seafood-centric tasting menus in West Los Angeles, is that its 25-year-old, self-taught chef Jon Yao never planned to be here.

He never intended to be here, in this nondescript strip mall that you could drive past repeatedly without spotting the miracle of a destination restaurant hidden inside.

He never intended to be here, in this tiny and bizarre trapezoid of a space next to Mexican restaurants, cooking Taiwanese-and-Japanese-influenced dishes with a few friends he’s hired while a few other friends handle the 27-seat dining room. “The square footage is, like, distributed completely incorrectly,” Yao says. “It’s the weirdest shape.”

He never intended to be here, charging $55 for a five-course tasting menu that tastes like it’s $100. Making porridge with Dungeness crab and uni isn’t cheap. “Our food costs are super high,” says Yao, whose popular dishes also include elegantly-plated smoked hamachi with cucumber and charred scallion.

But look, Yao’s here, so he’s making the most of it. He’s serving fried chicken sandwiches and bowls of pork belly over rice as supplements to his tasting menu. If these excellent additions taste like they belong at a different kind of restaurant, well, that’s the point. Yao is thinking about opening a more casual place that slings sandwiches and rice bowls, so he’s using Kato to test out ideas.

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“I feel like Kato is a good workshop for everyone who works there to improve themselves, which is, like, dope,” Yao says. “I’m still learning things about myself and my cooking, which is good. I feel very fortunate that people are willing to try whatever we’re putting on the menu.”

Yao, who says he checks Yelp and OpenTable five times a day to see what customers are saying, has become the darling of both local and national media by breaking with convention. For example, the chef pairs his seafood with soda, not wine, as he hasn’t secured a beer-and-wine license because of issues stemming from the sliver of a park that’s nearby. Another issue: “We have no storage space,” Yao says. “Even if we had beer and wine, we’d have no room for it.”

Yao is quick to admit that Kato isn’t a fully-formed restaurant, but as it turns out, Yao’s work-in-progress is one of L.A.’s best new restaurants. Before we talk about where Yao thought he would be at this point in his life, let’s talk about where he is now.

It’s April 25. Yao is at The Cannibal, where he’s cooking for a two-week Tuesday-through-Saturday lunch pop-up that ends on May 6. He’s still running Kato at night, but he’s spending his afternoons slinging tostadas topped with crab or sweet potato. He’s got a donburi bowl with hamachi and another with a perfect combination of roasted cauliflower, Szechuan pickled cucumber and maitake mushrooms. Of course, he’s also making his popular fried chicken sandwich and his pork belly bowl.

When he finishes at The Cannibal in the afternoon, it’s off to Kato, where he will offer guests a little snack of corn potage with a soft yolk and preserved truffles before sending out a five-course tasting menu: smoked hamachi; an avocado-and-sesame dish that’s kind of like a build-your-own avocado toast; ocean trout, lightly cooked in olive oil, with black vinegar, fermented chili and preserved Meyer lemon; crab-and-uni porridge; and buttermilk pudding.

Yao was just in Tulum, where he ate at Noma and pounded numerous street tacos with chef friends, including Top Chef winner Mei Lin. He’ll soon be off to China for a food festival, and then to Hong Kong. He knows he still has a lot to learn about food, so he’s taking advantage of opportunities to travel.

There are three things that drive Yao, and they all explain how he ended up doing what he’s doing at Kato.

1) Yao’s goal is to open a grand fine-dining restaurant with a more elaborate tasting menu.

Before Kato, he had staged at Alma in L.A. and at Benu and Coi in San Francisco.

“I love the fine-dining experience,” he says. “I think it’s really amazing. It’s just intense and structured. Benu’s like a laboratory. It’s kind of pornographic how clean that kitchen is.”

Yao worked the line at Alma and Coi, but not as a paid employee. He was still figuring out what it meant to be a chef, but he knew he cared about things like Michelin stars and the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. He wanted to eventually run something worthy of such honors. In the meantime, his dream was to get a job at Relæ, a Copenhagen restaurant started by Noma alum Christian Puglisi.

“I’ve never eaten there,” Yao says. “I had the book [Puglisi wrote]. I was reading it religiously. It just seemed so natural. They weren’t doing too much. It was finesse and technique-driven. They weren’t using caviar. They weren’t using fancy molecular gastronomy. Everything was very natural.”

The book helped make Yao, who hasn’t even been to L.A. fine-dining institutions like Providence, Spago and Melisse, believe he should find his way as a chef in a high-end restaurant.

Eating at another world-class restaurant fortified this belief. Yao remembers using the paycheck from a short-term cooking job he had in San Francisco to go dine at Saison alone.

“It was mind-blowing,” he says. “I had a spot prawn dish. It was just a raw spot prawn with condiments. I didn’t know fine dining could be so familiar to me.”

 2) Yao’s favorite taste memories involve simply prepared seafood.

“Usually, what triggers an idea for us at Kato is a childhood memory,” says Yao, who grew up in Walnut, an L.A. suburb in the San Gabriel Valley. “What I remember most about growing up is seafood. For any kind of celebration, we were eating seafood. We used to drive out to Rowland Heights or San Gabriel and go to Japanese restaurants. Sometimes they’re not even owned by Japanese people. Or we would go to [Japanese supermarket] Marukai. At that time, it was anything for raw fish.”

Yao realized he was allergic to salmon one day after eating a hand roll with salmon roe.

“I broke out,” he says. “That night, I was just scratching.”

But he was undeterred.

“It was delicious; it was awesome,” says Yao, who kept eating salmon anyway. “When I was a kid, it looked like I had eczema all the time.”

Yao remembers many instances when his family drove for more than an hour to feast by the beach.

“One of my fondest memories is going down to Redondo Beach and going to the Korean crab shack and getting spicy seafood soup, steamed clams and Dungeness crab,” Yao says.

Meals like that taught him at an early age that you don’t need to do much when you prepare seafood.

“For me, simple is best, especially when it comes to seafood,” Yao says. “Seafood is naturally amazing. There’s a lot of seafood at Kato, and it’s usually minimally seasoned. People either get it, or they don’t. Growing up, we wouldn’t dip crab in butter. We’d just eat crab as it is. Or we would dip it in everything that’s in its head. That, to me, is very satisfying.”

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3) Yao wants to take care of his parents.

Yao studied anthropology in college. His parents urged him to study for the LSAT, but he had other ideas. His mother and father weren’t excited about it, but they supported him when he was hustling in San Francisco, training at restaurants that weren’t paying him.

“I was just like, I can’t believe they put me through college, and now I’m pulling this bullshit,” Yao says.

He decided to come home and sort out a way to save money before applying for a job at Relæ. He’s the type of young man who likes to map things out. He saw his future: Copenhagen, and then eventually his own restaurant somewhere. That was the path.

But his parents had, without telling him, leased a West L.A. restaurant space with plans to start a catering business at UCLA. Yao’s mom is a great cook, but it had been years since she’d worked in a restaurant. And that was in Taiwan.

Suddenly, Yao’s parents, who are interior designers, were planning a restaurant. Their idea was to open a Taiwanese café with dishes like popcorn chicken while also using the space to seed their catering venture. They didn’t expect any help from their son.

“They just thought they were going to do it,” Yao says. “But I was like, there’s no way I was going to let my parents do this. I want my parents to retire. I’m like, ‘Why are you still doing physical labor?’”

The café and catering business never happened. Yao took over and opened Kato with an à la carte menu last year. But he soon realized he was “more familiar with doing a tasting menu.”

What gave him the confidence to serve a tasting menu with such limited experience?

“I didn’t have the confidence,” Yao says and laughs. “I was just kind of thrust into the position, and it was either watch my parents suffer or rise to the occasion.”

Yao rose to the occasion and then some, and now it’s time to think about what’s next. He’s considering a $75 or $80 extended tasting menu with dishes including a meat course like grilled duck breast.

Unsurprisingly, Yao wants to move Kato to a bigger, more geometrically-ideal location where he can serve alcohol and work in a better-equipped kitchen. His family signed a five-year lease on the West L.A. space, so maybe that becomes the home of a quick-service restaurant with chicken sandwiches and rice bowls. Yao knows it’s hard to make money at fine dining, so perhaps a casual restaurant can help subsidize his aspirations.

“I have to fuel my dreams somehow,” he says.

His biggest dream, though, involves his parents. Given that he’s just 25, I ask Yao what goals he wants to reach by the time he’s 30.

“Realistically, I hope by the time I’m 30 I can actually have my parents retire,” says Yao, who adds that being an only child makes him feel more responsibility. “I hate seeing them work.”

In terms of his career trajectory, Yao can’t predict where he’ll be at 30.

“Back when I was in San Francisco, I thought I was going to be 30 and opening a fine-dining restaurant and that was it,” he says. “And I would spend my entire life trying to make that restaurant better.”

But now, at just 25, he’s already running a restaurant that he knows shouldn’t last too long in its current incarnation. Kato is a unicorn. Kato is something that could change form in an instant. For now, L.A. is lucky to have Yao here, where he never intended to be, but also where he totally belongs.