Won Best New Chef at: Terra
Restaurants: Terra (Napa Valley); Ame (San Francisco)
Experience: Spago (Hollywood); Spago (Tokyo)
Education: École Hôtelière Tsuji (Osaka)
Recipe you are most famous for?
We do a sake-marinated Alaskan black cod and shrimp dumplings in shiso broth. It’s spent a long time on the menu. This dish started with Chilean sea bass, when it was plentiful. Now it’s become an endangered fish, so we had to stop using it. We found Alaskan black cod worked well, so we kept the same recipe. The first time I met Chilean sea bass, I didn’t know how to cook it. I played with it, and this recipe works really well with the fish. It’s so rich. Even cooked well down, it stays moist. It was a really great recipe with the sea bass, but unfortunately, we stopped using it, and luckily we found Alaskan black cod.
What ingredients, techniques or trends are your current food obsessions?
Vegetables, in general. I started pickling, experimenting with all kinds of pickles with natural fermentation. Most of the time I use Napa cabbage or eggplant or regular cucumber, turnip, daikon. To start using non-pickling items, it’s interesting to play with it.
What ingredient will people be talking about in five years?
Vegetarian sushi. I see a lot of problems in the ocean—overfishing, farm-raised fish. Maybe from this side, we’ll start thinking about how we can give to the next generation, how we can do this. Certain fish we can use, but if we don’t use them, maybe the next choice is vegetables—vegetarian sushi. There are great possibilities in vegetarian sushi, I think. You can use everything as long as you treat it with some kind of idea. Some stuff you need to pickle to bring out the flavor, sometimes grilled, sometimes roasted. There’s many ways. The sky’s the limit. There’s a lot of possibilities.
Best new store-bought ingredient/product and why?
V-8 juice. I love pasta, and you can make a quick pasta sauce with V-8. That’s what we do here, me and Lissa [Doumani]. When we come home from the restaurant late at night, we quickly prepare a pasta sauce. I just chop the garlic and add some chile flakes to flavor the oil, then add the V-8: The tomato sauce is ready. You don’t have to cook it down. I don’t like a heavy tomato sauce anyway, so it’s almost like a flavoring oil, aglio e olio. We sometimes do canned tuna in there and some nice capers and anchovies, almost like a puttanesca. It’s so easy to make, and it’s all from your dry pantry. It’s very handy.
What will we always find in your fridge?
V-8, of course, and natto and tofu. I eat the natto straight, or sometimes I mix it with tofu. Half the Japanese people don’t eat it anyway. I understand. It has a quite strong taste and looks kind of scary, slimy.
What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up? What is your favorite snack?
My snack is basically natto taken from the package, mixed with chopped green onion. Sometimes I use raw egg, sometimes not. Soy sauce, Japanese mustard, whisked together until kind of foamy. I add some silken tofu to it. I think it’s a healthy snack. It kind of looks messy, but it tastes good.
Who is your food mentor? What is the most important thing you learned from him/her?
My mom and my family taught me to respect food, ingredients. I grew up on a farm. We raised animals, grew vegetables. My parents were rice farmers in the Miyagi prefecture. Where the huge tsunami came, that’s where I come from. My parents are still growing rice there.
My interest in cooking started because, on a farm, all the family members went to the field to help with planting, harvesting or whatever we needed to do. Everybody pitched in time to work in the fields. Usually my mom or grandma came back before everybody else to prepare the meal. I don’t remember how old I was when I started helping my mom, starting with the groceries, to pick up some stuff. Then I came back from the field and started preparing the meal for the family. One day, I did it by myself, so my mom and grandma stayed in the field. I prepared the meal. Then my family enjoyed my meal. That gave me the idea that with something that you create or prepare, people are pleased. It gave them enjoyment. It’s a basic of how a restaurant works, or how I work, I guess. If people are happy, it makes me happy. I guess I was 10 or 12 when I made that meal. I made tempura that day, mostly with vegetables.
Favorite cookbook of all time?
I have a book here in front of me. It’s called Great Chefs of France. It was published in 1978, so maybe right after I graduated cooking school, I purchased this. It talks about all the great, well-known chefs in France—about 15 chefs—in this book. It’s not just food—philosophy, chefs’ lives. When I had just graduated, I was looking at all these great chefs from France. Someday, I thought, I would be one of those people. That was always in the back of my head. When I open this book, it brings me back to square one, to when I started cooking. It’s kind of a nice feeling, each time. Ten years later, after I started cooking, I looked back. Twenty years later, I looked back. Now it’s 30 years later, I’m looking back at the same book, and it’s kind of different. I see different things each time I look at it.
Name three restaurants you are dying to go to in the next year and why.
It’s all places I’ve been to already. One is in Spain. Have you been to a place called Asador Etxebarri? Two or three years ago, we went. It’s near San Sebastián.
All the people talk about molecular gastronomy, but we really didn’t like that kind of food. We almost walked out of one restaurant. It was not tasty at all. To me, if food is not tasty, what is it? I think it’s a complete disrespect for food. For me, respecting nature and ingredients is a very important part of my cooking. When you take the life of a vegetable or an animal, the least we can do with them is to make them delicious and not waste them. At this particular restaurant the food was tasteless, overly manipulated for no reason. There was no trace of the natural beauty anymore. Too many hands had touched it. It made me so upset. But then at Etxebarri, we had the best meal. It was simple and true to the flavor of the ingredients. What a difference, in the same region. That’s why I want to go back.
Last year, when we were in Tokyo, a friend of mine suggested that we go to this place Sushisho Masa, a sushi restaurant. It’s small—maybe seven seats at the counter—and the young chef is doing omakase sushi. It’s very unique. He’s a very hospitable young man. I just really felt good after eating his food. Actually, I don’t want to tell anybody because then I won’t be able to get in! There are only seven seats.
Last year, in Piedmonte, Italy, we went to a restaurant called Osteria da Gemma. This is a really small place in Roddino, in Piedmonte. It’s owned by a lady named Gemma. She does great homemade pasta, very typical cuisine. When we got there, it was all local people. They were not eating yet; they were just hanging around. We sat down and we started eating, and then they came to the dining room and started eating, too. It’s a really local hangout and quite famous. Many tourists were there, too. It’s a deal: For 25 euros, you get a whole plate of antipasto—salami or sausage, house-made—on the table. The whole thing is on the cutting board, and you cut it yourself. Then after the salami or sausage, you get three or four different types of antipasti. Then you get the primo piatto—a pasta or gnocchi or whatever. Then you get two different main courses, and three desserts, and house wine, and a meal costs you only 25 euros. It’s really good quality. It’s amazing. There’s only one menu, which is why I think they can do it that way, but it’s still amazing for 25 euros. Wine is almost 15 euros, so it’s a great deal. I’m going to go back there.
What is the most cherished souvenir you've brought back from a trip?
We brought back truffles from Italy. We did truffle hunting. That was a really great experience. It was our first time. We went out with a truffle hunter guide who showed us how to do it. It was an amazing, amazing experience. We brought white truffles back with us, and we did a special dinner here. Truffles are legal to bring back, but you need to claim them. They open the box, and the only thing that you can’t bring back is dirt. The night before, we came home and we cleaned the truffles with a toothbrush. The customs officer at the airport opened my box and took out the truffle and hit my truffle on the stainless steel table so he could see that no dirt came out. He did another piece, and then he said, “You’re okay to go.” I didn’t know how easy it was, the first time. We’ve brought back truffles six or seven times already now. When you claim your items for customs, I used to put “chocolate” first, and then next, “truffles,” then, next, “candy”—so it seemed like chocolate truffles! I read an article, and I printed it out to bring it with me. It has information from U.S. Customs, so if they have any questions, I can show it to them.
Do you have any pre- or post-shift rituals?
Espresso. I have a double.
My family used to say, “Don't sit at the corner of the dining table to eat. If you sit and eat there, you won’t get married.” I don’t know why! When we have family meals at the restaurant, I tell our young cooks, “Don’t sit there!” They say, “Why?”
What is your hidden talent besides cooking?
I love to play guitar. That’s my thing. My uncle used to play, and the guitar was there in the house, so I started kind of faking it. I’m self-taught, and then my younger brother started picking up the guitar, and we used to play together. Now it’s been quite some time. For almost 40 years, I’ve played. Lissa hates it because I have such a big guitar collection. My room is full of guitars. It’s my obsession, I guess. It’s funny: With the different guitars, it’s a different sound when you play different songs. It’s such beautiful equipment. I love the smell of the wood—it’s almost like aromatherapy when I open the case of the guitar. Many chefs play guitar. I don't know why; I think it’s the same side of the brain that’s working. In Napa Valley, so many chefs play guitar. I’ve played a couple times with the chef from the Kitchen Door, Todd Humphries. We get together and play guitar. We get kind of drunk and play.