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Interview: Hiro Sone and Lissa Doumani
By Merrill Maiano

Merrill Maiano: I'm fascinated by the idea that Terra means "earth" in Latin and "temple" in Japanese. How did you come across this name and how does it relate to what you are trying to accomplish philosophically with the restaurant?

Hiro Sone and Lissa Doumani: We wanted a name that did not designate a cuisine, so we would have the freedom to create what we like. Terra means earth, ground or land, which is where all we use stems from. The connection that it means temple in Japanese was just a lucky coincidence that we personally find amusing.

MM: In the same vein, how has Terra come to reflect who you are? Has that reflection changed at all in the 14 years since you started? Are you happy with the way it has turned out?

HS and LD: Terra reflects who we are by allowing us to do dishes that we want to eat, that have no borders. We don't do fusion but allow the ingredients that are available locally along with traditional culinary training to allow us to create dishes that have diversity. The changes over the years are hopefully minor but always striving to be better. We love hearing from a customer this was a great as last time or even better than last time. We continue to grow.

MM: What are your earliest food memories and when did you know that you wanted to cook? Was there a particular person or event that influenced your passion for food?

HS: When I was about 5, we were visiting my aunt in Tokyo and she served me a banana, and my reaction was to say "I don't want a potato." I had never seen a banana and that was the only thing I could relate it to. She still likes to tease me about it. At about 16, I was considering my career choices. Out of the many, I thought that being a chef was something that I would enjoy because I liked to cook and it would let me be creative without boundaries. A profession that would always stimulate me. When I was younger I used to go home while the rest of the family was working in the rice fields and I would make lunch as a surprise for them. The feeling I got from feeding my family and the happiness from seeing them enjoy what I had cooked set the seeds for a chef.

LD:In my family, we used to get together for large family dinners every Sunday. My grandmother would cook all day and when we would get there it was all about food. My uncles used to chase me around to try and get some special morsel that I had saved for my last bite. As soon as I was old enough to help, I would work in the kitchen with my family. When I was about 7, my cousin and I thought we were old enough to make a cake without a recipe-we were seasoned professionals! We didn't do to badly, but forgot the butter, so our chocolate cake was speckled. My passion for food came partially from late night visits from my parents. After they came home from a night out, they would check on us. I would always wake up and they would sit on the edge of my bed and describe the meal they had.

MM: Hiro, what do you value most about having had a formal culinary education? And Lissa, what do you value most about having hit the ground running as it were, and learning from experience? I cooked before I went to culinary school, so I can see how both of these approaches would have their pros and cons....

HS: I valued the educational information I received, not just how to cook but why things are done a certain way. Learning techniques from many different cuisines and how to apply them. The history of food and dishes. School allows you the time to think about how you want to apply what you have learned, what kind of cuisine you want to pursue or maybe, be a butcher. You must have a willingness to learn or you will not get anything from school.

LD:Apprentice or slave labor is a choice for someone without the patience for school or the funds. It takes about the same amount of time to get to the same place. I liked working instead of school because it gave me immediate satisfaction-what I did made a difference in what was served. Even when I was washing dishes. You still must self-school, though. You need to understand the history of food and the basics so that you can create your own style eventually.

MM: Living in a "breadbasket" of sorts, I would think that you are more likely to face some of the issues surrounding the agricultural community than city chefs. What are your thoughts on sustainability and organic farming practices? Do you place a great deal of value on the chef-farmer relationship?

HS and LD: For us, our relationship with the people that grow what we use is very important. It is the beginning of what you eat. The flavors that are added to each ingredient by the land, water and air is amazing. You can tell where some things were grown or if they had too much water. We are able to work hand in hand with growers to get special ingredients grown for us or raised to a specific size. Also, using things at their seasonal best makes a difference in the dishes we serve. We have a personal relationship with a lot of our growers. When we look at our tomatoes we think of Barney, our apples we think of Tim. It gives you respect for the ingredients when you know they have worked so hard at them.

MM: What do you think it is that sets "good chefs" and "great chefs" apart? Please feel free to extend this question to include restaurateurs as well.

HS and LD: For both, you must be original, possess integrity, be hard working, have business sense, like people, and be a strong leader-this may be the most important, because it incorporates all the other assets. A great leader teaches well, not just about food, but includes respect for ingredients and people, sets an example and creates a creative work environment. A great chef/restaurateur is the first in and last out. For chefs, a great chef has a great taste memory and can recreate a flavor exactly. Great chefs are not just found in the star rated restaurants, a lot of them can be found in your neighborhood restaurants. PR does not make a great chef.

MM: What is the biggest mistake you've ever made, or worst experience in the business, and what sort of wisdom would you pass on to others following in your footsteps as a result? Conversely, what are your best experiences?

The worst experience was when we agreed to move out of our building so that they could retrofit for earthquake safety. We had to remove everything! All of the equipment, dishes, glasses, chairs, tables, tableware, wine, food, art, everything. It is the scariest thing for a chef or owner to see their restaurant empty, like you have closed forever. Luckily, it only lasted a month.

MM: What are your favorite things to eat?

HS and LD: In general, on our days off we want simple foods mostly Japanese, sushi, sashimi, etc. Great pasta, good Italian food. Hiro loves to have ramen when he comes home from work and I prefer ocha zuke, rice with hot green tea and condiments. One of our passions is cheese, so we love visiting cheese shops and trying new cheeses that may have just started being imported.

MM: Any regrets? Any advice to people who are just starting out?

HS and LD: No regrets but one great piece of advise, take a general repair class because once you have your own restaurant, you have to fix everything!

 


  

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