Café Atlantico and Minibar
| Washington DC
Katsuya Fukushima had a life long interest in food but decided
to go to the University of Maryland and double major in math and
art, unsure he could make a career out of his hobby. Throughout
college Fukushima went in to turn in his homework but skipped classes,
preferring to stay at home cooking dinner for his roommates and
watching the Discovery Channel or Great Chefs. After college he
quickly realized that graphic design and mathematics weren’t
his true calling, and took a number of odd jobs to make ends meet.
When Fukushima arrived for a catering job in Bethesda, Maryland
during the US Open and saw the chaos and order of the kitchen, he
realized he wanted to make a career out of cooking. Eager to learn
as much as he possibly could about the culinary world, Fukushima
immediately enrolled at L’Academie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg,
Fresh out of culinary school in 1996, Fukushima
took a line cook position at Vidalia under Jeffrey Buben.
From Vidalia, he began working three jobs simultaneously at Cashion’s
Eat Place under the guidance of Ann Cashion, The National
Press Club and Jaleo. After three years Fukushima
left the other two positions to stay with Jose Andres at the Bethesda
tapas bar Jaleo, and then followed Andres as garde manger
to assist with the opening of Café Atlantico.
For the next eight years Fukushima worked with
Jose Andres. Andres became a mentor and a friend who saw that Fukushima
was eager to learn and challenged him with extra projects like understanding
the use of the iSi whippers Andres brought back from el Bulli.
After a stint at Verbena in New York and an inspiring season at
el Bulli under Ferran Adria, Fukushima was offered the
Chef de Cusine position at Café Atlántico
and Minibar in 2002. With his boundless curiosity and unwillingness
to allow culinary conventions to stand in the way of evolution,
Fukushima has managed to turn his kitchen at Café Atlantico
into one of the most innovative in the country. Inspired by Andres’
comment that the first three seconds of tasting a food have the
greatest impact, Fukushima has taken on the Wonka-esque project
of developing a meat-flavored chewing gum. While experimenting with
every available product and tool to improve on classic dishes and
develop new ones, Fukushima serves playful and personal dishes like
A Taste of India Chicken Wing, a bar snack inspired by the chicken
wing cooked in a cryovac and carefully de-boned at el Bulli.
The dish is made practical and elegant served on a small square
of paper on a piece of slate. While Fukushima thought the flavor
profiles for this snack held tremendous possibilities, he settled
on warm Indian flavors like coriander, cumin and cardamom for the
TR: How did you begin your
mentorship with Jose Andres? Who else has mentored you along the
KF: When I knocked on the door
at Jaleo I was hired on the spot. That’s where I
met Jose Andres, who’s been my main mentor for the past eight
years. I learned that you don’t have to be hard on your chefs,
cooking is stressful enough as it is! But there’s also no
place for mediocrity. He’s passed on a sensibility and a passion
for food and tasting. I learned how to work really hard with him!
Ann Cashion was another mentor for me. When I first started working
in kitchens I felt really behind, like I’d started late in
life and needed to catch up and Ann is a really great woman and
chef. She was almost like a mother, meaning that if you did something
wrong, she didn’t explode; she gave you a guilt trip! It was
the worst feeling ever, like you’d really disappointed her.
She taught me about balance.
TR: What is your philosophy
on food and dining?
KF: After studying art, I can
look at a beautiful building and really appreciate what the architect
was trying to do and all the work that went into it: all the planning,
all the hard work, all the people involved. A plate is like that.
It’s not just the chef’s vision; it’s also the
dishwasher, the prep guy and the waiter. My main purpose is to make
people happy and make myself happy—that’s my only agenda.
I love watching people eat the food and enjoy it. And if they don’t
seem happy, I really want to do all I can to make them happy, even
if they’re to the point of being unreasonable. I think you
have to charm them a little; they have to meet you half way. But
at the same time you have to be careful when you make compromises
or it won’t be your food anymore.
TR: What ingredients are you
really into right now?
KF: Right now I’m really
thinking about Thanksgiving and how to incorporate homey ingredients
like turkey, cranberry, and pumpkin in a fun and different Thanksgiving
menu. I’m thinking a lot about cocktails too. I did something
last year called a Turkey and Cranberry Cocktail with Wild Turkey
Bourbon and cranberry syrup. But right now I’m thinking more
about pumpkin, maybe a pumpkin soup with a brown sugar marshmallow,
an ode to that sweet potato casserole classic. I just got back from
visiting family in Hawaii so I’m also into Asian ingredients
from Korea and Japan.
TR: What are some of your favorite
KF: I really like strawberry
and black pepper together, which I did a long time ago, but I still
love. I always try to balance out flavors of sweet, sour, bitter
and salt, without complicating the dish too much. The ceviche dish
I made the other night is simple: acid from the lime, salt from
the corn nuts and sweet fatty coconut. I love coconut! I’ve
been playing around with canned coconut milk lately, freezing it.
When you take it out all the fat is at the top, like a yogurt. I
scrape it out and mix with crème fraiche. I also like chocolate
with savory flavors.
TR: Do you have an indispensable
KF: The microplane is great.
And I love all my blenders from the handheld to the Vita-Prep. I
puree a lot of things and the blenders give it a specific mouthfeel.
I made a mayo the other day with just a lemon. I blanched it, poached
it in simple syrup and left it in there overnight. The next day
I blended the whole thing, pith, skin and everything. The emulsifying
properties in citrus make a kind of mayonnaise without any fat and
the longer you whip it the fluffier it gets. I couldn’t do
that without a blender. My iSi bottles are great for carbonating
things and making foams. Lately I’ve been playing with milkshake-makers
and frothers. You put the dairy in and it gets aerated. I’ve
got this new chemical called Aerowhip which is meant to allow for
frothing up but I haven’t had the time to play with it yet.
TR: Any plans
to get a lab where you can experiment and play around?
KF: Jose is looking for a space
in DC where we can set up a test kitchen and lab like el Taller.
We won’t have the luxury of closing for six months but it’ll
be great to have a place with all our equipment and chemicals.
TR: What do
you look for when you’re interviewing for new line cooks?
KF: I don’t really care
about where they worked or what school they went to. It’s
so much more important to find out how long they stayed at a certain
place. I want to find out what their agenda is. It’s really
nice to find a mentor that will teach you and I wonder if they’re
looking for that. If a cook wants to learn I’ll always give
them a trailing day to see how they work with other cooks, how they
take directions and how they interact. I can feel right away if
they’re arrogant and I’m not interested in that. I’m
looking for a cook that has respect for all cooks as well as the
TR: Do you
take stagiers as well?
KF: Yes, I’ll give anyone
a chance. Recently I started telling cooks to send me a resume so
I know where they’re coming from. But if they want to learn
there are no secrets. The only reason I ask for resumes is because
so many new cooks don’t know how to use a knife or roast a
chicken and they need to know that stuff first. It’s so important
to stay grounded and learn the basics.
TR: How would
you define your kind of cooking? And what do you think about the
terms being attached to it like “science cooking” or
KF: I really hate the word
“molecular gastronomy.” I was just having a big discussion
about this with Harold (McGee) and Ferran (Adria). I think it really
shows disrespect to scientists who’ve spent a whole lifetime
to become an expert in their field when we use a chemical one day
and then declare ourselves on the molecular level. I’d say
we use science to understand cooking better and we use the knowledge
of Harold and other food science writers to go farther. But the
term “molecular gastronomy” is so popular and everyone
wants to be a part of the term and that kind of cooking so it’s
hard to get away from it.
TR: How would
you advise young cooks just starting out and dreaming about doing
this kind of cooking?
KF: I think patience is the
most important thing, not just in the beginning but all the way
through your career. You have to get a foundation, you have to read
and learn as much as you can about all kinds of cooking. It took
me a long time before Jose let me make the menu; now he just lets
me go. But when you’re fresh out of cooking school you can’t
expect to be drafting menus. You have to be patient, like in Karate
Kid, before you get your first real fight!
TR: What are
some of your favorite cookbooks?
KF: All el
Bulli’s books of course. On
Food and Cooking, by Harold McGee; he is really amazing. I also
love all the old books by the Troisgros brothers, Bocuse, Girardet.
I like Ma Cuisine which goes through all the mother sauces
and classic dishes; I get a lot of ideas reading through those books
and seeing what flavors were combined back then. Michel Bras’
is great too. Robuchon’s book was my first cookbook gift out
of school. Honestly, I’ll buy any and every cookbook I can
do you like to go for culinary travel?
KF: Chicago. I like to go to
Moto and Alinea. I really want to go and see what
Graham Eliot Bowles is doing at Avenues and get over to
Shwa. I love New York too; I’d really like to work
there one day. I eat at Momofuku, Blue Hill, this
Italian place in Brooklyn called Noodle Pudding and Max
in Alphabet City which is a cash-only, homey pasta, no fuss, hole-in-the-wall.
I get this giant meat ball with ham wrapped in cheese, and chicken
pate spread on bruschetta. It’s great.
TR: What are
your favorite places to eat in DC?
always love to see what Michel Richard is doing: I think he’s
one of the most creative chefs out there. He doesn’t use chemicals
to be creative but he’s really clever and I admire him so
much. I think if I wasn’t working for Jose, who is also one
of the most creative chefs out there, I’d want to work for
Michel. Todd Thrasher makes amazing cocktails at The PX
and Restaurant Eve; we used to work together at Café
do you see yourself in 5 years?
KF: I love to cook homey foods
and mix it up. So I hope to have my own little place. I’m
not sure where it’ll be but it’ll be small, 50 seats
tops, and I’ll cook whatever I feel like. It’ll be a
small menu and I’ll do everything well.
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