SUMILE | New York City
Born in Bogota, Colombia and raised in Clinton, New
Jersey, Sumile chef Josh DeChellis, 31, is an unlikely
standard bearer for traditional Japanese cuisine. But his
inspired use of Japanese ingredients is leaving an indelible
impression on the New York dining scene.
At 14, Josh began working at a local restaurant to earn money
for a new snowboard. The unconventional lifestyle of the chef
immediately attracted him to the profession, as did the pleasure
of seeing good food delight the guests. Over the objections
of his parents, Josh followed his passion and entered the
esteemed Culinary Institute of America in 1992. After graduation,
he began his professional career as a chef de partie working
at the Frenchtown Inn in Frenchtown, New Jersey. He then landed
a position in San Francisco as sous chef at Wolfgang Puck's
famous Postrio. After three years in San Francisco,
Wolf sent Josh to France to further educate him on traditional
French technique, where he worked at two Michelin three-star
restaurants: the famed L'Arpege and Lucas Carton.
Upon returning to the States, Josh was ready to give New York
a try. His career took a seminal turn when he began working
with Rocco DiSpirito at the then New York Times three-star-rated
Union Pacific. While working there, Josh also traveled
around the world, going on eating trips through France, hunting
for truffles, and cooking in Singapore. To round out his epicurean
experiences, he also worked with such notable chefs as David
Bouley, Charlie Trotter and Jean-Georges Vongerichten.
Ready to head up his own kitchen, Josh found a fitting home
for his adventurous cuisine at Sumile. Before opening
the restaurant in September 2003, he spent six weeks eating
and cooking in Kyoto and Tokyo's Shibuya-Ku neighborhood,
cooking with regional ingredients and perfecting the nuances
of traditional Japanese technique. Once back in the US, he
searched for specialty importers to bring many of the ingredients
he discovered in Japan to Sumile, recognizing that
"The more special flavors I can find, the better equipped
I am to make something spectacular." Some of his most
exclusive ingredients include fresh myoga, kinome (the
leaves of the sansho pepper plant), fresh ramen imported directly
from Japan and tonburi (not-so-commonly known as
At Sumile, Josh showcases flavors that are clean
and authentic, two qualities that echo throughout Japanese
cuisine. His inspired, devil-may-care approach to cooking
has resulted in rave reviews from guests and critics alike
and a reputation as rising star in the culinary world.
worked alongside some amazing chefs – Wolfgang Puck,
David Bouley, Charlie Trotter, Jean-Georges. Who would you
say is your primary mentor? Why?
JD: The person who has
left the heaviest mark is Alain Passard at Arpege (in
1997). American chefs at that point, and still a majority
of them in my opinion, created dishes with an ego in mind.
How many things they can do to a dish? For Passard it was
all about simplicity - bad-ass French products and how they
are cooked. A good piece of salmon, to him, was perfectly
cooked like a good piece of meat. He’d work a little
bit of fleur de sel mixed with a subtle spice, plate it next
to cabbage gently cooked in butter. The food was so much superior
to anything I’d ever seen, and that changed me forever.
He cooks in a very Japanese style, very elemental, using raw
products. People always ask me how I got into Japanese food,
and it’s because of Passard.
on your experience working abroad in France at Arpege
and Lucas Carton, as well as in Japan, do you think
it’s important for young chefs to get experience cooking
JD: I definitely have
issues with cooks traveling. Even at the time I was working
at Arpege, I would see famous or soon-to-be-famous American
chefs eat there and talk to Passard, and six months later,
I’d open up Gourmet or The New York Times, and I’d
see exact replicas of what I saw in his kitchen. Passard doesn’t
accept American stages for that reason.
JD: My philosophy started
with Alain Passard, but Japan without question is my biggest
inspiration. A lot of people don’t understand enough
about Japan to understand what that means. People think it’s
just wasabi, soy, sushi and sashimi. A truffle can be treated
in a Japanese style. What resonates in their culture –
in their language, their architecture, is respect. When it
comes to cooking, that respect is paid to Mother Nature. That’s
first and foremost, anything else that’s added or anything
that’s altered with a natural ingredient is done so
slightly and with such reason. I find that cooking to be very
elemental, and I really strive to prepare food that way.
AT: I know
you use a lot of exclusive ingredients, mostly Japanese. What
is your favorite “secret” ingredient? Why?
JD: Really good tamari
style soy sauce – it’s brewed for a really long
time. As far as my favorite ingredient, it’s got to
be nori. There are all different kinds of nori and there’
s just something about it. It’s just seaweed dried and
pressed into sheets. Good nori is dried out on wood so that
with the sun and the wood, it picks up this smoky, toasty
flavor but tastes fresh at the same time. I love all the different
forms you can make it into – pureed, powder, fried,
you can wrap things in it. I love it.
do you keep food cost in line with all your imported specialty
JD: I welcome anyone
to ask me that – last month it was 26.3 percent! But
the reason why it is so low is you have to work for it. You
can’t let the purveyors tell you what the price is.
I went down to the market last week, and all of I sudden I
realized, I shouldn’t be paying that extra 25 cents
a pound for halibut. With fish, for example, it’s important
for chefs to go to the market. Most of them are out drinking
until that time anyway. Going to the fish market, you just
find things, like bycatch - look at that 25-pound corvine
that popped into our net. Since it’s a bycatch, it’s
not that expensive and it’s a beautiful fish. That’s
a night’s worth of fish at some restaurants.
is your most indispensable kitchen tool? Why?
JD: Sharp knives are
really important for so many reasons. You can find the perfect
piece of fish, but if you don’t have a super sharp knife
you’re going to ruin it. You’re trying to disturb
as few cells as possible while separating them. Knives that
are dull, even German knives, the blades are too thick. They
start out thin, but then at the top they are too wide to go
through many things. I’m on my third Misono UX 10 –
it’s the longest slicer that they make. It’s made
of stainless steel and carbon. A lot of Japanese knives are
just carbon - a softer metal compound that you can get really
sharp. But since I use it for a lot more than just fish, I
found the UX10, because it has a bit of stainless in it, it
keeps its edge longer. But because of the carbon, it is relatively
easy to get like a razor. I use a variety of different grades
of waterstone to sharpen my knives.
there a culinary technique that you have either created or
use in an unusual way? Please describe.
JD: Back in ‘96
or ‘97 when I worked with Chef Lucas Carton, I saw a
life-changing technique – it was sous vide. I couldn’t
believe it when I saw it. Wolfgang [Puck] paid for my stage
out there, and I had to come back to Postrio and show them
all the things I learned. So I came back and couldn’t
wait to show them this technique. But we didn’t have
a Cry-o-vac machine. And they weren’t going to spend
money to get one. So I thought back to CIA in pastry class-
we’d wrap plastic over sheet trays and pop in them in
oven. And the oven would shrink the wrap. So I just wrapped
the chicken in plastic wrap and threw it in a super hot oven
to let the plastic shrink around it and form the hermetic
seal I wanted. This way you don’t have to add fat, but
it’s not steaming, so you’re not loosing flavor.
I tried it and it was unbelievable. So I do that at Sumile
now - I call it the Poor Man’s Sous Vide. And I think
it’s a really great thing for even home cooks to know
advice would you give to aspiring young chefs?
JD: The first restaurant
you choose to work in should be one chosen not only on the
range of cooking techniques and food prepared on a daily basis,
but also a style that suits you at that point. I believe the
first restaurant you work in, to be beneficial to you, you
should work there for 2 years at least. Two years is a long
time. So you better like the style.
is your favorite question to ask during an interview for a
potential new line cook?
JD: Where have you eaten
your favorite meal? Not just because of where it might be,
but when they answer I can gauge how they connect with food.
If someone tells me they went to Alain Ducasse in Paris and
everything was really good, the bill was high, but the food
was great, well ok.
But if someone said they went to this Chinese restaurant and
the dumplings kicked ass because the dough was rolled really
thin, you can see this person is really exited about food.
That’s what I look for. Because that’s how I feel.
I’m consumed by food. It’s important to have those
kinds of people in a kitchen – to keep that energy around.
are your favorite cities for culinary travel? Why?
JD: I just got married
in September – we went to Italy for our honeymoon –
Rome , Florence, the Italian Riviera. It was really cool because
I got to see real Italian food. I’m excited to go back
to Japan. I’m going to Tokyo and Okinawa. Apparently
Okinawa has food that is completely different form the rest
of Japan. I can’t even articulate how exited I am. I’m
are your favorite restaurants to go in the city?
JD: My favorite restaurants
are 5 Ninth – the food there is so damn good.
Zak doesn’t try to knock your socks off with stuff,
but you can tell he’s stoked to have you there. He serves
you this rough, cut up half-cured sausage. Also Karuma
Zushi for sushi (47th St.). The scungilli pasta at Arturo’s
– it’s my guilty pleasure. And Bouley
because it’s downtown, easy to get to and the food is
always really good. It’s my own little escapism. I’ll
shoot down there for lunch, turn off my cell phone and have
a food and wine experience that’s top notch. I feel
like I should be paying them extra for that therapy.
me about the biggest challenges you faced in opening up your
JD: This is the first
restaurant I’ve opened and the whole thing was a challenge.
The people who opened this restaurant were all in the entertainment
business - none of them opened a restaurant before. They didn’t
have any interest. They gave me a Rolodex with attorneys’
names and said go ahead. I learned so much. The real estate,
liquor licenses, everything you could possibly imagine. My
biggest challenge within the challenge was persevering.
do you see yourself doing more of these?
JD: Without question.
I can’t wait to do more. I learned from my mistakes.
But I know if I really just want to open an oyster place in
a 500 square foot place, I can do that. And I can do it more
trends do you see emerging in the culinary industry?
JD: All the toys definitely
– the combi-steam and sous vide.
you think these gadgets are helping things along?
JD: Not necessarily.
I went to Zak’s (5 Ninth) for dinner, and the last course
he served me was a chicken. The way it pulled apart, the skin,
it was amazing. So I asked him how he cooked it. He said,
“Dude, I roasted it!” And that totally spun me
around in a different direction. At Union Pacific we had the
sous vide. The food is perfectly and evenly cooked through,
but it has no soul, no backbone. I’m into natural, organic,