Chef Yoshinori Ishii
Morimoto | New York
Yoshinori Ishii is the chef behind Morimoto’s Omakase Bar – and nearly 20 years of cooking experience, in both Japan and the United States, goes into his refined, modern Japanese dishes. Ishii attended the Tsuji Cooking School in Japan, then spent 8 years straining at Kitcho Kyoto in Kyoto. There he trained in everything from sashimi and pickling to calligraphy, flower arranging, ceramics, and tea ceremonies. Ishii left Japan in 1999 to become the chef-in-residence for the Japanese Embassy for United Nation in Geneva, Switzerland, and in 2002, relocated to the Japanese Embassy for United Nation in New York. In 2005, he worked at an organic farm in Kyoto and studied English as a Second Language at Rutgers in New Jersey. He joined the staff of Morimoto in early 2006.
Ishii feels that true Japanese food is cooking that uses fresh ingredients – not exclusively Japanese ingredients. At Morimoto he is able to use local fish – including those he catches in local waters – and organic vegetables from nearby farms, as well as the best ingredients imported from around the world.
And he’s ambitious, too – Ishii’s future goal is to create a restaurant featuring his particular style of Japanese cooking by incorporating the various methods and ideas he’s learned through his 9 years of cooking in Japan, and 10 years of cooking in foreign countries.
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Antoinette Bruno: What inspired you to start cooking professionally?
Yoshinori Ishii: I love fishing and when I was 7 or 8 years old I caught a fish and cooked it myself. When I cooked the fish I realized I needed to cook other things to go with it. I like painting, ceramics, and making things with my hands, so I made ceramics and painted and decided that if I became a cook, I could do all of these things and not limit myself.
AB: Do you recommend culinary school to aspiring cooks?
YI: I went to Tsuji Cooking School and I do recommend culinary school on a case-by-case basis. Because of school I was able to learn both French and Chinese cooking before I worked in my first Japanese restaurant.
AB: Who are some of your mentors?
YI: Masataka Higuchi – he is a farmer who taught me that I needed the best product that I could get. I learned from him how to prepare vegetables straight from the field.
AB: What advice would you offer young chefs just getting started?
YI: Just keep doing it. Many young chefs do something once and think they know it, which is very wrong. I learned how to cut fish everyday for 10 years.
AB: What are some of your favorite flavor combinations?
YI: White rice and soy sauce; sushi rice and balsamic vinegar; liver and cucumber; lobster, miso, and tofu.
AB: Where would you go for culinary travel?
YI: Japan. When I was in Switzerland, I traveled all through Europe and ate lots of different foods and for me that was enough. I want to go to France, Italy, and Spain, but Japanese chefs and restaurants give me more inspiration.
AB: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
YI: The sea and firm ground.
AB: What does that mean?
YI: It’s not only about the taste, but it’s also about the feeling. When I go near the shore, I can feel the sea breeze and smell the ocean. I want to recreate this taste, this smell. When I go to a farm and I eat a tomato, I get inspiration on how to cook the tomato.
AB: If you weren't a chef what do you think you’d be doing?
YI: I would make ceramics.
AB: What do you think of Japanese restaurants in New York?
YI: Besides Japan, some of the Japanese restaurants here are at the highest level in their craft. The first stage [in introducing Japanese food to America] was sushi, the second stage was fusion (Nobu and Morimoto), and the third stage is more specialized and higher quality food. New York is now in the third stage.
AB: What does success mean for you?
YI: I want to own my own restaurant and cook real Japanese food.
AB: Would it be a traditional Japanese restaurant?
YI: It wouldn’t be traditional; it would feature new-style Japanese food using traditional techniques. For me, a restaurant is about more than just food, it’s also about plates, flowers and décor. When I learned Japanese food in Kyoto I spent 10 years there and cooked maybe one third of the time. The rest of the time was spent learning traditional culture – making ceramics, flower arrangement, painting. If I open my own restaurant in New York, I want to do all these things.
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