Chef Ken Takayama
Melisse | Los Angeles, CA
Dreams of basketball stardom were permanently deferred for Chef Ken Takayama when he discovered a similar kind of teamwork, with its own enticing rhythms, in the restaurant kitchen. Born in Saitama, Japan and raised in Southern California’s Monterey Park, Takayama got his first pro shot at cooking at a neighborhood restaurant, where he learned traditional techniques for preparing robata, sushi, tempura, and other basic components of Japanese cuisine.
More sophisticated gigs were soon to follow, with Takayama working under Christophe Moreau for Patina Pastry from 1999 to 2001. Ambitious and determined, Takayama set his sites on Melisse, the über-sophisticated, contemporary French outpost of Chef Josiah Citrin. Not one to give up, Takayma knocked not twice, but three times, on the back door of Melisse before Chef Citrin finally let him try out.
Once he had secured himself a spot as sous chef at Melisse, Takayama put his head down and worked like a man driven by promising knowledge of what he could become. Although shy and unassuming in person, Takayama quickly proved himself an integral and creative component of the Melisse team. And after nine years of patient, meticulous work, he was promoted to chef de cuisine. From this well-deserved perch, Takayama creates elegant plates to suit the two-Michelin starred restaurant’s legacy and express his own matured style. And while he may not enjoy the celebrity status of a pro-baller, Takayama has proven his all-star skills in the kitchen.
Antoinette Bruno: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Ken Takayama: I like to eat. My mom was a really good cook. I don't know what inspires anyone to be a cook. I wanted to be a basketball player to be honest. So cooking was the second option. Cooking is like a sport though. It takes a team, and it takes a lot of physical energy in the kitchen.
AB: Do you recommend culinary schools to aspiring chefs?
KT: I did enroll and I did miss a lot of days, so I ended up not going. I enrolled in a trade school in Las Angeles called LA Trade Tech. Most of my training has been on the job.
AB: Where have you worked professionally as a chef?
KT: I've only worked in three different places. When I was 18 I started washing dishes at a neighborhood Japanese restaurant, Kayo, two minutes away from my house. There was a great unknown chef. He was a really, really great teacher for me to begin cooking with. After that I worked for the Patina Group. I was doing pastry. There was a separate kitchen in Burbank and they did catering. I left Patina in 2001.
AB: How did you come to Melisse?
KT: Not long after 9/11 when the economy was bad I came knocking on the back door with a resume with nothing on it and Josiah didn’t let me in the kitchen. I came back again and told him I would work for free. And the exact words I can’t say, but even then he said something like “Get out of here, I don’t want you here.” I left my resume and someone had quit or was fired two weeks later and I got a call saying we'll try you out.
AB: What was it like starting out?
KT: I had no knowledge whatsoever about hot food in a restaurant like this. I didn’t know what rosemary looked like or savory. When you’re an assistant they tell you to get these herbs and I would walk into the fridge and be like “Crap.” I heard he was tough and I wanted to come here. I was 23 when I left [pastry] and said I'm not going to be doing pastry for the rest of my life. If I'm going to do hot food then I might as well go somewhere where I'll learn and be disciplined to learn the right way. I've been here almost nine years. Now I look back and I feel I made the right decision and I was very fortunate and lucky.
AB: Who is your mentor?
KT: Josiah is like a father to me. I think a lot of people these days hit a wall—everyone hits a wall no matter what you do—and he taught me that when you hit the wall you don’t just give up, no matter what it takes. If you started something then you need to finish it. You put your foot in there believing that you wanted to accomplish something and if you give into your fears once, you'll do it again and it will ruin your life. In order to say that you have to practice it yourself. I just feel that he's a really, really great teacher.
AB: How are you involved in your local culinary community?
KT: I support the farmers market. I really don't talk much as you can tell. We do charity events, but most of the time I end up being here and Josiah will take someone else with him. On closed days we take turns doing charity events or if we can’t get anyone else to go we both go. We’ve actually had the most interns and externs come in this year which I'm surprised with. I don’t know how to take that in, if the name of the restaurant has gotten out or if people think we’re a better restaurant.
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