Interview with Chef Yoshinori Ishii of Morimoto – New York , NY

September 16

Antoinette Bruno: What inspired you to start cooking professionally?
Yoshinori Ishii: I love fishing and when I was seven or eight 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.