Like many chefs, Kuniko Yagi came to food in a roundabout way, cutting her teeth in a finance career in her native Japan before realizing that the humdrum world of banking didn’t whet her appetite . Ever the optimist, Yagi left Japan and the banking world behind her shortly after, hoping to find professional inspiration in that storied jungle of opportunity, America.
Landing a server’s position at a Japanese noodle house in LA might not seem like a stroke of luck, but for Yagi, the position was pivotal to her future career. There she discovered her innate affinity for gastronomy. The energy of the kitchen and the sheer pleasure of a well-prepared meal made a huge impression on this former banker: the food world was where she belonged.
A stroke of luck did come the day Yagi was communicating this very enthusiasm to a patron of the noodle house—a patron who just happened to be none other than Chef David Myers of LA’s Sona. Moved by Yagi’s passion and zeal, Myers suggested she test her culinary aspirations in his kitchen.
Not only did Yagi rise to the challenge—an untrained cook in one of the city’s most famed professional kitchens—she blossomed. Impressed by her natural affinity for cooking, and her ease in the breakneck pace of the kitchen, Myers offered Yagi a coveted full-time position at Sona. Not surprisingly, it took Yagi a mere three years to rise from the amuse station to sous chef, and in 2007 she was promoted to chef de cuisine, a role which allows her to lead other cooks and actively support Myers’ culinary viewpoint at Sona.
Interview with Chef Kuniko Yagi of Sona – Los Angeles, CAAntoinette Bruno:
What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
I never worked in this industry until I was 26 yrs old. I was working in an office in a bank in Tokyo and I didn’t like working in a box, not [able] to create and just following the rules. I needed something creative that would make my living too. I didn’t know if I should be a painter, or make clothes or what I should do. I didn’t think cooking was the way to present my feelings, but since I couldn’t speak any English the kitchen was perfect for me. When you see a kitchen and try to learn from it, the [staff] accepts you, so I thought this is my chance. I got really lucky by meeting Chef David [Myers]. He is very open-minded. My resumé was blank—who wants to hire a banker as a cook?
AB: When did you come to the US?
KY: I came to the US seven years ago. I never cooked in Japan or worked in a restaurant there. I came here and I wasn’t really planning to be a chef. I came here because I got married to an American from LA while he was in Tokyo, but it didn't work. That's why I'm here. I didn’t want to go back to Japan. But I needed to support myself.
AB: What was your first job cooking?
KY: My English was really bad so I couldn’t even work the Whole Foods register. One day I got a job from Ubon restaurant, Nobu's ex-restaurant. I was introduced to Chef David, we clicked, and I told him that I didn’t want to be a server forever, I wanted to create something. He hesitated a bit for the first time because I had never worked in a restaurant. He told me it’s tough for girls and I said “I really don’t mind, I want something where I can create.” He gave me an opportunity. That was six years ago.
AB: What was your first position in the restaurant kitchen?
KY: I didn’t know anything at first, so I learned to clean the kitchen. I had nowhere to go, nobody in this country. The only thing I could focus on was this job and I fell in love with it. It was really amazing to have something I really wanted in my life. For the first time I felt this was it. I always went to Mexican grocery stores and I started practicing chopping potatoes. I'm still bad with knives. I kept cooking at home. Slowly Chef David gave me a lot of opportunity with fish, then meats. In four years I learned a lot.
AB: And now you are chef de cuisine?
KY: Yes, and it's been two years. I'm very lucky to have Chef David, he’s very open. He doesn’t care how long I have worked or which restaurants I used to work at. I just need to show every day how much I want to do this.
AB: How did you cook the foie gras that you served us?
KY: Very simply, it was just seared. I didn't cure it with anything. It's from France, Rougié Foie. It's flash frozen with liquid nitrogen. We tried so many from California. They're trying to abandon it in California, so farms are feeding the geese too much to make the livers bigger to sell better and it’s not good quality. But this farm in France uses liquid nitrogen to freeze the liver in two seconds. It's quite fresh and the quality is way better than US. I wish I could find a good farm here that supplies good foie. Some people are against it because it’s frozen, but it’s not just a freezer, its keeping everything fresh. I am not against it. The consistency is great.
AB: What are your favorite flavor combinations?
KY: Yuzu kosho is my favorite so I always match that with a lot of stuff. Sometimes I need to stop because I use it so much. Our handmade version and the one from the company are totally different, so we always have both. It's chili and yuzu skin paste, made with shishito peppers. Yuzu is very expensive here. I can't use it so much. It's a ratio thing. Everybody cooks differently, even with the recipe. Everybody makes a different potato puree even if they follow the same recipe.
AB: How are you involved in the local culinary community?
KY: I go to the farmers market a lot. I never think I can teach anybody, maybe because I never went to school. We participate in charity events with this restaurant, I love it. We take stages.
AB: At StarChefs.com we publish technique features for chefs to learn new things. Is there a culinary technique that you use in an unusual or different way?
KY: I read a lot of traditional Japanese books, so I learned some stuff. The tuna [I prepared] is marinated in white soy, shallot, garlic and jalapeno. Then I take it out and wrap it in cheesecloth and pour hot water over the top so it’s not searing in the pan, but it looks seared on the outside. The water should go perfectly around the fish. That kind of technique I learned from old school Japanese cookbooks. Our pastry chef Ramon is more into crazy stuff. I'm more down to earth and I go to the old books.
AB: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
KY: As a cook my philosophy is to feed my diner so that the next day you can feel you had such a great meal, but still be already hungry and want to eat breakfast. I'm not trying to stuff somebody with butter and oil. I'm shooting to use the freshest and lightest [ingredients]—not to pound peoples’ stomachs. I don’t like it when I go out and eat at a fine dining restaurant and eat fifteen courses. Even if the service and cuisine are great I feel like a goose that has been stuffed and I don't feel good the next day. I use a lot of vegetables in my cooking. [I like to] make it light but flavorful.
AB: What goes into creating a dish? Do you and David Myers collaborate?
KY: I present it to the Chef. We don't really need to talk so much, I know his style and I know what I like. We don’t sit down and discuss. I come into the kitchen and try what I was thinking. I give it to him and see what he thinks. And he says “I like this sauce, why don't we mix it with this,” and then we make a layered dish together. We're never in an office with paper and pen; we’re always in the kitchen making it. In a way we create together. He never stops me from creating anything here. It took a while. There is so much that I want to do. I thought maybe it’s rude to tell him I have these ideas, but he says he wants to see what I do. We create together. It’s been like that for two to three years.
AB: What is the toughest thing you’ve had to do in your job?
KY: Business. Cooking is the easiest part and dealing with business is the hardest. Now, I'm not the owner, I'm not running the business side, but they let me learn that and I'm on the management team. It’s really hard to know what we can do without losing tons of money. We don’t want to bring the food quality down at all, but we want to make sure my cooks get paid. I don’t like to deal with it but it’s a reality I need to deal with.
AB: If there was one thing you could do again or do over, what would it be?
KY: Start earlier. Japanese people stick with one person for a long time. We are loyal. This case is not only loyalty, it was just so fast to go through seven years with him. Everything changes every single day; I don't feel like I've worked in the same restaurant. My position has changed, so I don’t feel like I was doing the exact same thing for six years.
AB: If you weren’t a chef what do you think you’d be doing?
KY: That's a crazy question. These days I always think about this. I don't know. Surfer. Sometimes I say in the kitchen “I wish I was just a surfer. I want to be in the ocean.”
AB: What’s next for you? Where will we find you in five years?
KY: I would love to have my own restaurant.