Interview with Chef Gene Kato of Japonais - Chicago
Antoinette Bruno: Why did you start cooking? What or who inspired you to become a chef?
Gene Kato: It started with my family. In the Japanese culture, food is very important – it is at the center of the family. My mother would make tempura, and it would take us 3 hours to complete a meal. My mother always had us in the kitchen helping out. We moved here with I was 4 years old. My dad was a merchant marine, and it was his dream to come to America. He loved John Wayne movies and the steak he ate in the movies. John Wayne would only take one bite, and my dad wanted to finish the steak!
AB: Did you attend culinary school?
GK: I completed an apprenticeship in Japan and then went to Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, NC. I learned the intricacies of French sauces. I tried to work in as many restaurants as possible to learn different cuisines, and styles – fine dining, casual, Southern, French, etc.
AB: Who are your mentors?
GK: Joel Robuchon – I respect his philosophy toward food, although I’ve never worked for him; Jeff La Berge – the culinary dean of Central Piedmont Community College.
AB: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
GK: Simplicity and knowing the customer. My food reflects an understanding of the American palate, while using Japanese ingredients. It’s very Japanese, but Americans can understand it. I don’t agree with fusion.
AB: Which chefs do you consider to be your peers?
GK: Nobu – he’s older, has had more time to develop his cuisine; then Morimoto follows, and then there’s me – I’m scratching at Morimoto’s ankles!
AB: Are there any secret ingredients that you especially like?
GK: I use sake so much, for almost everything – it’s a great medium. It’s a tenderizer, a flavor enhancer. When you burn off the excess alcohol, it balances out flavors.
AB: What is your most indispensable kitchen tool?
GK: Knives – without them I can’t do my artwork.
AB: Is there a culinary technique that you have either created or use in an unusual way?
GK: For the cheese puff, I take tofu and high quality mozzarella. The combo is 60% tofu, 40% cheese. I bind them together and now I have a lighter, healthier cheese, and it doesn’t separate.
AB: What is your favorite question to ask during an interview for a potential new line cook?
GK: What do you think characterizes great food? You can see their mentality, what they think is important. It’s a good way to evaluate mentally where they are.
AB: What tips would you offer young chefs just getting started?
GK: Know the basics of your cuisine really, really well. That way, you can create anything. Get the most out of every chef you work with. Understand their vision and where their ideas come from. Then you can create your own vision.
AB: What places do you like for culinary travel?
GK: I’m going back to Japan to get back in touch with traditional tastes and flavors. I’d love to go to Spain and France – I’ve never been there.
AB: What are your favorite restaurants –off the beaten path – in Chicago?
GK: Cho Sun OK – it’s Korean. They do sliced beef on the stone, and they have the best Kim Chi.
AB: Where do you see yourself in 5 to 10 years?
GK: In Las Vegas and New York with this group – I’m a partner. Also with a cookbook on modern Japanese cuisine. And I”d like to start my own restaurant. It would be omakase style, a 20-seat restaurant, in the middle of a Japanese tea garden, like in Golden Gate Park, very Zen-like. There would be sushi, a robata grill, steamed fish, and drinks!