Interview with Chef Isao Yamada of Upstairs at Bouley - New York City

September, 2009

Antoinette Bruno: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Isao Yamada: I started my culinary career when I entered the Tsuji Culinary School in 1994. I decided to make cooking my career because I wanted to make my imagination into shape with my own hands.

AB: Where have you worked professionally as a chef?
IY: I first worked at Kitcho in Kyoto for three years, from 1995 to 1998. After that I worked at Hanzuiryo in Nagasaki for two years, from 1998 to 2000. Then I started my own restaurant in 2000 that I successfully ran for six years until I closed it for the opportunity to come to the USA and work with Chef Bouley and Chef Mikami. The next step will be when the Tsuji School and David Bouley open Brushstroke where I will be the chef de cuisine.

AB: Would you recommend culinary school to aspiring cooks? Do you hire chefs with and without a culinary school background?
IY: I recommend for people to go to culinary school. That way they can experience the chance to be with people who have the same interest as them while they are young. But I hire people with or without a culinary degree.

AB: Who are some of your mentors? What have you learned from them?
IY: I have had three great mentors in my life so far. First is Mr. Ishihara from Kitcho, Kyoto. I learned the beauty and the spirit of Japanese food from him. The second mentor is Mr. Mikami. He has taught me a different side of Japanese cuisine, the fusion of traditional Kaiseki cuisine with American ingredients. He showed me that the technique and ideals behind the Kaiseki style can be applied to any local region and distill its essence. Finally, my last mentor is Chef David Bouley who has taught me how to expand and utilize my creativity.

AB: In which kitchens have you staged? Which experiences were the most influential? Do you take stagiers in your kitchen?
IY: I haven’t staged in any kitchens. I was most influenced by working for Mr. Ishihara at Kitcho. Kitcho is famous for being the best Kaiseki restaurant in Japan, and working there made me realize that restaurants are complete when every component of the restaurant works with each other. From the flatware, plateware and decor to the front of house staff and back of house staff, everything must be working in sync. Kitcho is one of those places that achieves such an elusive goal. I hope to one day accomplish such a unity. As for stagiers, I always welcome them, but only have room for one or two at a time.

AB: What question gives you the most insight to a cook when you’re interviewing them for a position in your kitchen? What sort of answer are you looking for?
IY: The question I prefer to ask of a cook is "Why are you cooking right now? For what purpose?" I want to know their personality and how they take cooking in their life.

AB: What advice would you offer young chefs just getting started?
IY: I would advise them to have faith in what they dream.

AB: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
IY: I believe that a country's cuisine reflects the history of that country. Through a country's food you can learn many things about its people and their history. Dining is one of the most important parts of a culture. It brings together friends and family to share thoughts, ideas, and good food.

AB: What ingredient that you like do you feel is underappreciated or under utilized? Why?
IY: I think hamo (Pike Eel) is underappreciated. Hamo is an eel that can be utilized in many ways such as sushi, tempura, and so on, but there are many little bones you have to cut in the body before it can be eaten. This technique is still not very well known in the United States, which is a shame because it is a very rewarding ingredient to work with.

AB: What are a few of your favorite flavor combinations?
IY: My favorite things to combine right now are miso with basil, dashi with truffles, and fruits with traditional Japanese flavor enhancers such as soy sauce, rice vinegar, sake, mirin, and dashi.

AB: What’s your most indispensable kitchen tool? Why?
IY: Definitely my knife. I think knives are the spirit of a Kaiseki chef.

AB: At StarChefs we publish technique features for chefs to learn. Is there a culinary technique that you have either created or borrowed and use in an unusual way?
IY: There are two very difficult techniques I have learned. First I have earned my license to prepare and serve blowfish. This technique by nature is not one you want to "use in an unusual way." Also I have mastered the technique of making snapping turtle soup. The most difficult part is butchering the turtle properly, for which there should be no modification, but from there I use my own recipe. In general, though, I prefer not to use overly complicated techniques, as I feel that the simplest techniques are best at preserving the natural taste of the ingredient.

AB: What are your favorite cookbooks?
IY: My favorite cookbook is Kitcho-Ryori Kaden by Teiichi Yuki.

AB: Define “American cuisine.” What does it mean to you?
IY: American cuisine means the world's cuisine. What this means for me is that by moving here it allows me to take on the challenge of learning in America, to get out of my shell of a Japanese-only technique and take in the influence of the whole world.

AB: Where do you like to go for culinary travel? Why?
IY: I like to go to Kyoto because it is the root of Japanese cuisine.

AB: What languages do you speak?
IY: I speak Japanese and I am making an effort to learn English.

AB: What are your favorite restaurants off the beaten path in New York? What are your favorite after hour places and bars?
IY: My favorite restaurant in New York City is Falai. It is my favorite restaurant because the chef there does not present the same food twice, yet still maintains such a high quality. My favorite after hours place is Soba Totto and the cocktails of Mr. Gen Yamamoto are my favorite.

AB: What trends do you see emerging in the restaurant industry now?
IY: Local production for local consumption and health-conscious cooking, both of which are great compared to some other past trends that have swept the industry.

AB: Which person in history would you most like to cook for? What would you serve? Who would you most like to cook for you?
IY: I would feel honored to cook for Sen no Rikyu, an important Japanese tea master in the 1500s. I would love to serve him my modern interpretation of kaiseki food. I would also like to experience Sen no Rikyu’s cuisine. Tasting his food would give me a deeper understanding of the kaiseki cuisine of his time.

AB: Have you taken any steps to become a sustainable restaurant? What are those steps?
IY: I try to use as many local products as I can in order to be environmentally responsible. However, as a Japanese chef I must use several indigenous ingredients of Japan. Steps I am taking include buying produce form the local green markets, and using every part of the animals I purchase. This is not only beneficial to the environment and community but to my cuisine. Using fresh local American ingredients, with the indigenous ingredients of Japan allows me to create my own new style of Japanese cooking.

AB: How are you involved in your local culinary community? Nationally/Globally?
IY: I have participated in the “Taste of Tribeca”. I am new to this country and I am trying to become more involved in the culinary community.

AB: What are some of your favorite food-related charities?
IY: Once again, being new to this country and not speaking the language it has been hard for me to become involved in any charities. However, while working for Chef Bouley I have had many opportunities to cook in various charity events which I have found very rewarding.

AB: If you weren’t a chef what do you think you’d be doing?
IY: I cannot imagine myself as anything other than a chef. This is where my heart is.

AB: What does success mean for you?
IY: For me success means being satisfied with what one is doing. And in that sense I am already successful.