Interview with Chef Katsuya Fukushima of Café Atlantico and Minibar – Washington, D.C.

December 13

Tejal Rao: How did you start cooking? When did you know you wanted to become a chef?
Katsuya Fukushima: I always loved cooking but I never really thought of it as a career. I went to the University of Maryland to double major in math and art. I spent more time home cooking and watching the Discovery Channel and Great Chefs than at school and after I graduated I ended up going to Bethesda for this catering job and when I saw the kitchen I just knew it was right for me. I remember going in there and seeing all the chaos, the noise, the cooks running around and the chef controlling everything. That was it for me!

TR: Did you attend culinary school?
KF: After that catering job I enrolled at L’Academie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg, where I’ve actually been teaching some technical cooking classes for the past year. Cooking school was heaven for me! Sometimes I wish I’d found it sooner, but I feel so lucky for finding my passion.

TR: How did you begin your mentorship with José Andrés? Who else has mentored you along the way?
KF: When I knocked on the door at Jaleo I was hired on the spot. That’s where I met Jose Andrés, who’s been my main mentor for the past eight years. I learned that you don’t have to be hard on your chefs, cooking is stressful enough as it is! But there’s also no place for mediocrity. He’s passed on a sensibility and a passion for food and tasting. I learned how to work really hard with him! Ann Cashion was another mentor for me. When I first started working in kitchens I felt really behind, like I’d started late in life and needed to catch up and Ann is a really great woman and chef. She was almost like a mother, meaning that if you did something wrong, she didn’t explode; she gave you a guilt trip! It was the worst feeling ever, like you’d really disappointed her. She taught me about balance.

TR: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
KF: After studying art, I can look at a beautiful building and really appreciate what the architect was trying to do and all the work that went into it: all the planning, all the hard work, all the people involved. A plate is like that. It’s not just the chef’s vision; it’s also the dishwasher, the prep guy and the waiter. My main purpose is to make people happy and make myself happy—that’s my only agenda. I love watching people eat the food and enjoy it. And if they don’t seem happy, I really want to do all I can to make them happy, even if they’re to the point of being unreasonable. I think you have to charm them a little; they have to meet you half way. But at the same time you have to be careful when you make compromises or it won’t be your food anymore.

TR: What ingredients are you really into right now?
KF: Right now I’m really thinking about Thanksgiving and how to incorporate homey ingredients like turkey, cranberry, and pumpkin in a fun and different Thanksgiving menu. I’m thinking a lot about cocktails too. I did something last year called a Turkey and Cranberry Cocktail with Wild Turkey Bourbon and cranberry syrup. But right now I’m thinking more about pumpkin, maybe a pumpkin soup with a brown sugar marshmallow, an ode to that sweet potato casserole classic. I just got back from visiting family in Hawaii so I’m also into Asian ingredients from Korea and Japan.

TR: What are some of your favorite flavor combinations?
KF: I really like strawberry and black pepper together, which I did a long time ago, but I still love. I always try to balance out flavors of sweet, sour, bitter and salt, without complicating the dish too much. The ceviche dish I made the other night is simple: acid from the lime, salt from the corn nuts and sweet fatty coconut. I love coconut! I’ve been playing around with canned coconut milk lately, freezing it. When you take it out all the fat is at the top, like a yogurt. I scrape it out and mix with crème fraiche. I also like chocolate with savory flavors.

TR: Do you have an indispensable kitchen tool?
KF: The microplane is great. And I love all my blenders from the handheld to the Vita-Prep. I puree a lot of things and the blenders give it a specific mouthfeel. I made a mayo the other day with just a lemon. I blanched it, poached it in simple syrup and left it in there overnight. The next day I blended the whole thing, pith, skin and everything. The emulsifying properties in citrus make a kind of mayonnaise without any fat and the longer you whip it the fluffier it gets. I couldn’t do that without a blender. My iSi bottles are great for carbonating things and making foams. Lately I’ve been playing with milkshake-makers and frothers. You put the dairy in and it gets aerated. I’ve got this new chemical called Aerowhip which is meant to allow for frothing up but I haven’t had the time to play with it yet.

TR: Any plans to get a lab where you can experiment and play around?
KF: José is looking for a space in DC where we can set up a test kitchen and lab like el Taller. We won’t have the luxury of closing for six months but it’ll be great to have a place with all our equipment and chemicals.

TR: What do you look for when you’re interviewing for new line cooks?
KF: I don’t really care about where they worked or what school they went to. It’s so much more important to find out how long they stayed at a certain place. I want to find out what their agenda is. It’s really nice to find a mentor that will teach you and I wonder if they’re looking for that. If a cook wants to learn I’ll always give them a trailing day to see how they work with other cooks, how they take directions and how they interact. I can feel right away if they’re arrogant and I’m not interested in that. I’m looking for a cook that has respect for all cooks as well as the chef.

TR: Do you take stagiers as well?
KF: Yes, I’ll give anyone a chance. Recently I started telling cooks to send me a resume so I know where they’re coming from. But if they want to learn there are no secrets. The only reason I ask for resumes is because so many new cooks don’t know how to use a knife or roast a chicken and they need to know that stuff first. It’s so important to stay grounded and learn the basics.

TR: How would you define your kind of cooking? And what do you think about the terms being attached to it like “science cooking” or “molecular gastronomy”?
KF: I really hate the word “molecular gastronomy.” I was just having a big discussion about this with Harold (McGee) and Ferran (Adrià). I think it really shows disrespect to scientists who’ve spent a whole lifetime to become an expert in their field when we use a chemical one day and then declare ourselves on the molecular level. I’d say we use science to understand cooking better and we use the knowledge of Harold and other food science writers to go farther. But the term “molecular gastronomy” is so popular and everyone wants to be a part of the term and that kind of cooking so it’s hard to get away from it.

TR: How would you advise young cooks just starting out and dreaming about doing this kind of cooking?
KF: I think patience is the most important thing, not just in the beginning but all the way through your career. You have to get a foundation, you have to read and learn as much as you can about all kinds of cooking. It took me a long time before Jose let me make the menu; now he just lets me go. But when you’re fresh out of cooking school you can’t expect to be drafting menus. You have to be patient, like in Karate Kid, before you get your first real fight!

TR: What are some of your favorite cookbooks?
KF: All el Bulli’s books of course. On Food and Cooking, by Harold McGee; he is really amazing. I also love all the old books by the Troisgros brothers, Bocuse, Girardet. I like Ma Cuisine which goes through all the mother sauces and classic dishes; I get a lot of ideas reading through those books and seeing what flavors were combined back then. Michel Bras’ is great too. Robuchon’s book was my first cookbook gift out of school. Honestly, I’ll buy any and every cookbook I can find.

TR: Where do you like to go for culinary travel?
KF: Chicago. I like to go to Moto and Alinea. I really want to go and see what Graham Eliot Bowles is doing at Avenues and get over to Shwa. I love New York too; I’d really like to work there one day. I eat at Momofuku, Blue Hill, this Italian place in Brooklyn called Noodle Pudding, and Max in Alphabet City which is a cash-only, homey pasta, no fuss, hole-in-the-wall. I get this giant meat ball with ham wrapped in cheese, and chicken pate spread on bruschetta. It’s great.

TR: What are your favorite places to eat in DC?
KF: Citronelle--I always love to see what Michel Richard is doing: I think he’s one of the most creative chefs out there. He doesn’t use chemicals to be creative but he’s really clever and I admire him so much. I think if I wasn’t working for Jose, who is also one of the most creative chefs out there, I’d want to work for Michel. Todd Thrasher makes amazing cocktails at The PX and Restaurant Eve; we used to work together at Café Atlantico.

TR: Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
KF: I love to cook homey foods and mix it up. So I hope to have my own little place. I’m not sure where it’ll be but it’ll be small, 50 seats tops, and I’ll cook whatever I feel like. It’ll be a small menu and I’ll do everything well.