Interview with Rising Star Chef Scott Nishiyama of Chez TJ – San Francisco, CA
Antoinette Bruno: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Scott Nishiyama: I did a lot of cooking in college and never really thought of it as a career, but I enjoyed doing it. It wasn’t until I was working in an office and found it so boring, just being in an office every day. On a whim I tried working in a restaurant. I was in LA at the time. I started at Restaurant Bel-Air, my very first job in a professional kitchen. I loved it. I couldn’t wait to go to work every day.
AB: Did you train in restaurant kitchens or did you go to culinary school?
SN: I went to school at the CIA. After school I moved to New York City and worked there. The first place was Cello with Laurent Tourondel. I started there in 2001 right after 9/11. I was there for a year and then it closed. I spent a little time at Town with John Johnson. I was there for four months. I went to Daniel after that [and worked there] for two years. I always wanted to move back to the West Coast and I told Daniel [Boulud] that. At the time he was opening his outpost in Vegas so I went out there to help open for the first year. After they got up and running I left after a year and that's when I went to The French Laundry. I was chef de partie. The Chef de Cuisine was Cory [Lee]; that was three years ago in 2006.
AB: What was it like being at The French Laundry at that time? Where did you go from there?
SN: I remember starting right when they got the three stars. I was there for a year and a half and then after that I wanted to take a step in a different direction, so I took up as chef de cuisine at Yoshi in San Francisco. I didn't know Japanese food that well and wanted to explore my background. I worked for Sho Kamio, the executive chef; he was the chef at Ozumo’s. I helped open Yoshi's in San Francisco and was there almost two years. But I really wanted to get back to French cuisine, especially at a small place. I had been talking to Susie Foley, a restaurant headhunter, and she told me I might be interested in this place. So I met the owner George [Aviet] and his wife, fell in love with it, and moved down here.
AB: Do you recommend culinary school to aspiring chefs?
SN: I think it depends on the person. For me personally, I enjoy an academic environment. So for me it was good because I took it as an opportunity to soak in as much as I could. I can see the merits of working in the industry; you get a lot of hands on experience which you may not get in school. It’s what the person gets out of it. I've only been here [at Chez TJ] a month and a half. I love how it’s small, only 40 seats. This is where we can really concentrate on the food. This restaurant has been around for 27 years.
AB: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
SN: I believe simple is the best philosophy—for me at least. I try not to introduce too many flavor profiles. In most of my dishes there are two or three different flavor profiles going on. And I’m always using the freshest product available and just letting the ingredients shine, not overdeveloping them or masking their flavors. If I have a piece of duck or fish, I really want that to shine through on the plate. Everything that goes with that is complementary to that. When I’m thinking of a dish, that’s my mentality. What can I pair with that main component to bring out flavors and complement it?
AB: So then what goes into creating a new dish?
SN: I wouldn’t say my inspiration is always based on the protein. Sometimes I’ll see something in the market that’ll catch my eye and start the wheels turning in my head. I go from there. A lot of times I’ll get inspiration from something else I see, maybe something I’ve had before or something not even related to cooking in general. The creative process is funny that way.
AB: What are a few of your favorite flavor combinations right now?
SN: Right now we’re doing lamb with vanilla, which is pretty unique and goes really well together. We’re doing our beet amuse—beet with curry, orange, almond, and green apple. Another new dish we’re doing is soft shell crab with rice, green plum, cauliflower, and curry. I’m trying to take more traditional flavor profiles, but giving them a twist. Crab goes well with more acidic things, so we found green plums at the farmers market. I saw the green plums at the market and at the same time I was thinking about soft shell crab and trying to think what would go well and thought that would go really great. Cauliflower was another profile that was added on later.
AB: How are you involved in your local culinary community?
SN: I've been here for about a month but we've been going to the farmers market. They have a phenomenal farmers market here [with farmers] from Watsonville to Fresno; [there’s] a lot of great produce. We're talking to one of the farmers about having him grow special stuff for us. In our garden right now it’s stuff from the previous chef, Bruno Shamel—he was here for a couple years. They planted mostly herbs, some Swiss chard, and favas.
AB: What’s the toughest thing you’ve had to do in your career?
SN: The most challenging would probably be working at The French Laundry. This industry is very physically demanding, but there it was also very mentally demanding. It was such a great experience but also the hardest thing I've ever done because of the expectations they place on all their chefs there. You're challenged every day because the menu changes every day. You're constantly trying new things and striving for the same perfection Thomas [Keller] is striving for.
AB: What has been your proudest accomplishment?
SN: I think right now would be one of my greatest accomplishments. Working with my staff and training them and seeing the progression we’ve made from five months ago—it amazes me how far we’ve come. Seeing the progress of all my staff, my front of house staff who I try to work with every day. I feel really good about where we are and a lot of that is from everyone’s hard work and coming together.
AB: What’s next for you? Where will we find you in five years?
SN: Hopefully owner of my own restaurant in Hawaii or California. I'm originally from Hawaii and always dreamed of going back there some day and opening my own place. I say Hawaii because I’m from there and eventually want to go back. But also having a restaurant in the Bay Area or somewhere in California would be good. Eventually owning my own place is definitely in my future. As far as where—I can’t say exactly. A small fine dining restaurant has always been my dream. Something like Chez TJ.
Chef Scott NishiyamaChez TJ
938 Villa Street
Mountain View, CA 94041