Josh DeChellis
154 W. 13th St.
New York, NY 10013
(212) 989-7699

Amy Tarr: I know you started cooking as teenager to earn money for a new snowboard. But what inspired you to become a chef?
Josh DeChellis: My mother was a terrible, awful cook. She’s a fantastic woman but a terrible cook. When I started working, I had no idea what good food was. I didn’t know it existed. When I started tasting and eating, I couldn’t even believe it. I couldn’t wait to go to work the next day so I could taste some more.

AT: You went to the CIA despite your parents’ objections. Two questions: Do you think culinary school is essential for aspiring chefs today? And do your parents still object to your chosen profession?
JD: They love it! It was a case of the standard parental questions - is this a good career? Back then in ’92 was really about the time that chefs started hitting the media. It’s a whole different thing now, how chefs are viewed.I tell everyone who’s thinking about going to culinary school not to go. To me it’s illogical. Why are you going to do that to yourself, spend $60 K to be exposed to cooking in a non-realistic atmosphere when you could go to some of the greatest chefs like Daniel Boulud’s kitchen and beg to work for free for a year? If you’re intelligent about the restaurant you choose, where the range of food is going to be pretty wide, your exposure is going to be pretty good. You’re not spending money and you’re getting a better experience,

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Josh DeChellis
SUMILE | New York City

Born in Bogota, Colombia and raised in Clinton, New Jersey, Sumile chef Josh DeChellis, 31, is an unlikely standard bearer for traditional Japanese cuisine. But his inspired use of Japanese ingredients is leaving an indelible impression on the New York dining scene.

At 14, Josh began working at a local restaurant to earn money for a new snowboard. The unconventional lifestyle of the chef immediately attracted him to the profession, as did the pleasure of seeing good food delight the guests. Over the objections of his parents, Josh followed his passion and entered the esteemed Culinary Institute of America in 1992. After graduation, he began his professional career as a chef de partie working at the Frenchtown Inn in Frenchtown, New Jersey. He then landed a position in San Francisco as sous chef at Wolfgang Puck's famous Postrio. After three years in San Francisco, Wolf sent Josh to France to further educate him on traditional French technique, where he worked at two Michelin three-star restaurants: the famed L'Arpege and Lucas Carton.

Upon returning to the States, Josh was ready to give New York a try. His career took a seminal turn when he began working with Rocco DiSpirito at the then New York Times three-star-rated Union Pacific. While working there, Josh also traveled around the world, going on eating trips through France, hunting for truffles, and cooking in Singapore. To round out his epicurean experiences, he also worked with such notable chefs as David Bouley, Charlie Trotter and Jean-Georges Vongerichten.

Ready to head up his own kitchen, Josh found a fitting home for his adventurous cuisine at Sumile. Before opening the restaurant in September 2003, he spent six weeks eating and cooking in Kyoto and Tokyo's Shibuya-Ku neighborhood, cooking with regional ingredients and perfecting the nuances of traditional Japanese technique. Once back in the US, he searched for specialty importers to bring many of the ingredients he discovered in Japan to Sumile, recognizing that "The more special flavors I can find, the better equipped I am to make something spectacular." Some of his most exclusive ingredients include fresh myoga, kinome (the leaves of the sansho pepper plant), fresh ramen imported directly from Japan and tonburi (not-so-commonly known as “field caviar”).

At Sumile, Josh showcases flavors that are clean and authentic, two qualities that echo throughout Japanese cuisine. His inspired, devil-may-care approach to cooking has resulted in rave reviews from guests and critics alike and a reputation as rising star in the culinary world.

Interview Cont'd
AT: You’ve worked alongside some amazing chefs – Wolfgang Puck, David Bouley, Charlie Trotter, Jean-Georges. Who would you say is your primary mentor? Why?
JD: The person who has left the heaviest mark is Alain Passard at Arpege (in 1997). American chefs at that point, and still a majority of them in my opinion, created dishes with an ego in mind. How many things they can do to a dish? For Passard it was all about simplicity - bad-ass French products and how they are cooked. A good piece of salmon, to him, was perfectly cooked like a good piece of meat. He’d work a little bit of fleur de sel mixed with a subtle spice, plate it next to cabbage gently cooked in butter. The food was so much superior to anything I’d ever seen, and that changed me forever. He cooks in a very Japanese style, very elemental, using raw products. People always ask me how I got into Japanese food, and it’s because of Passard.

AT: Based on your experience working abroad in France at Arpege and Lucas Carton, as well as in Japan, do you think it’s important for young chefs to get experience cooking overseas? Why?
JD: I definitely have issues with cooks traveling. Even at the time I was working at Arpege, I would see famous or soon-to-be-famous American chefs eat there and talk to Passard, and six months later, I’d open up Gourmet or The New York Times, and I’d see exact replicas of what I saw in his kitchen. Passard doesn’t accept American stages for that reason.

AT: What’s your philosophy?
JD: My philosophy started with Alain Passard, but Japan without question is my biggest inspiration. A lot of people don’t understand enough about Japan to understand what that means. People think it’s just wasabi, soy, sushi and sashimi. A truffle can be treated in a Japanese style. What resonates in their culture – in their language, their architecture, is respect. When it comes to cooking, that respect is paid to Mother Nature. That’s first and foremost, anything else that’s added or anything that’s altered with a natural ingredient is done so slightly and with such reason. I find that cooking to be very elemental, and I really strive to prepare food that way.

AT: I know you use a lot of exclusive ingredients, mostly Japanese. What is your favorite “secret” ingredient? Why?
JD: Really good tamari style soy sauce – it’s brewed for a really long time. As far as my favorite ingredient, it’s got to be nori. There are all different kinds of nori and there’ s just something about it. It’s just seaweed dried and pressed into sheets. Good nori is dried out on wood so that with the sun and the wood, it picks up this smoky, toasty flavor but tastes fresh at the same time. I love all the different forms you can make it into – pureed, powder, fried, you can wrap things in it. I love it.

AT: How do you keep food cost in line with all your imported specialty ingredients?
JD: I welcome anyone to ask me that – last month it was 26.3 percent! But the reason why it is so low is you have to work for it. You can’t let the purveyors tell you what the price is. I went down to the market last week, and all of I sudden I realized, I shouldn’t be paying that extra 25 cents a pound for halibut. With fish, for example, it’s important for chefs to go to the market. Most of them are out drinking until that time anyway. Going to the fish market, you just find things, like bycatch - look at that 25-pound corvine that popped into our net. Since it’s a bycatch, it’s not that expensive and it’s a beautiful fish. That’s a night’s worth of fish at some restaurants.

AT: What is your most indispensable kitchen tool? Why?
JD: Sharp knives are really important for so many reasons. You can find the perfect piece of fish, but if you don’t have a super sharp knife you’re going to ruin it. You’re trying to disturb as few cells as possible while separating them. Knives that are dull, even German knives, the blades are too thick. They start out thin, but then at the top they are too wide to go through many things. I’m on my third Misono UX 10 – it’s the longest slicer that they make. It’s made of stainless steel and carbon. A lot of Japanese knives are just carbon - a softer metal compound that you can get really sharp. But since I use it for a lot more than just fish, I found the UX10, because it has a bit of stainless in it, it keeps its edge longer. But because of the carbon, it is relatively easy to get like a razor. I use a variety of different grades of waterstone to sharpen my knives.

AT: Is there a culinary technique that you have either created or use in an unusual way? Please describe.
JD: Back in ‘96 or ‘97 when I worked with Chef Lucas Carton, I saw a life-changing technique – it was sous vide. I couldn’t believe it when I saw it. Wolfgang [Puck] paid for my stage out there, and I had to come back to Postrio and show them all the things I learned. So I came back and couldn’t wait to show them this technique. But we didn’t have a Cry-o-vac machine. And they weren’t going to spend money to get one. So I thought back to CIA in pastry class- we’d wrap plastic over sheet trays and pop in them in oven. And the oven would shrink the wrap. So I just wrapped the chicken in plastic wrap and threw it in a super hot oven to let the plastic shrink around it and form the hermetic seal I wanted. This way you don’t have to add fat, but it’s not steaming, so you’re not loosing flavor. I tried it and it was unbelievable. So I do that at Sumile now - I call it the Poor Man’s Sous Vide. And I think it’s a really great thing for even home cooks to know about.

AT: What advice would you give to aspiring young chefs?
JD: The first restaurant you choose to work in should be one chosen not only on the range of cooking techniques and food prepared on a daily basis, but also a style that suits you at that point. I believe the first restaurant you work in, to be beneficial to you, you should work there for 2 years at least. Two years is a long time. So you better like the style.

AT: What is your favorite question to ask during an interview for a potential new line cook?
JD: Where have you eaten your favorite meal? Not just because of where it might be, but when they answer I can gauge how they connect with food. If someone tells me they went to Alain Ducasse in Paris and everything was really good, the bill was high, but the food was great, well ok.
But if someone said they went to this Chinese restaurant and the dumplings kicked ass because the dough was rolled really thin, you can see this person is really exited about food. That’s what I look for. Because that’s how I feel. I’m consumed by food. It’s important to have those kinds of people in a kitchen – to keep that energy around.

AT: What are your favorite cities for culinary travel? Why?
JD: I just got married in September – we went to Italy for our honeymoon – Rome , Florence, the Italian Riviera. It was really cool because I got to see real Italian food. I’m excited to go back to Japan. I’m going to Tokyo and Okinawa. Apparently Okinawa has food that is completely different form the rest of Japan. I can’t even articulate how exited I am. I’m so pumped.

AT: Where are your favorite restaurants to go in the city?
JD: My favorite restaurants are 5 Ninth – the food there is so damn good. Zak doesn’t try to knock your socks off with stuff, but you can tell he’s stoked to have you there. He serves you this rough, cut up half-cured sausage. Also Karuma Zushi for sushi (47th St.). The scungilli pasta at Arturo’s – it’s my guilty pleasure. And Bouley because it’s downtown, easy to get to and the food is always really good. It’s my own little escapism. I’ll shoot down there for lunch, turn off my cell phone and have a food and wine experience that’s top notch. I feel like I should be paying them extra for that therapy.

AT: Tell me about the biggest challenges you faced in opening up your own restaurant.
JD: This is the first restaurant I’ve opened and the whole thing was a challenge. The people who opened this restaurant were all in the entertainment business - none of them opened a restaurant before. They didn’t have any interest. They gave me a Rolodex with attorneys’ names and said go ahead. I learned so much. The real estate, liquor licenses, everything you could possibly imagine. My biggest challenge within the challenge was persevering.

AT: So do you see yourself doing more of these?
JD: Without question. I can’t wait to do more. I learned from my mistakes. But I know if I really just want to open an oyster place in a 500 square foot place, I can do that. And I can do it more efficiently.

AT: What trends do you see emerging in the culinary industry?
JD: All the toys definitely – the combi-steam and sous vide.

AT: Do you think these gadgets are helping things along?
JD: Not necessarily. I went to Zak’s (5 Ninth) for dinner, and the last course he served me was a chicken. The way it pulled apart, the skin, it was amazing. So I asked him how he cooked it. He said, “Dude, I roasted it!” And that totally spun me around in a different direction. At Union Pacific we had the sous vide. The food is perfectly and evenly cooked through, but it has no soul, no backbone. I’m into natural, organic, hands-on cooking.

   Published: April 2005