Chef Yosuke Suga of L' Atelier de Joel Robuchon

Yosuke Suga
L' Atelier de Joël Rubuchon
57 E. 57th St.
New York, NY 10022
(212) 350-6658

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Heather Sperling: What year did you start your culinary career? What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Yosuke Suga: My father opened a French restaurant in Nagoya, Japan in 1978. After I graduated high school I went to Lyon to learn French and then returned to Tokyo. My first job was in a hotel, where I worked for 4 years, first as a cook and then as a pastry chef. When I was 21, I left the hotel to work at my father’s restaurant, Chez Kobe, but I was anxious to learn more about cooking from major chefs. My father decided to close the restaurant for renovations, and I used the time off to travel to Paris. I had met Joël Robuchon through a family friend, and after getting to know him a little, he offered me a job as an assistant in his laboratory. He had recently retired from the kitchen, and we traveled all over the place. We went to Germany, Bangkok, Singapore and Chicago to do dinners for people. I also worked as an assistant on his TV program. In April 2003, he offered me the opportunity to open the new L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon in Tokyo. I came to New York in 2006 to open L’Atelier at the Four Seasons Hotel.

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Chef Yosuke Suga
L' Atelier de Joël Robuchon | New York

Yosuke Suga was introduced to French cuisine at his father’s restaurant Chez Kobe in Nagoya, Japan. Upon graduation from high school, he traveled to Lyon to learn French, then returned to Japan, working savory and pastry in hotel restaurants before taking over Chez Kobe four years later. Soon after he met Joël Robuchon through a mutual friend and began the ten year working relationship that has taken him around the world, and honed his understanding of French cuisine.

Suga began as an assistant to Robuchon after Robuchon’s retirement from restaurant kitchens. He spent nearly six years beside the chef, working in his laboratory, helping on his TV shows, and traveling to Germany, Bangkok, Singapore and Chicago to cook private dinners. In 2003, Suga opened the Tokyo outpost of L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon as Executive Chef, and in 2006 Robuchon brought the 30-year-old Yosuke to the United States to open L’Atelier in New York’s Four Seasons Hotel.

Suga’s cuisine at L’Atelier is modern French permeated with Japanese philosophy. Suga’s dishes are elegant and understated – a mixture of modern French cuisine and the Japanese philosophy of simplicity and letting the ingredients speak for themselves. While there is no doubt that he is first and foremost a French chef, he brings a modern mind and a hand to the task, layering sweet and savory, and steering away from heavy combinations of meat, wine and cream, leaning towards herbs, jus, and light broths.

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Interview Cont'd

HS: Where have you worked professionally as a chef?
YS: I worked in hotels, and then at my father’s restaurant, Chez Kobe. Since then, I’ve worked as executive chef at the Tokyo and New York outposts of L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon.

HS: Who are some of your mentors? What have you learned from them?
YS: I’ve worked for Robuchon almost 10 years. He gave me a really unique opportunity to become a serious chef when I was 25, and he has continued to bless me with opportunities to this day. He taught me my philosophy: work for your guests. Robuchon opened L’Atelier to cater to the people who love his food. He told me that used to have a 3 Michelin star restaurant in Paris, but he didn’t feel like it worked because it was too formal. He believes that the best meal you can possibly have is with your family and friends. He opened L’Atelier with this mentality. Also, his perfection and his strategy are inspiring. He has brought his restaurant to so many international communities – American, Chinese, Canadian, Greek – but he has always taken the initiative to do things his own way and make the most important decisions on his own, which is not an easy thing to do.

HS: What advice would you offer young chefs just getting started?
YS: Be positive. You need to keep your eyes open and figure out what is important to you. Also, travel is good for a chef. I don’t think you necessarily have to travel all over the world to be a good chef, but you only live once and it’s good to know other cultures. And you have to have some guidance, but you can’t actively look for a mentor – he has to come to you. I was very lucky in that I found someone early on who I could really look up to and who was able to do great things for me.

HS: What is your personal culinary philosophy?
YS: I value simplicity. The most important thing in my restaurant is the guest – I cook for my guests, not myself. Japanese cuisine is all about simplicity. They don’t use butter or cream, and have the utmost respect for the ingredients. I am trained in French cuisine, but of course have eaten many, many Japanese meals in Japanese restaurants. Japanese food is very beautiful and it’s helpful for chefs to be familiar with the philosophy, which focuses on getting the nicest taste without adding too many elements. I use some Japanese products and a bit of Japanese-inspired flavors for my French cuisine, but overall my cooking is really very French.

HS: Is there an ingredient that you like that you feel is particularly underappreciated or underutilized?
YS: Produce: I’m using a lot of local American produce, especially meat and fish. In Tokyo I was getting products from all over the world. We used a lot of French meat – in Japan it was much easier to get meat from other countries. We used Iberico pork, which isn’t legal yet in the US, French foie gras, French chicken, French duck and pigeon. It’s quite interesting to seek out small American farms. While many chefs are looking for the nicest produce from Japan, I like to look to the nice foods from the United States – they’re just not quite as easy to come by. When your restaurant is in a big hotel, like mine is, it’s not easy to work with small farms, but if I really want a specific type of nice produce, I can usually get it here with not too much problem. Meat, prawns, mushrooms, sea urchins from San Diego – we used to use Japanese urchins, but I found the ones from California better than Japanese ones, especially for the price.

HS: What are a few of your favorite flavor combinations?
YS: I like light, bright things. Of course I use cream, and I like it, but for meat, for example, I don’t use too much anymore. I try to make it easy to eat. I like herb flavors like garlic, thyme and rosemary for meat. I don’t like sweet sauces with meat. We prepare our Kobe in a simple jus – an essence with garlic, thyme and rosemary – nothing else. I like salads to have a very herbaceous flavor as well.

HS: Where do you like to eat in New York?
YS: I like Daniel, and I want to go to Blue Hill at Stone Barnes. I also like Casa Mono – I want to have a restaurant like that one day – just a fun Spanish tapas place for my friends.

HS: Where would you like to go for culinary travel?  Why?
YS: I think France. I haven’t been there for three or four years and I want to be reminded of everything that’s great there. I forget about the products! The flavor of vegetables and meat is so wonderful, especially in the countryside.

HS: What languages do you speak?
YS: English, French and Japanese

HS: If you weren’t a chef what do you think you’d be doing?
YS: I’d like to be a photographer. I do it for myself in my own time and I like it a lot. But I’m also into business, and photography is not really a business-oriented career. I guess you could say the same about being a chef, though – you don’t go into it to make money. It’s my life work. So maybe I’d be a business man, and make some money! But I couldn’t work in a big company. I’d have to be outside the system.

HS: What does success mean for you? What will it look like for you?
YS: I’d like to have a few restaurants in New York – a fun little tapas place, maybe an Italian spot, and another that serves Japanese family cuisine. I don’t think I’d be brave enough to open my first restaurant in Manhattan – I’d probably wait until I opened my second restaurant. New York is too busy and too difficult for your first restaurant. If I opened it in Japan or Paris, I could supervise for a few years until I trusted my sous chefs enough to leave them in charge there, then I could come open in New York with a little more confidence.

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   Published: August 2007