LAChef Kuniko Yagi

(Originally published December  19, 2012 on Examiner.com).

Note since this article was published, Chef Yagi left Hinoki + the Bird

One bird’s travels across the world looking for culinary inspiration began with a serendipitous meeting. The most recent result of this fortuitous occurrence is the new restaurant Hinoki & the Bird opening this coming January in The Centuryone of Century City’s newest towers. Executive Chef KunikoYagi along with her flock of other birds landing on this metaphorical hinoki tree (a Japanese cedar) will be producing a menu from this restaurant’s kitchen that highlights California cuisine inspired and affected by Yagi, Chef/founder David Myers and her staffs’ respective travels across the country, Europe and Asia including Chef Yagi’s time spent in Seattle on this season’s popular show Bravo’s Top Chef as one of the chef participants.

Yagi’s journey to this restaurant, with its half opened kitchen showcasing a big charcoal grill fueled with Japanese charcoal, began in a noodle shop in Los Angeles over five years ago where she worked after coming to America from Japan. There she always served “David” who always ate a late lunch at 4:00 PM while reading a business book or work of literature. She thought “David” must be an actor for no regular office worker would eat such a late lunch.

In Japan, Yagi herself was an office worker in a bank until she married an American and moved to Los Angeles. During her youth she never aspired to be a chef, simply because that is not what young Japanese women do. Though there are a few women in Japan who are chefs, all the famous ones are male, since women do not have that many opportunities in what is still a very male dominated field and chauvinistic culture.

But Kuniko always liked to create with her hands whether those creations be sewed goods, paintings and or food. After coming to America, and trying to figure out what she’d have to do to survive living here after her marriage ended and not wanting to go back to Japan, she realized that cooking provided the best opportunity for her to have a career here in the US especially with her rudimentary English. Her command of the English language simply wasn’t good enough to even work as a cashier at Whole Foods. So she realized that in the culinary world, if one can cook, use a knife, and learn by following examples, one doesn’t need to speak much English to get an opportunity. Plus being practical, knowing every one every where eats, she also realized that she’d be able to get a job anywhere if she could cook.

So despite having a blank food service resume, as is true to Kuniko’s nature she aspired to work at the best restaurant in Los Angeles. Thus she looked at Zagat to determine the highest rated restaurant in Los Angeles back in 2007. With its Michelin star, that highest rated restaurant in LA at this time was Sona. After making this determination her next step was going to the restaurant early one day before dinner service to ask for a job. When she got there, standing next to the bar in a chef’s jacket was the familiar face of the bookish “David” who she served and who she assumed until then was an actor. “He never read a cookbook at the noodle shop, not once.” Kuniko, surprised to see a familiar face, asked David if he worked at this restaurant. In turn, David Myers responded by saying that he was the chef owner, told her the restaurant wasn’t open yet, and asked what she was doing here. Kuniko said she was looking for a job, and Chef David previously impressed by Kuniko’s attentive hard work at the noodle shop he frequented, offered Yagi a job, on the spot, as a server.

From this initial position in 2007, the diligent and determined Kuniko worked her way up first to sous chef, then to chef de cuisine at Sona before the restaurant closed in May of 2010 when this restaurant’s lease expired. Despite designs drawn up by renowned designer Adam Tihany for a new location to move to, Sona never re-opened. Regardless, during her three years at Sona under Myers’ tutelage, Kuniko learned French technique first hand in the real-world, instead of any culinary school, preparing, cooking and plating Sona’s modern French cuisine’s menu that unlike traditional French cooking, was light and not heavily sauced.

This real world training prepared Chef Kuniko well for her next adventures back to her homeland where cooking techniques were and are a bit different from those French techniques practiced in Los Angeles restaurants like the former Sona.

After Sona closed in May of 2010, and now a chef, Kuniko Yagi first took flight like a bird migrating to and from Japan for a series of internships in Toyko and Kyoto at three Kaiseki style restaurants as well as a Japanese sushi restaurant, the Michelin starred Sushi Shin. Kuniko then worked in NYC at a Japanese own restaurant En Japanese Brasserie with its Japanese chef from Kyushu, Chef Abe Hiroki. After these internships, Yagi traveled through Europe and then returned to Los Angeles to become the executive chef at David Myers’ Comme Ca, a job she took leave from to move to Seattle to participate on this season’s Bravo’s Top Chef. Now as the previously filmed Top Chef plays out on the small screen, Chef Kuniko, working with Chef Myers, is getting very close to opening the David Myers Group’s newest restaurant, as noted in Part 1, Hinoki & the Bird.

Kaiseki dining, the ultimate expression of Japanese cuisine originating from the tea ceremony, dates back to the 16th century serving beautifully plated multiple coursed meals to Shoguns and Emperors as well as other high end Japanese families. In Tokyo, Kuniko interned at the three Michelin starred Kaiseki restaurant Ryugin with Chef Seiji Yamamoto. Another Kaiseki in Kyoto, Yagi interned was Kinobu Restaurant with Takuji Takahashi, a two Michelin starred establishment. Here she observed different ways to cut fish and cook meats and vegetables. Since it actually takes years for young men to progress out from the dish washing area to cooking, Yagi didn’t get to do much other than observe and absorb everything she saw like a sponge (no metaphorical pun intended).

The dishwashing station itself was quite a bit different than anything in other countries. Here is where most women work in a Japanese restaurant, and act as mentors for the young boys and men who must wash dishes before they can aspire to become chefs. This however isn’t a lowly station. Rather due to the very expensive and often antique dishware, these dishwashers take extreme pride in their work In general, Kuniko noted every one in a Japanese kitchen has a lot of pride in what they do and respect for other staff members. This isn’t always the case in an American kitchen.

In NYC, in a Japanese owned restaurant, En Japanese Brasserie, outside of Japan with a chef her own age, Kuniko did get to use her hands a lot more in this kitchen. So here Chef Abe Hiroki, less constricted by Japanese etiquette, shared a lot of information with Kuniko about Japanese cooking.

After traveling through Europe and finding even more inspiration for Hinoki & the Bird, Kuniko to raise her profile and gain more exposure, made and submitted video tapes of herself working in the kitchen plus underwent various evaluations to become a contestant on Bravo’s Top Chef. Ironically in the episode where she had to pack her knives and take off her chef’s jacket, her failing was due in large part to her being a team player. In any kitchen team work is one of the most important requirements, not just a chef’s ego. However realizing that the show is a competition, she realizes that for purposes of the show, she should have been more selfish even if that was against her very nature and training of always caring about the team’s success.

As she noted, the show was a learning experience, but it won’t change her. She’s happy to be back in the real world.

Back in the real world, working on dishes in Comme Ca’s kitchen with her new kitchen crew for Hinoki & the Bird, ChefKuniko Yagi is bringing together all of her, Chef Myers and her staffs’ inspiration from their respective travels to the new menu. A menu she describes as California cuisine in that all the ingredients will be locally sourced. For Yagi, what makes Californian cuisine Californian is that the ingredients come from here, so that’s going to be a prerequisite she expects from all of her suppliers. Kuniko wouldn’t be much more forthcoming about the menu since David wants it to be a surprise when it’s unveiled.

Kuniko did say that David was very open about the formation of their menu giving her plenty of room to be creative so much of what she learned about technique in Japan and through her travels will inspire the food and the plating.

Hinoki & the Bird will have both indoor and outdoor seating. Indoor patrons will be able to watch Chef Kuniko cooking on a charcoal grill and plating plates within a kitchen where Kuniko will lead by example. The prep and cooking areas will be together within this kitchen so her entire team can gather and work together.

Hinoki & the Bird will also have a full liquor license in place for its opening offering both wines and cocktails. More information about this program and who is involved will be released closer to the restaurant’s opening.

Finally in further explaining the significance of the restaurant’s name, Chef Kuniko said the scented hinoki tree “smells very much like Japan” so this tree in the title represents the spirit of Japan. While “the bird” isn’t just one bird, her, but as previously mentioned all the cooks including Chef David, who’ve traveled, been inspired and brought those inspirations back to Hinoki & the Bird’s menu with items reflecting both her and David’s different styles of cooking. Styles emphasizing simplicity and minimalism with a clean smell matching what the hinoki tree’s smell represents: “clean refreshed flavor.”

Stay tuned for the exact dates in January when the cuisine from all of the birds that landed on the branches of this hinoki tree at Hinoki & the Bird opens its doors to the public initially for dinner, and then shortly thereafter for lunch as well.

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