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Japanese American Chefs in New York City: Yuhi Fujinaga & Craig Koketsu

In addition to contributing to Discover Nikkei, I write for Cravings, a site devoted to exploring the best in food, drink, culture and travel. Editor-in-Chief Celia Sin-Tien Cheng and her sister Cynthia Sin-Yi Cheng are global travelers who bring home favorites from every metropolis and hamlet they touch down in. My contributions to the site include profiles of two Japanese American chefs working in Manhattan: Hawaii-born Basque restaurant chef Yuhi Fujinaga, and San Jose-reared Craig Koketsu, chef-partner for the restaurant group Fourth Wall. Please send in suggestions of other Nikkei chefs you think are deserving of a Cravings profile!  

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Yuhi Fujinaga

The question Bar Basque chef Yuhi Fujinaga, 31, is asked most frequently is “How did a Japanese-born chef end up cooking Basque food in New York City?” The answer is complicated, but it begins with his grandmother Noriko, who lived in Brazil for over a decade and absorbed the foodways of South America. She reared her grandson on Japanese dishes with a Latin twist, including her sardine tempura marinated, escabeche style, in a sauce of oil, mirin, and rice wine vinegar.

Years later when Fujinaga—who grew up in Honolulu and honed his classic French cooking techniques at several four-star New York restaurants—felt himself drawn to the cooking of Spain, something clicked: he realized he had been tutored in these gutsy, sour and sweet flavors under the cover of his adored grandmother’s non-traditional Japanese food. Today the chef honors his grandmother by serving a tempura inspired by hers at Bar Basque. “The liquid soaks into the tempura and it gets a little soft and mushy, but all the flavors just penetrate through,” he says. “I served it as my amuse last night.”

It was the worldly Noriko who encouraged Fujinaga to think big, too. “She taught me that I can’t just stay on this tiny little island and call it a day,” he says. After graduating from the Culinary Institute of the Pacific, Fujinaga found a mentor in Hiroyuki Sakai (best known as Iron Chef France) while working for Sakai’s Honolulu wedding banquet facility. In 2002 the young chef set out for New York, where he touched down at Lespinasse, then Alain Ducasse at the Essex House. It was during a stint at The Sea Grill that Fujinaga met visiting chefs Francis Paniego and Pepe Solla and had his Spanish food epiphany. Fujinaga quit his job in 2005 and, living off his tax refund, spent three months working in the Galicia and Basque regions with Paniego and Solla, as well as avant-garde Bilbao chef Aitor Elizegui.

At Bar Basque (devoted to the region where the modernist revolution in Spanish cooking began) Fujinaga marries classic French technique with Basque flavors and the region’s emphasis on freshness and seasonality. He tries to straddle the line between the truly authentic Basque cuisine, which delights Spanish patrons, and slightly lighter versions that better suit American palates. The chef’s popular plancha-grilled Chatham cod with pil pil, for example, had to be toned down slightly from its original incarnation.

Although critics have taken issue with the restaurant’s bright red, super-modern décor, Fujinaga feels it nicely echoes Bilbao’s cutting edge design and food. The chef’s long-term goal is to own and cook at his own restaurant. In an age when Harold Dieterle cooks Thai and he serves up Basque food, says Fujinaga, chefs need no longer be tied to the food of their ethnic heritage.

Just like his grandmother, though, whatever Fujinaga cooks, there will be a Japanese element to it, making it “just a little cleaner, with a little more finesse.”

Note: Fujinaga is now executive chef at The Sea Grill at Rockefeller Center, New York City.

* The story was originally published in Cravings on May 26, 2011 
and re-posted with permission from Cravings

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Craig Koketsu

Craig Koketsu’s first memory of cooking was learning to make “Norwegian Apple Cake,” a simple concoction of bread, butter and sugar caramelized over low heat and topped with apple sauce. It became the first-grader’s signature dish, foreshadowing a culinary life that didn’t re-emerge until he was in college.

Today Koketsu, a third-generation Japanese American, is chef-partner at Fourth Wall, the restaurant group that includes the seasonally changing Park Avenue, Quality Meats, Hurricane Club, Maloney & Porcelli, the Post House and Smith and Wollensky. He created a classic-yet-inventive menu for Quality Meats in 2006, and in 2007 transformed Park Avenue Café into Park Avenue Summer. Today, as chef-partner, he oversees the food in all Fourth Wall restaurants and serves as executive chef at Quality Meats. “I’m in at least three restaurants a day,” he says, adding, “Now it’s much more about getting in and focusing on things that need to be changed or improved.”

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Koketsu didn’t go the culinary school route. Classes as a rhetoric major at UC Berkeley didn’t inspire him, but a visit with his sister, who was enrolled at the local community college culinary school, did: Koketsu realized that he wanted to be in a kitchen, too. But he’d worked his way through college and couldn’t afford more schooling. Instead, he lucked into a job with “an incredible teacher,” Chinese American chef Steve Chan at the Silicon Valley French- and Asian-influenced Martha’s Restaurant. There, Koketsu absorbed the fundamentals of cooking during grueling 15-hour days that “flew by,” he says, “because I loved it so much and knew I was doing the right thing.” One night on the line at Jeremiah Tower’s Oakland Stars, he had a light-bulb moment. Koketsu asked Tower what the key to his success was. Tower’s answer: “I don’t separate my personal from my professional life.” It made sense to me, Koketsu recalls. “When you’re completely absorbed in something, it becomes your life.”

Koketsu followed his college girlfriend and now wife, fashion designer Juliana Cho (they are partners in Cho’s West Village boutique Annelore), to New York, where Lespinasse’s Gray Kunz took a flyer on the relatively untested chef. Koketsu rose rapidly through the ranks, and continued his on-the-job education under Christian Delouvrier when Delouvrier replaced Kunz at Lespinasse. The two masters, says Koketsu, were “polar opposites” in their cooking styles: Kunz refined and strongly Asian-influenced, and Delouvrier an upholder of the classic, rustic cuisine of Gascony.

Koketsu’s parting words of advice to aspiring chefs? “Culinary school is comprehensive but introductory, and it exists in a vacuum,” he says, unlike the real world of restaurants “where so much can go wrong. If you can find a good chef willing to mentor you, I don’t think anything can beat that.”

 * The story was originally published in Cravings on November 29, 2011 
and re-posted with permission from Cravings.

© 2011 Nancy Matsumoto

Bar Basque chef Craig Koketsu food Fourth Wall restaurants manhattan new york Quality Meats restaurant Yuhi Fujinaga