Eat Your Heart Out
Half a world from home, Chef Kuniko Yagi is making history, making friends, and making the best damn ramen the West Side over.
When Kuniko Yagi began working as a server in a noodle shop, she had no idea she was on her path to culinary success. She met Chef David Myers (of the Michelin-starred Sona) while waitressing and soon asked for a job in his kitchen. It was the beginning of something big. Yagi was later promoted to Executive Chef at Myers’ Comme Ça—which led to a stint on Bravo’s Top Chef—and went on to partner with Myers in opening the highly-lauded Hinoki & the Bird. She left that venture in 2014 and is now on the verge of launching two projects with business partner David Irvin of creative agency, Folklor—ramen bar Tokyo Strike in downtown Los Angeles and a Japanese rockabilly-inspired diner, still in its concept phase. Tidal sat down with Yagi to talk about creating a primarily-female kitchen at Hinoki & the Bird, the role Japanese minimalism plays in her ramen philosophy, and the people she’s come to call “family” half a world away from home.
The path you’ve ended up on is pretty incredible considering you weren’t allowed to cook at all in Japan. Tell us about that. I watched all day; I wasn’t allowed to touch anything or be a part of it. I was like a visitor because they didn’t want me to fuck anything up. They said I was the first female in the kitchen in over 45 years. They looked at me very strangely.
As head chef at Hinoki & the Bird, you hired a primarily-female kitchen staff. Was that intentional? No, I think girls felt comfortable coming to interview with me. I think they saw me cooking and felt like [the situation] was approachable. They said, This is where I want to be; can I cook with you? It was really cool to get resumes from so many girls.
That’s really saying something in an industry that’s predominately male. Yes, but it’s not as bad in the U.S. as it is in Japan, still today.
What is your cooking philosophy? It’s all about the produce. I like great produce that farmers really put their work into. I can feel it; I can feel their hard work, and I want to be respectful of their produce. I want to present the taste of the vegetable as it is, so I don’t ruin it with a lot of seasoning or pureeing.
Let’s talk about Tokyo Strike. How will the ramen there differ from others? Ever since I started studying ramen, I’ve wanted my cooking to show a respect for the chefs of Japan who have been developing ramen for a long time. I used to put a lot of vegetables on top before I realized this is not the goal. Ramen should be good noodles and broth, not toppings—they can bother the [flavor of the] stock and soup. Also, you can’t slurp the noodles and soup when toppings get in the way. It’s going to be very simple, in the way of Japanese minimalism. Being trained in [the U.S.] and in French restaurants, I’m used to having 15 ingredients on one plate. But with ramen, you can’t hide. It’s noodles and broth. Executing everything perfectly is a serious fight.
Tell us about the Japanese rockabilly diner you’re opening. It’s a dream of my business partner’s [David Irvin] to combine izakaya-like food and American diner food. He likes pub and snack food, and the culture of Japanese rockabilly. To be honest, I didn’t understand the concept at first. But after I saw the logo and name, I was able to visualize diner food with a Japanese influence, and I got really excited.
Give us an example. I’m most excited about doing french toast or waffles with yuzu kosho strawberry jam. Or potato soup seasoned with miso.
Speaking of merging Japanese and American culture, you’ve created a new “family” here in the states. Yes. I met Jim because we live in the same apartment. I know his schedule—like Thursday, he works late—so we share a meal every night. Then there’s Fernando; Fernando and Jim have known each other for 40 years. So, of course, I get along with Fernando, too. Kimberly used to be my cook at Sona; today she’s the most popular private chef in Beverly Hills. We’re like sisters to each other; I’ve known her since she was 18. Now she’s pregnant and married to Ray—he’s a songwriter. We all get together to eat and talk about food and art. That’s the family that you have, the one you share a meal with.
Which do you prefer, cooking with them or cooking for them? I don’t want my family to have to work more when they get home. They deserve to sit down and do whatever they want. I don’t have kids or my own family yet. I feel like this is me taking care of my family. I never ask anyone to cook or help me. You nourish someone by cooking, but I feel nourished cooking for others. It makes me feel good.