Japanese chefs working their way up the hierarchical ladder is more common than not, with Hiro Urasawa and Shunji Nakao beginning their culinary career as dishwashers. So its no surprise Yamashiro began rinsing plates at age 17. "I'm a great dishwasher," he says. Born after World War II, the chef grew up eating sweet potatoes day and night, describing his childhood growing up in Okinawa as "peaceful but very poor." Although Okinawan cuisine and satsumaimos don't seem to have made an appearance on Orris' menu throughout the years, the chef has kept one thing consistent since his childhood, his unwavering appetite for food.
After scrubbing dishes and mastering Continental cooking techniques in Japan, Yamashiro settled in the States after visiting an aunt and falling in love with the weather and, well, the higher wages. He swirled knives at Benihana and worked in the kitchens of Ma Maison under Wolfgang Puck and Les Anges under Patrick Jamon, then opened his first restaurant, Shiro, in Pasadena 25 years ago. Since then, Yamashiro has relocated to the Japanese-restaurant-saturated Sawtelle Boulevard and introduced many a Westsider to sliced beets under Basque sheep milk cheese and soy-marinated foie gras with Japanese eggplant.
Yamashiro recently took some time from behind his open kitchen to chat about fusion cuisine, his love of cheese and his travels. Check back tomorrow for part 2, as well as for Yamashiro's curry-infused shrimp tempura recipe, currently on the menu at Orris.
Squid Ink: So, why French cooking?
Hideo Yamashiro: That's a good question. Why did I go to French cuisine? Why not Italian? Well, I did more French style cooking in my last job in Japan. Also, in the 80s I worked for many French chefs. French cuisine was what was big. It was the hottest cuisine at the time. All the top 4 or 5 restaurants were all French food. Not Italian or Japanese. I also had a friend who was a food critic and he always recommended French restaurants, never Italian.
SI: Why fusion?
HY: Everbody is looking for something new. If you eat the same food, even if its great, you get tired. With music, even if you love it, you can't listen to it everyday or else you get tired. Food is the same way. Even if its good, if it has the same flavor, you gotta change it up a little bit. What kind of flavor? Well, I'm from Japan. So, I think that's what happened. I also wanted to be different from other people. I didn't want to do typical French cuisine. I wanted to be unique.
SI: How did you end up opening up Shiro?
HY: At my last job, I was the executive chef but I wasn't making that much money. So I opened up a restaurant in South Pasadena under my name, Shiro, 23 years ago in 1986. I focused more on seafood, especially in the begining. During that time, we had great fish. We started with almost no meat at all, maybe a little chicken. Times changed and we couldn't get as good fish as we could before, so now there are more meats on the menu. At that time, health conscious American people, who were meat eaters, were slowly changing. Fish, French style, worked. So that's what we did.
SI: And Orris?
HY: It was influenced by my travels. I was getting tired of the traditional appetizer, entree and dessert format of a white tablecloth restaurant. After traveling to Japan and Spain where many high end restaurants had open kitchens and people ate things off small plates, I realized that was the more fun way of eating. When we opened Orris, small plates had just started to take off. With small dishes we need more people coming in for long periods and late seating. We could only think of the Westside. In Pasadena, at 8:30 p.m. no one comes anymore. My concept works here [in West L.A.].
SI: So, you travel a lot?
HY: For 11-12 years at Shiro, I closed the restaurant for three weeks every year. That's why I was never rich. Here at Orris, I can't close for three weeks because the rent is too high. I take vacations now but I don't close the restaurant. I have confidence because I trained my staff well here.
SI: Out of the places you've visited, where do you enjoy the food most?
HY: I like San Sebastian in the Basque area. Its my favorite because of the different variety of food. Tapas, fine dining... and you can drive a couple hours for traditional Basque cuisine. You can drive to the French side and see farmers. I visited a duck foie gras farm there once. I love Basque. And sometimes if you don't feel like a big meal at nightime, you can go eat tapas. In Italy, that's not the case. Sometimes there's no choice but a big dinner in Italy. But tapas in San Sebastian... you can have a long lunch and little munchies for dinner.
I visited a lot of izakayas in Japan too. I got some ideas from Italy too. But basically I tried to make my dishes go with wine. I serve sake but my food is basically made to pair with wine. I love spicy food but I cannot make much spicy food because it doesn't go with wine. So I make some dishes a tad spicy, but not very much. For me it's a marriage, food and wine. Sometimes very good wine doesn't go with my food. But because my food includes cheese, lots of kinds of wines can be paired.
SI: Where else do you get ideas for your menu?
HY: I get some ideas from traveling and some even from my employee's meals. One of the dishes on our menu, grilled hearts of romaine, was made by one of my first assistant sous chefs. He was cooking it for our employees' meal. We put it on the menu and it became very popular. Lots of restaurants copy the recipe. It's kind of an Italian dish. Grilled lettuce with Italian dressing with lots of Parmesan cheese. No garlic, just grilled. I liked it, so I put it on the menu.
SI: Speaking of ingredients, how do you pick yours?
HY: If I don't taste it, I pull it from the menu. It's simple, not complicated. For example, I have asparagus and halibut on the menu. When I go to the market, I taste it. If I don't like it, I take it off the menu. Also, fresh doesn't mean good. For example, the taste of fish depends on if it is male or female, the area, and what they eat. Even if two fish come from the same box they have different flavors. When a fish is from Alaska, one might come from one side of Alaska and the other from the opposite side. I've always been like this for more than 20 something years. I guess it comes from the fact that I love to eat.
In Japan, it's very common to do this. It's very hard because consumers only care about price. There's some really good stuff that I can get from Europe but no one wants to pay the price here. Like tomatoes, they say "Shiro, you're the only one asking. I won't bring one box only for you." Here, I'm the boss. I don't have to make money off one or two dishes. Some dishes I make money, some I don't. I just want to please customers. Chain restaurants are always thinking, How much percent food cost? I don't know why other chefs don't do that. I wish more restaurants cared about this so I can get tomatoes from Hollland. If another ten guys order them, I can get it here.