IT’S ALL ABOUT PASSION…. BY BOB NERONI

Nov 30th, 2007

Imagine going to a foreign place where you don’t speak the language and where your main objective is to work in one of the world’s best restaurants! Imagine asking to work for free for the sheer opportunity to learn. You take your resume to one of the chefs in the kitchen who tell you they will call if anything comes available. You wait two weeks and get the email to start work. Arriving in the kitchen, there are at least 20 other chefs working “apprentissages’ or ‘stage for short.

Well, for many it is a privilege to experience this world. And for Kyo, our former sous chef, the time spent abroad was quote, “life changing”. Culinary education isn’t enough for some chefs. The opportunity to travel the world and work with chefs in a variety of settings can help to mold a chef’s future style and direction.

So I sat down with Kyo to have a conversation about his recent eight month sojourn in San Sebastian and Barcelona, Spain.
Bob: How did you pick Spain?
Kyo: I wanted to improve my Spanish, so I enrolled in a 8-week language class in San Sebastian. It was pretty intense and I came away knowing a bit more, but have a long way to go. I could understand when the person speaking knew I needed them to slow down, otherwise the sheer speed of the language slowed my progress.

Bob: So it was while you were learning Spanish that you started looking for the opportunity. Were you particular about working at Mugaritz, under chef Andoni Luis?
Kyo: Yes, it was my first and only choice. I gave one of the chefs my resume and was told I would be contacted. It was more than two weeks before I received an email to report to work.

Bob: So what was your schedule?
Kyo: I worked a lot of hours—20/day. It makes a 12-hour shift look like nothing. I’m amazed by my own stamina. They didn’t serve dinner on Sunday night and closed on Monday, so we had about 36 hours off. The first 8 of those I slept, but I made up for it on Monday. Can you see 20 chefs away from home letting off steam from the previous week in the kitchen? It wasn’t pretty.

Bob: What was the hardest thing about the experience?
Kyo: The language barrier, long hours and some real abusive language. I didn’t speak as well as the others but I always understood when I was being yelled at.

Bob: Why do you think they used that approach?
Kyo: It is what drives the quality. They had so many chefs in the kitchen they had to keep everyone on the edge to maintain quality.

Bob: What was the facility like?
Kyo: Beautiful! They have several kitchens and lots of space including a service kitchen, the big production kitchen that is kept at 12 deg C, the family kitchen for cooking the staff meals, and the pastry kitchen also used for catering. They do a large business catering weddings, only weddings, for 150-200 people. It is what gets them through the winter. The kitchens were very well equipped. Any tool you can imagine was there!

Bob: So the restaurant is a seasonal business?
Kyo: Yes, the restaurant is well known but is a long way from Barcelona on a windy country road. The tourists come when it’s warm on the coast and that is the main season. The restaurant only seats 50 guests, and yet we had up to 32 chefs in the kitchen some days.

Bob: With so many chefs, how did they decide what to assign to you?
Kyo: I was lucky to end up as Chef de Partie, pescadoes or fish cook. I started like everyone outside at the barbeque grill. Heck some guys never get past that station. I went on to the aperitif station. Even though it was an 11 course degustation menu, meaning a tasting of foods, they also served three appetizers to start that were mostly new every night. So really it was 14 courses and I had to learn new stuff every night.

Bob: How much does that cost?
Kyo: About 115€.
Bob: Wow that is good. Did you have any creative input on the appetizers?
Kyo: Oh no, there are four chefs that do nothing but imagination and creative research, three fourths of which never makes it to the plate. They told me what to do. In that station, I was always in the weeds. They would tell me so fast in the native Spanish that I couldn’t get even half of it. I also realized they usually assign two people on that station, but I was always alone. I had to ask anyone standing nearby what the heck chef said.

Bob: Were they testing you or just believing in you that you could do it?
Kyo: Don’t know. I kept asking for help. I was doing 3 appetizers per guest, about 105 plates a night by myself.

Bob: So what kinds of appetizers did you do?
Kyo: They always did one of their signature dishes, a potato encrusted with clay. Yes it was natural gray clay (Kaolin) mixed with a dark squid stock, lactose and water, that was sprayed over beautiful little round cooked potatoes. Each potato was on a skewer and placed on a piece of Styrofoam so it could dry completely in an oven of about 70 deg C. When dry and cool enough to handle, the skewer was removed and the small hole covered with more wet clay and dried again. The potato itself would stay warm the whole time because the clay kept it warm. It was served on a plate of river rocks and when the waiter brought it to the table he would tell the guest which ones to eat! They served it with a garlic ali-oli.

Another appetizer was just a simple goats milk crème fraiche and beets cooked sous vide style, i.e. in a vacuum bag at low temperature for long time.

Bob: What was your favorite thing about the experience?
Kyo: The techniques! They were incredibly innovative. I think we actually have more variety and better quality ingredients here in America. But techniques and tools were amazing. They would use a compact Roner, kind of a portable bain marie that maintains constant temperature and keeps the water gently moving for sanitation. It was used to make incredible vegetables and meats. They come out incredibly tender and naturally flavored. You don’t have to do much more to them for service. They used laboratory beakers for serving sauces and such. They finished stuff at the tableside like adding the consommé to a dish.

Bob: So this restaurant has three Michelin stars and on the best restaurants in the world list. What do you think is required to receive such honors these days?
Kyo: Innovation. You have to be inventive. It isn’t enough to do the classics– you need to refine them.

Well, needless to say talking with Kyo is very energizing and reminds me why I am in this profession. I know why he has returned 20 lbs lighter! His passion is what makes celebrity but what makes Kyo genuine is he is driven by making the next great dish, not celebrity. He is already looking for the next opportunity, perhaps with Chef Ethan Stowell in Seattle, and eventually, I am sure, we’ll see him in his own place. I asked if he’d like to return to EVOO sometime soon and cook with us. He likes the idea. We will keep you posted. For more about Mugaritz restaurant, visit www.mugaritz.com.

Now for this week’s recipe. Here’s one of Kyo’s own creations that earned him recognition while working at Mona’s Bistro in the Greenlake area of Seattle. This one was named by Seattle Metropolitan Magazine as one of the 15 legendary dishes of Seattle. Enjoy!

Arugula Salad
Serves 2

6 oz baby organic arugula
4 oz roasted red pepper, peeled and deseeded, torn into 1/4 inch pieces
4 oz Humboldt Fog chevre, 2 slices
3 tbsp honey
1 tsp white truffle oil
2 tsp. verjus
1.5 tbsp arbequina olive oil
salt and pepper to taste

1. Combine honey and truffle oil, mix well with fork.
2. Mix arugula, roasted red peppers, verjus and olive oil in mixing bowl.
3. Add salt and pepper to desired taste.
4. Arrange salad mixture on 2 plates. Mound with some volume.
5. Add cheese slices as desired to the salad.
6. Take truffle honey and using a teaspoon, drizzle over finished salads. Serve immediately.