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New Tricks

Five Eleven's chef on the line at Kyoto

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In the wake of a lunch rush, prep at Masaki's Kyoto Japanese Restaurant starts anew. Pop music plays as the staff slingshots back and forth behind the counter in the narrow galley kitchen, cold rolling station on one side, gas range and grill at the other and a beefcake calendar open to a shirtless man with star stickers over his nipples on the wall between them. If there is a uniform in this open kitchen, it's a black T-shirt and a smirk. Somebody calls over an Enrique Iglesias ballad in a swooning voice, "He's got the voice of an angel!" They play a lot of Enrique.

A few Old Town blocks away, the restaurant Five Eleven is still closed for renovation following a March 9 kitchen fire that left major smoke damage. Which is partly why its head chef Josh Wiley is working as a temporary line cook in Kyoto's kitchen.

Owner Jeni Masaki, finally off her feet for a minute, pours herself a beer at the register. She says it's not so unusual for local restaurant staff to move around or for the owners to help each other out, passing around resumes, sharing hard-won knowledge and commiserating. "Most of the restaurant owners, we all meet at Cash and Carry and gripe with each other," Masaki says with a sigh. "That's what I love about it ... I don't feel like we're in competition with them — we're a community of artists and food lovers."

She says Wiley "didn't care about the money. He just said, 'Hey, I'm really bored and I need to work."

Her husband, Eric, who ran the restaurant as head chef before leaving to become a Humboldt County Sheriff's deputy, texted Wiley looking for resumes to fill a spot on the line. Wiley says, "I was like, 'I can give you a month or something until you find somebody.' ... I just wanted to learn some new skills and have someplace to go every day." Without work, he says, "I get all dark and twisted and nobody likes that guy." Kyoto seems to have spared him that fate and he's happy starting at the bottom with a cuisine he admits to knowing little about and doing what he's told.

Japanese cooking is a world apart from the French and Italian styles Wiley does at Five Eleven but Masaki knew his knife skills would be more than solid and he'd need no training on breaking down proteins, like whole fish. Plus, she says, "It's all about the presentation and that's one thing he knows how to do."

John Klemm, who's sporting a shirt that reads "Make Sushi Great Again," has been teaching Wiley to roll sushi for the past three weeks. "He's doing all right," says Klemm with a nod. "He still puts too much rice in his rolls but he's fast."

Kyoto has a stable crew, says Masaki. "Rolling sushi, knife skills — it's not your run of the mill kitchen job." Training a newbie on the very basics takes about two months. Mind you, that's a whole lot faster than the traditional Japanese system, under which a trainee works for five years before he — almost never she — gets to make the rice.

Evangeline Ruiz started at Kyoto 19 years ago, shortly after immigrating from the Philippines. Back then it was still owned by Kyoko Clark and there were no female sushi rollers. Ruiz's climb up the ladder to day manager and sushi chef came as she filled in for successively more skilled positions, which seems to be the American version of apprenticeship. "I tried quitting," says Ruiz with a laugh, "but I thought, 'I'm gonna miss rolling, I'm gonna miss making sashimi.'" She might miss this crew, too. She narrows her eyes and shoots a grin over the counter at them. "They're all right."

"She's a fucking genius," says Masaki, scrolling through photos on her phone of Ruiz's sashimi roses and composed plates of butsugiri.

As Ruiz clocks out, nighttime manager Kris Swan clocks in, taking up his post at the grill and whipping up a vat of tempura batter. He was new to Japanese food when he came over from Cafe Nooner two years ago and recalls the learning curve was steep. "It's a completely different style of cooking," he says. And Kyoto's lineup of specials changes nightly. "The freedom to create stuff," he says, "is amazing."

Swan says working with Wiley has been "surprisingly good," adding, "Normally when you're trying to teach an old dog new tricks, it's not easy. But he came in like, 'I don't know shit. Teach me.'"

And there's plenty to learn. The flavor profile is new for Wiley, as is memorizing the extensive menu and, of course, rolling. "I wouldn't say I'm even proficient at it yet." Still, he says the Kyoto crew is easier on him than he is on new recruits in his own kitchen. "It's hard to be tough on the old man," he says. Working in front of customers is a change, too, especially in such a tight space.

"I prefer intimate," quips Klemm.

An order comes in and Wiley spreads the rice out on a mat, retouching here and there. Then he lines up the nori, small planks of tuna and avocado before tucking it in and rolling the wooden mat forward and squeezing it carefully in his tattooed fingers. Wiley points at Klemm with a wry smile, saying, "He's actually good at this. I'm not."

Klemm huffs and rolls up a bamboo mat before unrolling and re-rolling it, pressing both ends flush against his hands. He drapes it in thinly sliced avocado and cuts it with practiced ease and speed, and plates each piece in a curved line before reaching for a flower garnish.

It's unlikely sushi will show up on the menu at Five Eleven when it reopens in a couple of weeks but some flavors and ingredients might find their way into Wiley's refurbished kitchen since he says, as a chef, you're always incorporating your experiences into your food wherever you go. "Getting out of your comfort zone and doing something you're not good at and working at it — it's kind of good for you," says Wiley.

Before Wiley can answer what specifically he'll be taking with him from Kyoto, Swan interjects: "Enrique!"

Wiley shakes his head. "Yeah," he says, chuckling. "Enrique."

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill is the arts and features editor at the Journal. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 320, or Jennifer@northcoastjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter @JFumikoCahill.

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