Tasting Contemporary Taiwan at Kato
"I remember we were watching the Green Hornet and Bruce Lee’s character’s name was Kato."- Chef Jonathan Yao
Taiwanese cuisine is the preeminent comfort food in East Asian Culture. Beef noodle soup, popcorn chicken, and even boba milk tea are just some of the universally loved Taiwanese foods. Because of the admiration for these delicious snacks, modifying or combining these dishes with modern techniques is incredibly risky for any young chef. However, Chef Jonathan Yao at Kato is doing it with incredible mastery.
As a Taiwanese American chef, Jonathan is creating new and exciting foods that pay homage to his Taiwanese roots. Located in West Los Angeles, the shop resides in a humble strip mall, tucked away in a corner. Despite its location, Kato is making a statement in the LA dining scene.
by John Liu
Photos and Video by George Ko
GR: How did you get your start? Where did you grow up?
J: I grew up in Walnut, California. It’s 30 minutes east of here (in West LA). So not too far, pretty much in the same area.
GR: Was your family really into food?
J: My family is into food. We’re Taiwanese. So you kind of map out all your meals and stuff. And my mom is a really great cook. So we’re kind of spoiled growing up.
GR: So you map out your meals, like every meal was on a piece of paper on the wall?
J: I would go to sleep at night, and I’m like, “I wish my mom would make like Dan Bing (蛋餅,Taiwanese egg crepe) at 10 in the morning or something”
GR: When did you start pursuing the food business?
J: My mom would make a lot of Gua Bao (割包), which is the steamed pork buns, the sweet folded buns with pork belly in the middle. In my junior year of college, me and one of my other friends, he’s Taiwanese too, tried to do catering, where we sold Lu Rou Fan (滷肉飯, minced pork rice) and those baos.
We’re doing it out of my house and then we were selling it to neighborhood parties and nearby offices. And it got too crazy. I remember we did one food festival thing and we prepared for 700- 800 people and it killed us. It was not doable.
GR: Such a massive undertaking for 2 people.
J: Yeah. My friend didn’t know how to cook so it would be me cooking. My mom would try to help out and there was such a small kitchen at home. It was hard to manage. There wasn’t enough space. It was very difficult.
GR: So what happened after college?
J: Well, after college, all throughout college, I was telling myself, I’d study for the LSAT and then try getting into law school. After I graduated, I told my parents, hey, I think I am going to try this cooking thing out so I went to go stage (English abbreviation for stagiaire, a french word for a cooking internship) at Alma and I was there for 6, 7 months I think. Afterwards, I went to San Francisco then I staged at Benu and then I staged at Coi. And then, I came back.
GR: Back to your restaurant, how did you come about the name Kato?
J: In college, me and all my housemates were trying to adopt a dog. I remember we were watching the Green Hornet and Bruce Lee’s character’s name was Kato. We were determined to get a German Shepherd and we were saying how we should name it Kato. But we never got a dog ‘cause who was going to take it home after college? So, I always had this name Kato in my pocket. I figured I would name the restaurant Kato.
GR: The space is also in a tucked away area. Was it always the intention to be kind of in an intimate space? Was that one of things you were aiming for?
J: Well, it was a price point issue. My parents were trying to open a catering thing for UCLA and they needed a kitchen. They were walking around the neighborhood, looking at street malls for something cheap. They came to this place and the previous tenant had 2 locations: 1 upstairs and 1 downstairs. They couldn’t afford to pay the rent of both, so we came in and started covering their rent and remodeled everything. So it was a price point issue for sure. It wasn’t by choice that we landed here.
GR: Let’s talk about your food. It sounds like the menu you originally had is much different than what you’re serving now.
J: Yeah. When my parents first opened this place, we agreed that I would help to make a Taiwanese café menu. We were thinking of serving popcorn chicken, Lu Rou Fan (minced pork rice), small snacks and stuff like that. We didn’t decide to be a tasting menu restaurant until 3 days after we opened. It was going to be a Taiwanese café until the week we opened.
GR: Why a tasting menu setup?
J: We first started a tasting menu because we are limited on space and staff. All our resources were little. We needed a way to kind of map out our cost really effectively. It’s easy going like, “Hey, I am going to have 60 covers tonight. I need to prepare for 65.” It’s very easy to map things out.
GR: You’ve mentioned that you changed from a Taiwanese café to this but like right on the fly, just almost sounds impossible. Can you talk about that?
J: Yeah, it was crazy. We had all these ideas mapped for a Taiwanese cafe. A week before opening, we were ordering produce and realized some of the ingredients were hard to find. I was also not familiar dealing with them. We were in trouble. We remodeled this place for a month and paid 2 months of rent in advance. We couldn’t pay another month of rent without getting some income. We had to open right after we finished remodeling. We just used the produce we had and I came up with a menu the week we opened. We only had a couple of people come in. The next couple of days Eater did an article on us. Thank God! It kind of saved us. That’s when the tasting menu started to take off.
GR: Philosophy wise, your food is based on a lot of the comfort foods I grew up with in Taiwan and it comes with a really nice twist. In terms of what you’re trying to do right now, are there any specific influences that you have had that led you to your career up to this point?
J: I think whenever we’re cooking here, we’re always trying to chase something from our childhood. I don’t necessarily know how to cook traditional Chinese and Taiwanese dishes. A lot of it is just from what I remember from when I was a kid and that intersects with what I know how to cook. We try to make something new out of it.
GR: Is there anything that you’d like to see in the future as the restaurant evolves?
J: I have other dreams for restaurants that I want to open, but for this location I want it to feel more like a neighborhood restaurant you can pop in for something quick. You might not share the same memories as I did when I was a kid but I hope you can get where I am coming from when you eat here.
GR: How have you dealt with the sudden success? I mean, this place is booked solid. Has it been difficult dealing with all the phone calls?
J: I feel so humbled by it. I never expected it to be like this. We went into this just trying to help my parents, kind of do a restaurant. But yeah, it’s crazy. I can’t really process it.
GR: Do your parents dine in here?
J: Yeah, they come in a lot actually. They’re my toughest critics. They come in and they’re nit-picking stuff.
GR: What are some of the places that you’re into on your day off?
J: I eat a lot of Szechuan food on my day off. I try to see my parents a fair amount. I try to go back to Walnut. If I do, we’re eating Vietnamese or Szechuan food a hundred percent of the time.
GR: Do you go out to eat some of the local Taiwanese foods?
J: There is not that many good Taiwanese food places. Every time I go back to Taiwan, it refreshes my memory of what Taiwanese food is. But every time I come back, that memory just gets diluted every month. And I just lose reference. When I think of Taiwanese food, I try to go off what my mom’s cooking is, which is home cooking. It is not necessarily foods that people know. I don’t think when you say Lu Rou Fan (minced pork rice), that is the first thing people think of when they think Taiwanese foods. It’s more like beef noodle soup or something.
GR: How often you go back to Taiwan?
J: I haven’t been back in 2 or 3 years now, but for a while I was going every year for 5 years.
GR: Are there any dream places you want to go to?
J: I’d love to go to Copenhagen and Australia. I went to Japan the last time I was in Taiwan and I really enjoyed Japan. I’d like to go back to Japan for sure.
GR: You had a lunch pop up here recently. Could you tell us about it?
J: We were selling chicken sandwiches. We were trying to gauge interest with a bigger crowd that wouldn’t necessarily eat at Kato for the tasting menu. We want to open a fast casual concept that sold chicken sandwiches. We also had Taiwanese stir fry and some noodle dishes at the pop up. We wanted to emulate the street stands where you get quick stir fry and a drink with some rice on it like in Taiwan. So, hopefully, that concept happens in the future.
GR: You mentioned dream restaurants or dream projects, what are those?
J: Ultimately, I would love to do a higher-end tasting menu for maybe 30 people a night. I have this dream laid out where the entire dining room is set at a bar, the kitchen is in the middle, and the cooks can serve all the guests. I just have maybe a manager and someone pouring wine on the side. I can cook pretty intimately for 15 people, 2 rounds of 15 people a night. That’s just my dream.
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