Momoyama Japanese Restaurant
Born and raised near Tokyo, Japan, Yoshio Aoki says he first became interested in coming to the U.S. for a simple reason: the cheeseburgers. “McDonald’s had just come to Japan and everyone ate cheeseburgers, and I wanted to see America,” he says. Growing up, he had worked at the family fish market, and after high school, attended Osaka Culinary School, majoring in Japanese and French cooking.
Always interested in other cultures, Aoki wanted to bring part of his culture to America with him. “After World War II, there were no Japanese sushi chefs in the U.S., so Americans didn’t know the culture,” he says. “Sushi is part of the culture, and I wanted to help the American people understand it so that the two countries can have a good relationship like they do now.” In Japan, Aoki explains, training for sushi chefs is intensive: They must start out at the bottom, working up from the role of a dishwasher and learning the basics. It takes at least five to six years before a worker can be considered a chef.
After arriving in St. Louis in 1989, Aoki started at a Japanese hibachi-style steakhouse at Westport Plaza. He later became the well-known ‘Mr. Sushi’ of I Love Mr. Sushi, and was later the chef behind Yoshi’s Sushi in Chesterfield. He was known for making conversation and singing while preparing the sushi, and that spunk earned him customers who followed him for 15 to 18 years until he returned to Japan three years ago to care for his mother. The restaurant was renamed Momoyama’s when he left. “I like to make customers happy. I make the food differently for each person,” he says. “I remember if they have a favorite fish and how they like it.” He especially likes making sushi for children when they sit at the counter, he says. “Kids are honest. They tell you ‘I like this one’ or ‘I don’t like this one.’ Adults just say ‘It’s OK.’ ”
Aoki just returned from Japan this January and says he expects to begin working at Momoyama’s again this month. And his next goal? “I want to make the world’s longest California roll with my customers.”
The Wild Flower
For Phil Czarnec, much of cooking is about the history behind the food. When he travels in search of inspiration, he looks for local traditional comfort foods. “The locals anywhere you go have a handle on it, because they do it every day,” he says. “Although we might be trained formally, somebody’s grandmother taught this guy or this woman how to make this stew. We’re looking for what she did that’s so different, because it tastes magical.”
The chef of The Wild Flower says Venice, Italy, and Sonoma, Calif., are two of his favorite places for food trips. “Venice was the crossroads of trade,” he says. “You can see that in the architecture, but it’s just as prevalent in their food. Centuries ago it was a trading port dominated by the Turks and Arabs, and that played such a part in how they did their food in that part of Italy. We wondered, Was it by chance or design that these dishes came together? I think it was by trial and error over centuries. I also think that’s why American food is so good: We are a mix of people.” He likens his Central West End restaurant to Venice: “We have a very diverse clientele,” he says, because of the restaurant’s proximity to a hospital and educational institutions. “Like the traders who once came through Venice, these people are passing through, studying to be doctors, and we get to talk to them about where they grew up.”
Travel expands your mind, Czarnec says, and exposure to various cultures helps him keep surprising his restaurant’s guests. “As an independent business you want to keep them interested—you want to keep them on their toes,” he says. As an example, he explains a Greek beef dish that uses cinnamon and coriander to enhance the flavor. “Someone’s mom from Chesterfield might not have thought of that a few years ago, but someone’s mom in Greece did.”
Chris Williams, chef at Franco in Soulard, recently traveled abroad with his wife, who served as volunteer coordinator for the nonprofit Jatun Sacha on the Galapagos Islands. Meanwhile, he worked as chef on the base, cooking three meals a day for 35 to 45 volunteers and staffers on a budget of only about $2,000 per month. The volunteers came from Germany, England, Canada, the U.S., Japan, India and just about everywhere in Europe you could name, he says. “It was a big challenge,” he says. “Each volunteer was there for at least three weeks, and eventually they start to crave something from home.”
Williams adds the volunteers also wanted to experience Ecuadorian food, which actually helped to conserve the budget, since the bananas, papayas, lemons, oranges and other fresh fruits common in Ecuadorian cuisine were in abundance. “A big part of the culture—of any culture—is food,” Williams says. “In Ecuadorian food, fresh fruit juices are extremely important. At every meal, especially breakfast and lunch, they have freshly squeezed juice. Even if you go to a coffee shop at the mall, they have a machine that juices fruit freshly for your cup.” Williams says he brought that appreciation for fresh foods back with him when he returned to Franco. “The best part about traveling is you’re exposed to things and it keeps the wheels going.”
Williams had that same revelation at the start of his career, when he had the opportunity to work at a restaurant in a small town in the southwest of France. “I had the opportunity to attend a family dinner with an assistant pastry chef there. It was a Sunday dinner for 17 people, a six-course menu with three different wines. We started with a Muscat, and finished with a house-made plum brandy and dessert cheese and sweets. The food was simple, classic peasant food, but done well.” The Sunday family meal was still an important occasion there, he says. “I don’t know when, but we were sold a bill of goods that cooking is hard, and there’s an easier way to do it. I don’t believe that. The meal is important, as are the connection to the food and the family and the time you spend together.” LN