This Chef Is Making Japanese Food Her Own Way

In her travels to Japan and back, Chef Elena Yamamoto has crafted a voice, and experience unlike any other.

By Team Made In
Nov 5, 2021
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“It’s all kind of an accident,” Chef Elena Yamamoto laughs. She’s slicing a piece of salmon before her into long, even strips, preparing it for tonight’s service.

“Art was always my thing,” she says. “I studied it in college and worked at some galleries in New York, but it was just too solitary.”

Her first job, working in a sports bar, was one of her favorites.  “I just loved connecting with people like that—it always felt like I was in an episode of Cheers.”

One night, disillusioned from the art world, Elena saw an ad on Craigslist for a job at the then nascent Momofuku Milk Bar, and shot off an email. “I was just kind of over everything at that point, existentially, so it said something like “I don’t really know what I’m doing with my life, but you should hire me. ”

It worked. The hiring manager wrote that they “really related to her email,” and Elena was called in for an interview. She got the job.

With no culinary skills at that time—Elena’s role was siloed into post-production. But it served as a stepping stone into her next role—at the now infamous Mission Chinese.

Helmed by Chef Danny Bowien, and originally based in San Francisco, the restaurant headed to New York, always expanding to the next cool neighborhood. The restaurant was known almost equally for its wildly creative dishes as it was for the rodent issues and labor disputes that would follow.

But for now, for then, it was the most exciting restaurant in the city, and Elena, who had heard about all of the interesting things Bowien was doing, asked her boss at Milk Bar for an introduction.

Like most things about Mission Chinese, the interview process wasn’t formal. Elena found herself at karaoke with Bowien and his Sous Chef, and the next night, “totally hung over” she got a call asking if she’d like a job.

With still zero-to-no cooking experience, Elena was hired in “the etcetera position,” which involved a little bit of everything. Elena spent her days packaging, running takeout, and was more or less a bridge between the front-of-house and back. “But the way that the kitchen at the first Mission location was set up,” she said, “it eventually made sense to grab some dishes from the oven,” and so she edged her way into becoming a full-time back-of-house line cook.

“It was definitely a wild place for my first real cooking job,” Elena laughs. While lines wrapped around the block, five cooks, including Elena, toiled away in the kitchen, in an atmosphere she described as “a house party, every single night.”

“We’d prep, cook, and clean, then go out and party, and do it all again the next night,” she says.  “It was really fun, especially when I was in my twenties, but it definitely had a lasting impact on my psyche.”

Before Mission Chinese moved to its second location where much of the drama would ensue, Elena decided that if she was really going to do this whole chef thing, she should do it wholeheartedly.

“I wanted to cook food I really cared about, which is Japanese food,” Elena said. “So I moved there.”

To say her apartment was spartan is an understatement. Lacking shelves, appliances, lights, a fridge, Elena found herself in an apartment, with a built-in hot plate on the counter and that’s about it.  She says it took her a while to get a fridge and curtains, just because it was all so overwhelming—“it didn’t feel like I was really there.”

One day, she went out shopping for a fridge, “and it was one of those dorm-room fridges.” It had a sticker on it that read Hello, Single Life, and she just couldn’t bring herself to buy it. “I wasn’t going to be shamed by a fridge,” she laughed.

Unmoored in Japan, Elena struggled to find work. She enrolled in Japanese classes, where she was introduced to a person who knew of a dish-washing gig. She landed some shifts on the line, and that’s where, she says, she really learned the language.

She learned more than the language though. The way Elena describes cooking in Japan is a magical experience. Using hyper-seasonal, fresh ingredients, Elena learned true kitchen etiquette, crafted beautiful dishes, and utilized ingredients in a way she didn’t know was possible before, especially in regards to fish. “I just kind of realized, using these amazing Japanese ingredients that chicken is kind of chicken, beef is beef, but with fish, there is this wild variety.”

While Elena says that the food was beautiful, the service was beautiful, and they were utilizing all of these beautiful Japanese ingredients and cooking hyper seasonally, the effects of working in a patriarchal society got to her. “I’ve never walked out of a job, but there was just some stuff going on that I didn’t agree with, not at all. So I left, and moved back to the states.”

“I staged at Contra and Wildair and loved it,” she said, “I thought that’s where I was going to end up, but one of my friends who was working at the Mandarin Oriental was like, you need to meet this girl Yael I’m working with.”

During that first meeting, Elena described what she considers kitchen magic. “I could see what Yael was doing, or what she was trying to do all by herself and I loved it. She didn’t have a lot of support in the beginning, but that day, cooking with her, it was magical.”

Elena went on to work with Yael and become the Co-Chef at Karasu, a Japanese restaurant in Brooklyn, where Elena says “she found her own voice,” where she found pleasure in cooking for herself, “instead of for just what other people wanted.”

Ready to open up their own spot together, they had everything set, investors lined up, and a spot ready for demolition. And then COVID hit. The place never came to be.

Now, Elena is a chef at Haiku in Miami, which opened during the pandemic. She met the owner while traveling in Japan, and eventually he called her and told her she had to come down and check out what they were doing.

While it is an ultra-luxury experience, one she never quite saw herself working at, she says it has provided her the stability and room to continue to find her own voice, and importantly, to keep learning.

“I don’t try to stay traditional,” Elena says, “I’m trying to do things with my own unique spin.” 

Photos by Ashley Hernandez.