Kato: Jonathan Yao

On bringing something old and something new to a well-crafted meal


Photos: Jeni Afuso

Last year, Michelin-starred restaurant Kato reopened its doors in their new location, having relocated from a strip mall in Sawtelle to the Row DTLA in downtown Los Angeles. With an open kitchen and a dining area that strikes a balance between spaciousness and intimacy, Kato is a culinary gem, inviting patrons to an experience that marries creativity with nostalgia.

A few months ago, Timid had the opportunity to dine at the establishment. During the meal, the thought and care behind each dish was evident, from the flavors and textures down to the plate design that complemented and elevated it. A standout on the tasting menu was the Taiwanese-inspired wagyu beef dish, which effortlessly bridges the gap between tradition and innovation, paying homage to the beloved beef noodle soup yet carrying its own distinct personality.

In our conversation with head chef and mastermind Jon Yao, he discusses his culinary roots and how a well-crafted meal can take diners on a journey that is both familiar and refreshingly new.

Timid Magazine: What is the story behind the name “Kato”?

Jon Yao: It was named after a dog that my college roommates and I wanted to adopt but never did. I had the name pocketed because I liked it so much.

TM: How did you come to open the restaurant?

JY: My parents had leased the first location in Sawtelle and needed help managing a takeout/cafe business but it never took off so I took on the lease.

TM: Can you tell us a little about a memorable experience you had creating a dish?

JY: The first time we put steamed fish on the menu, it felt like we were putting our foot down and deciding that we wanted to be proud of who we are and our upbringing. It altered the direction of our business and is still the spearhead that we are still refining.

TM: How do you curate your tasting menu? Where do you draw inspiration from?

JY: We use my upbringing as well as the Chinese and Taiwanese diaspora in Southern California. We look at how the cuisine has evolved once or twice removed from its place of origin and how that has blended with Californian products and tastes. We are inspired by our sourcing practices. We look for the best products and recreate the Eastern pantry using modern techniques. We try to curate a modern banquet style menu that has both Western and Eastern traditions.

TM: Who or what has been the greatest influence on your culinary journey?

JY: My palate has been largely influenced by my parents. My mom’s style of cooking is very unique given that she learned to cook the food of her childhood outside of where she grew up. Her food is Chinese and Taiwanese cuisines made with what she could find in America, and I think that’s essentially what we do as well.

TM: What dish on your current menu do you feel represents you the most?

JY: I think our tilefish dish represents the ethos of the restaurant really well. We source tilefish from Yamaguchi, Japan, and we scorch the scales with hot oil so they’re crispy. And then they’re grilled over a combination of Japanese binchotan and almond embers. It’s served with pacific geoduck and a sauce of basil and clam broth. I think it captures a notable Taiwanese flavor, conveys our sourcing practices, and displays the techniques we’ve built over the years.

TM: What do you think is people's impression of Taiwanese food, and how do you reimagine it in what you create?

JY: I think in the United States it’s fairly narrow, limited to things like boba and beef noodle soup. But I think Taiwan’s food culture is so unique because of the military villages and blending of so many different regional Chinese cuisines that it reminds me of how cultures blend in Los Angeles. Our goal is to showcase this mix and how it’s essentially taken on another layer of influence through all the current restaurants making a modern iteration of this cuisine. I think it’s constantly evolving with the people that are making the food both, here and in Taiwan. Like with all cuisine, I think it’s nice if diners were less rigid and more accepting of a restaurant’s identity and take it for what it is.

TM: What’s next for Kato?

JY: Top of my list is to continue supporting the people we employ and continue our sourcing mission. It’s important for us to not only tell the story of the region we’re in but to also inspire empathy for our culture, producers, and our industry. It’s easy to get caught in the day-to-day operations of a restaurant but knowing that a meal can sometimes go beyond satiating someone’s hunger is a great aspiration for us and applies meaning to our work.