Photos: Henry Wu
How did your early years define your path as a chef?
I never thought I would become a chef, but if I look back now, I can see that my mom cooked a lot and always made everything from scratch. I helped her in the kitchen, and I probably developed my taste buds during that time, even though I wasn't aware of it.
What does heritage mean to you? What elements of your Japanese heritage have you brought into your dessert?
I'm Japanese and grew up in Japan, so heritage matters to me. My dishes often don't follow Japanese tradition, but I love learning about the history of Japanese food and the rich stories around it. I also admire Japanese attitudes toward craftsmanship.
How did the idea of Oyatsuya come about? Does the name mean anything?
"Oyatsu" is a Japanese concept of daily afternoon snacks, little treats people eat around 3 pm. These snacks don't have to be fancy, and they could either be sweet or savory. I wanted to share this custom and work with seasonal ingredients. "Oyatsu-ya" means "snack shop." Sasaki, the space where I've been hosting the pop-up, is a beautiful, unique space. Originally, I've planned for something more casual, but gradually the events became more and more formal.
Where do you draw your inspiration from?
My inspiration is sometimes not related to food. For example, I'm inspired by California's landscapes and natural colors. I also love learning, so I spend a lot of time studying food and other topics. The topics often revolve around food, kitchenware, or Japanese traditions such as kintsugi, paper folding techniques, and traditional packaging, things like that. I also study a lot about Japanese traditional seasonal events and customs along with the food that is associated with those seasons. I love that we're still eating some of the same seasonal dishes as a thousand years ago, like Hanabira Mochi! My study of Japanese seasonal traditions is often reflected in my newsletters and some of the dishes I serve. Japanese tradition is always on my mind, even if OYATSUYA isn't always traditional.
Many chefs often try to reinvent or add new techniques to their recipes. What is your view on that?
It's always great to experience familiar things in a new way! I'm interested in tradition, but also interested in experimenting with traditional techniques and using local ingredients for Japanese sweets. One example is a popular dish we have called "Kanten Jelly" made with Sauvignon Blanc and fresh blueberries. Kanten is a very traditional Japanese sweet; it's a vegetable-based gelatin. The taste is neutral, so it's easy to combine it with new flavors. I like to try Kanten with different ingredients, and this combination is one of my summer favorites.
Has your family been an influence on your work and career?
Definitely! My mom made tasty food every day, and I learned a lot from her. I learned the pleasure and value of making things from scratch, like shaving bonito to make dashi. I still think her potato croquette was the best in the world! She also made strawberry jam at home; we never bought jam from the store. I'm also lucky that my family traveled a lot in Japan, so I got to know many regional and seasonal foods.
How do you balance out your art background and culinary mind?
I love photography and design, so I always care about how my dishes look. It's a pleasure to work with beautiful ingredients, and I'm very aware of their form, texture, and color. It's usually a combination of finding interesting plates and working with the ingredients, all of which have a distinct feel. That's my inspiration. I never imagine a form or style and then try to create a dish that looks like it. But sometimes, when I create a new dish, it reminds me of something else, like my matcha granola reminds me of forest greens.
What is your collaborative process like?
OYATSUYA is a very personal project. I do everything myself, from concept to developing recipes to preparing the food for each event. It takes a lot of time, so I haven't been doing many collaborations. I hope I can do more collaborations in the future!