He’s a James Beard Award winning chef. Both his restaurants, Ame in San Francisco and Terra in St. Helena, have been awarded one Michelin star multiple times, the former also garnering best new restaurant awards from the Zagat Guide and Esquire Magazine when it first opened. Chef Hiro Sone has earned the right to think highly of himself, yet during our brief exchange there was no such attitude. Instead, I found a passionate man from humble beginnings who has nothing but the utmost respect for the ingredients he transforms, and the diners he serves.
Foodie Journalist: You were nominated a few times for the James Beard award for Best Chef before you finally won it in 2003. Did it ever bother you to not have won those first years you were nominated?
Hiro Sone: Did not bother me at all. I’m not a good speaker in front of thousands of people, and the winner has to make some speech on the stage. So when I found out I didn’t have to come up on stage I was so happy.
FJ: Does being a “James Beard Award Winning Chef” change things at all?
HS: I remember a few days later after the JBA, I was in my kitchen and found one of the drains clogged. So I snaked the drain to clear it and I opened the grease trap to remove the stinky grease, and I was thinking, “Wow, I just won the Best Chef of California award. Why am I still cleaning this grease trap?” It actually made me laugh, it was so funny. So my answer to you is nothing has changed, and I do what I like to do and what I need to do.
But, I really appreciate the recognition. There are so many hard working and talented chefs out there, and they deserve the same recognition I got. I’m just a lucky man.
FJ: I visited your restaurant in St. Helena, Terra, a few years back. The entire menu and experience in general was brilliant. It was one of my first experiences with foie gras actually. We’re coming up on the end of the grace period for the foie ban in California. Obviously, once the ban takes full affect you have to live by it. But, how do you feel about it as a chef?
HS: Sonoma Foie Gras is one of the greatest products we have in California. Californians should be proud of this little farm instead of terminating it. It was an easy target for the animal rights people and for a politician who likes to put his name on new laws only for his legacy, without correct research.
Most responsible chefs study the ingredients before they put it on their menus. They go through the exercise of standard routine, “Is this safe? Is this reliable? Is this sustainable? Is this organic? Is this local? Is this humane?” What is “the humane way” anyway? We must discuss what “real world humane” is, and not “Disney world humane”.
FJ: For a chef that has been in the industry and worked with some of the most renowned chefs in the world, what is it that drives you to keep cooking?
HS: I think that, number one, is the guests’ smile. I always feel like giving our guests pleasure gives me pleasure. A restaurant can create some little happiness for guests when they are dining in the restaurant, where they can forget about work, they can enjoy themselves and recharge themselves for tomorrow. Number two is teaching young cooks, and watching how they grow. Being able to visit their restaurants.
FJ: Finally, why is it that you love food and cooking? And, is there a particular memory or food experience or memory that really speaks to you?
HS: The feel. Like music, you don’t have to have a language to understand food. Food is universal. Only thing you need is an open heart. Also respect. You must respect your ingredients. The least we can do as cooks is to use whole animal (or whole vegetable) and make it delicious and make it look good. Don’t waste. Respect farmers and fishermen, because without them we cannot do what we do.
I came from a small farming family who has been growing rice for eighteen generations in northern Japan. I still remember in the fall harvest time, my grandma would be picking the lost grains of rice in the field until complete darkness arrived. Whenever I see the Jean-François Millet painting “Les Glaneurs (The Gleaners)”, it always reminds me of my grandma and who I am.
Ame Restaurant, in the St. Regis Hotel, is located at 689 Mission Street in San Francisco. Terra Restaurant is located at 1345 Railroad Avenue in St. Helena. Both restaurants are owned by Chef Hiro Sone and Pastry Chef Lissa Doumani.