Chatting with Chef Hiro Sone

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.

Hiro Sone

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.

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Food Experiences: The Napa Valley

I am an East Coast boy through and through. But, I have to admit, there are some things to appreciate when it comes to the Wild West. Up there would have to be the wine regions of California, in particular Napa Valley.

Invariably, when someone hears the words Napa Valley the first thing that comes to mind for most people is wine, and rightfully so. You will find few spots in the United States that have the climate or terrain to grow the kind of grapes necessary to produce such a fantastic variety of wines. For me, it brings to mind a few things in particular. First, and most obvious, excellent wine. Second, some excellent food. As I stated before, while I certainly don’t mind wine or alcohol in general, I really am all about the food. Napa Valley does not disappoint in this regard. Finally, it brings to mind one simple word: Loser. I’ll get to that in a moment. :)

Wineries

The primary reason for our visit to Napa Valley last spring was to do what most do when visiting Napa Valley: To drink some wine. We made it to two wineries in particular that stood out. The first was Rutherford Hill. Our group of six had a private tour of the wine cellar where we tasted six or seven excellent wines. My preference was for the medium-bodied malbec. Most people think of Argentina when it comes to malbecs, but this was a particularly impressive one. After the tour and tasting, we had a boxed lunch at one of the picnic tables overlooking the valley. Un-believable view. Truly a worthy winery to visit.

Our second winery was Rubicon. This place was truly amazing. Rubicon is owned by Francis Ford Coppola of Godfather fame. Not only does this man know how to make films, his winery produces some of the best wine I’ve ever had the pleasure to imbibe. We had a private wine tasting along with the chateau ambassador, Harold Francis. A nicer, more entertaining gentleman, you will not meet. Our tasting was followed by a walk around the estate, and then finally a visit to the wine cellar. Since our visit to Rubicon, the Coppola’s have managed to acquire the Inglenook trademark (the original name when the estate was first established in 1879). The winery is now known as Inglenook .

Now mind you, one of those in our traveling party (The Foodie Journal’s own Jersey Kid) has an “in” when it comes to wineries. The experiences we had were above and beyond a typical wine tasting and tour. That being said, both of these wineries are deserving of visits.

Loser!

I know I mentioned this as the third thing I think of, but as this story is directly associated to wineries, I thought it fitting to tell now. We visited a third winery, which I unfortunately can’t remember the name of. While that would infer that I was in a state that wouldn’t allow me to remember, that wasn’t the case. The most memorable moment of this particular visit, though, was the following.

We were pretty tired by the time we got to this final winery. So we found a small area with some tables and chairs to take some rest. Near us was a a knee-high stone wall, next to a grassy area. One of the ladies in our party, seeing the sun shining on the grass, thought it would be a great spot to lay down and enjoy a little sunbathing. We’re all sitting quietly. Suddenly we hear, out of nowhere, “Look her! She couldn’t handle it. LOSER!”

I looked up to see the man stumbling away from us, his wife (or caretaker?) coming to his aid, as he could barely keep his feet. We laughed and laughed.

The moral of the story? A) We were all feeling just fine (most definitely better than THAT guy), and B) people in glass houses… should probably stop talking when they no longer can form complete sentences. :)

Hope he managed to find his way back to the gutter.

Eatery

For dinner, we decided to go to Terra in St. Helena. This place was outstanding. I also liked the simple fact that there was a selection. Granted it is a prix fixe menu. You get a specific number of courses for a preset amount of money. But, they still offered you selection. You could select any of the dishes from either their “savory” or “sweet” menus. The menu has since changed, but my selections at the time heavily involved both foie gras and bone marrow.

Overall, it was an AMAZING day, start to finish. I hope to make it back to Napa again soon. Next stop for dinner will be somewhere in Yountville. French Laundry anyone?

UPDATE: I was reminded by the Jersey Kid (via the comments below), that the third winery was Mondavi. No slight meant to them in any way. Rutherford Hill and Inglenook simply went above and beyond expectations, making them easier to remember. I also would like to extend a very warm thanks to Neb Lukic of Southern Wine and Spirits as well. It was an amazing day!

Tell us about some of YOUR food experience in the comments. Be sure to follow me on Twitter and on Facebook!