I had the pleasure to sit down and chat with Chef Chikara Sono, the Executive Chef of Michelin-Starred Kyo Ya Restaurant. He hails from Sapporo City in Hokkaido and first discovered his love for gourmet food through the distinct flavors of the area. Having received a Michelin star and three stars in a New York Times review, Kyo Ya is highly praised for using seasonal ingredients sourced directly from Japan.
Growing up in Japan, how did you become interested in the culinary world? Can you tell us a little bit about how you got into cooking? (料理の世界に目覚めたきっかけは？)
While working as a mechanic for Toyota, I decided to get a part time job as a cook at a local Japanese restaurant. I spent two years learning how to cook Italian food as well, but I have always enjoyed cooking Japanese food more.
What brought you to NYC and how has the city inspired your cooking style? (ニューヨークに来ることになったきっかけは? ニューヨークは園さんの調理スタイルにどのような影響がありましたか？)
After quitting my job at Toyota, I decided to go on a trip to NYC. I liked it here so much that I decided to stay and continue working as a cook to pursue my passion. Moving to NYC hasn’t had much impact on the way I cook - my motto has always been to provide delicious food using delicious and seasonal ingredients.
Tell us a little about your hometown, Hokkaido. (園さんが生まれ育った故郷（北海道）について簡単に教えてください。どんな場所ですか？)
I grew up in the city of Sapporo - it’s a place rich in nature with an abundance of snow in the winter. Growing up, I would spend my weekends skiing. Even my PE classes were spent climbing up and down the mountains to go skiing.
Now that you live in the US, do you miss Japan? (日本が恋しいですか？)
Surprisingly, I don’t miss Japan all that much! I’ve not been homesick since I moved to NYC. I enjoy being back when I’m back, but it’s quite a long journey to get there! I would say the lifestyle in NYC suits me better.
What are the challenges you have faced as a Japanese chef in New York City? (NYCで日本人シェフとして働くことのやりがい・難しさは？)
Getting my hands on seasonal ingredients that are unique to Japan has always been difficult. There have been times where I desperately wanted my customers to taste Japanese ingredients but I was unable to purchase them due to import restrictions. Times have changed and more people are open to quality produce and ingredients, so we use a lot of local products which I very much enjoy and appreciate as a Japanese chef in NYC.
What is one snack from Hokkaido that everyone should try? (これは食べておかないと損！な北海道のお菓子はありますか？)
Everything from Ishiya Seika is delicious, but if I had to pick one, it’s probably Shiroi Cake Roll. Royce’ is always a must - the very first Royce’ store was located in the neighborhood I grew up in! Double Fromage from LeTAO is of course my all-time favorite, and Marusei Butter Cake from Rokkatei. You should definitely try Trappist Cookies made in Hakodate - its simple buttery flavor will make you come back for more!
Where do you find inspiration? (園さんのインスピレーションは？)
When I’m trying to put together a menu, I start out by writing down seasonal ingredients, what I would want to eat, and ingredients available to me throughout the year. From there, I group and mix different ingredients together, creating possible flavors in my head. Then I go back and forth between adding and subtracting the ingredients. Traditional Japanese food is the basis for all my cooking, so I want to respect its traditional flavors, while putting a modern twist to it.
What’s your favorite dish? What is your favorite snack? (日本料理のなかで一番好きなメニューは？好きなお菓子は？それぞれ教えてください。)
This may sound very basic, but Japanese curry and ramen have always been my favorite dishes. Since I make traditional Japanese food on a day to day basis, I tend to lean towards Japanese food that I rarely have the opportunity to make. As for Japanese snacks, I absolutely love salad senbei - it’s light, crunchy, savory, and perfectly addictive!
What is your next goal? What would you like to do in the future? (これからの目標は？)
As we just marked our 10 year anniversary at Kyo Ya, my goal at the moment is to continue to improve Kyo Ya with my team by delivering delicious Japanese food to our customers for many years to come.
After we had our chat, I had the even more delightful pleasure to try some of Chef Sono's heavenly gourmet creations. Learn more about Kaiseki restaurants and Kyo Ya's delicious modern dishes through our latest Bokksu Trends video: