By Andy Wang
Jon Yao is the chef/owner at Kato, a tasting-menu spot in West LA that opened in 2017. Yao, a self-taught Taiwanese-American chef born and raised in the San Gabriel Valley, earned a Michelin star for Kato when the Michelin Guide returned to LA in 2019. And now he has even bigger ambitions for his next restaurant.
I knew I wanted to explore cooking as a career, but I didn’t have the training to do it. I had a degree in cultural anthropology. Right after college, when I was supposed to be studying for the LSAT, I started staging in LA. Then I wanted something more challenging and went to San Francisco.
I staged at Benu and Coi. Those were very good experiences, and I ended up working on the line at Coi for eight months, but I knew I needed to learn more. I wanted to remove myself from comfort. I moved back to LA to save my money and then move abroad. I wanted to go to Copenhagen or Hong Kong, something like that, and then figure out where I really wanted to be.
I needed money, so every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, out of my parents’ house, I would do a tasting menu: five or six courses for 40 bucks. I would fill it up and do 24 people. It got kind of hectic because I was doing it all by myself. I would just have enough plates to get me through the night and then wash it all after I was done with service. It was super tiring because I would be up until three or four in the morning.
Without telling me, my parents had leased out a restaurant space in West LA. They wanted to do a lunchbox thing for UCLA students because their partner was still a professor at UCLA at the time. They just wanted to make some quick money. They had talked to me about the idea, but I didn’t think they would go ahead and jump into it. But they saw a good deal. They thought they were going to do the restaurant themselves, but there was no way I was going to let them do it themselves.
My mom had restaurant jobs when she was younger in Taiwan, but my parents didn’t have restaurant experience in the States. They’re interior designers. I want them to retire. I don’t want them to do physical labor. I had to help them.
When we were designing the Kato space and building it out, I was like, “This is so difficult. I think you guys should take a step back and help us do accounting, and I’ll do operations.” At that time, we already had our sous chef, Dara Thang, who’s been with us the whole time. He was a friend of mine, and we did this restaurant and got really close. He’s like my brother now. I’ve watched him flourish into this amazing chef.
We did the first two days a la carte. We did a friends-and-family. I told all my friends to come, and it was an insane amount of people and we were just not equipped. I had a meal with my parents and our partner to talk through things. I was like, “I don’t really know what to do.” They suggested I try a tasting menu because I had been doing the private dinners at the house. They said, “Why don’t you try it out until you figure out how you want to streamline the lunchbox thing?”
So we switched to a tasting menu. Kato opened on June 20, 2016. I was 25. I think we started at $45 or $48 and then went to $55 and then went up in $10 increments. We served chicken sandwiches and lu rou fan as supplements to the tasting menu because we wanted to see how we could do the lunchbox prep and the tasting-menu prep side-by-side. But we got busy. We kept doing the tasting menu. We were never staffed properly, and I didn’t have time to sit down and figure anything else out.
When I was in San Francisco, I had a job for a little while and blew my entire paycheck on dinner at Saison. That meal resonated with me. It’s a perfectly grilled spot prawn, and it’s glazed in something that’s made with other seafood. At other restaurants, everything’s seasoned last minute with lemon and olive oil. They’re just like, “That’s to balance everything.” But the way I grew up eating, you balance savory things with more savory things. You season seafood with other seafood. That’s not a common notion in Western cuisine.
I think I was lucky to have that Saison meal at that age because I feel like some people spend their whole lives chasing the opposite of their heritage and then they realize, “Oh, what I had growing up was special.”
I was thinking about moving to Taiwan last year. I got an offer to do something there, and I just felt like nothing else was going to happen in LA. I just felt like everything we do in Kato is in earnest and that LA wasn’t really loving us. I was still really hung up about our Jonathan Gold review. Why was it that we were getting love from national publications but not as much from LA? Even diners, other chefs who came in, were so fucking mean to us. Why is everybody so nasty toward us? We never cause beef. We never stir up trouble. It’s like the Luka Dončić thing. He gets fouled to fuck all the time, and he’s like, “I didn’t ask for this.”
But I wanted Michelin stars in LA, and I didn’t want to leave my GM Nikki Reginaldo and Dara and my family. Thinking about going to Taiwan was super selfish because you have all these people relying on Kato as their lifeline. It was super irresponsible. I shouldn’t even have toyed with the idea.
My parents are fine with me being a chef now. I feel like they’ve always supported me, but they used to jokingly jab at me. Kato got a Michelin star this year, and I think Michelin was definitely big for my parents. They can show up at a dinner party and tell their friends, “Jon can make a living doing food instead of being an accountant or a lawyer.”
I can easily say I have a long way to go. We were just named the number-one restaurant in the city by the Los Angeles Times. That number one is just a subjective thing. I didn’t ask for it. It’s not like I politicked for it. It just shows me that we have a long way to go in matching people’s expectations. I like super humbling moments like that.
I have a tight crew in LA. Me and Nightshade chef Mei Lin have this really strong chemistry because we’re both super honest. Nothing between us really feels fake. I feel like that’s so rare in the restaurant industry in LA. I got really close to her and former Nightshade pastry chef Max Boonthanakit because Max is from Diamond Bar and I’m from Walnut. I feel like between our friend Zen Ong and the staff I have, we can train the next generation. We can have more people convey their specific point of view. I always talk to my staff about this, about the Asian-American experience. I have this conversation with Dara, who’s Cambodian-Vietnamese, a lot.
I want to open another restaurant. We want three Michelin stars. I sound so entitled every time I talk about it because there’s no way on earth that a 28-year-old deserves that restaurant. But I’m so sick of compromising in our current space. We have 970 square feet. Every square inch is stuffed with something. And it’s like a trapezoid. That slant across the wall, we don’t know how to put the tables there, and the walking space is weird. People that work here have to be nimble because they always have to squeeze between chairs. The next restaurant is going to be about not compromising.
We have deep interest in Japanese fish, and the Chinese don’t necessarily value salt-water fish as much. We want to find a common link between high-end Chinese banquet cuisine and fresh seafood and charcoal cooking and my point of view. You’re going to recognize the food as Chinese/Taiwanese, so we want to hit three Michelin stars doing that. There’s no Chinese three-Michelin-starred restaurant in the States. We have some pretty lofty ideas of how the restaurant should be designed. You see restaurants in China now, and there’s a strong emphasis on decor.
There will be a very high-end tasting menu and something like an upscale bar menu. I feel like beyond the food at Kato, we’re a good story. But for me personally, I feel like we’ve worn out the novelty of it. I just want to do something that’s more mature. I want to progress. I want to grow. To do that, we need to do our next restaurant. We need to do it right.
And I want to turn Kato into what my parents imagined. That would be full circle.