In early 2021, chef Jon Yao’s Michelin-starred restaurant Kato moved from a scrappy West LA strip mall to the polished confines of the Row in Downtown. On the eve of the restaurant’s reopening in February 2022, Yao told Eater that he was thankful for the space. Though the chef appreciated the building’s increased square footage, doubled dining capacity, and hearth-warming open kitchen, Yao was even more grateful for the emotional space to reconsider the fine dining experience the new address allowed for. “I always thought that the old space was an incubator. We were trying to collect dishes and techniques to ultimately take elsewhere,” says Yao. “We wanted the space to have everyone grow and to do something for our communities and our heritage.”
Yao and his partners, general manager Nikki Reginaldo and director of operations and wine director Ryan Bailey, dreamt of moving into a larger building more befitting of their collective aspirations for years, but when the time finally came to do so in late 2021 — and the pressure to make good on rent kicked in — the trio worked feverishly to open an entirely new restaurant in just seven weeks.
Even though Kato was technically six years old at the time, nearly every component of the restaurant was overhauled, from critical elements like the level of service to the nitty-gritty details of policies within the employee handbook. Even the beverage offerings required consideration, as the previous location didn’t allow for the sale of alcohol.
Most remarkably, Yao reimagined Kato’s signature tasting menu without carrying over a single dish from West LA. “We just wanted to make things harder on ourselves so we could gain the respect of other people,” says Yao with a chuckle, acknowledging the loftiness of the task to redesign the menu in full. “It kind of just felt like the insecurity we had at the old space of being disqualified and being not good enough.”
With the Michelin guide as Yao’s North Star, the chef leaned on its European-rooted template for the relaunch. “I did want us to shoot for two Michelin stars going into the new space, however vain that is,” he says. The opening menu included many of the hallmarks of a starred meal. “Canapes? Check. Beef and potatoes? Check. It didn’t feel like we were being creative. It just felt like we were grabbing for something.”
While the new culinary direction felt right at the time, Yao admits that he was overwhelmed and “a little lost” with the immense pressure to open a bigger, better Kato weighing down on him. “We were neck-deep in the opening, we were doing 80 to 85 covers, which is a lot for fine dining, and I felt like we never really got a chance to be introspective and ask ourselves why we are doing certain things,” he says. “Year one, it just didn’t quite feel like us, it just felt like a soft reset for us.”
But now that Yao and his team have had time to settle into the Row — and to consider feedback from diners and reflect on their journey thus far — they’re seeing things a bit differently. “I felt like we were trying to demonstrate a big shift in the two months it took to go into the new space; I just needed to try and prove myself,” says Yao. “But I realized that internal growth, professional growth, all these different types of development, they never stop.”
While the physical differences between Kato’s two iterations are the most obvious, the changes that go beyond the superficial are the most striking. Eater sat down with Yao and his partners to hear how their perspectives have shifted since opening Downtown, whether the approval of Asian grandparents is more meaningful than Michelin’s, and how Taiwanese food memories are influencing what’s on the plate.
On retaining a Michelin star in 2022
Jon Yao: We felt seen for the first time. All the hard work we put in that people overlook when they speculate about us — it felt like all of that washed away and we were validated for our work. I left that ceremony feeling like even if we got two stars last year, it didn’t feel like we got two stars doing what was genuine to us.
We did certain things that we thought were criteria to get graded on. We thought service needed to be a certain way: uniforms, dining formats, flavors, compositions of dishes, how our staff behaves. If you see 10 previous winners and they all operate in a certain style, it’s a risk going the opposite route when traditionally these things have been rewarded. We did canape service for 12 months. Asian people don’t eat like that; there’s no equivalent for canape in Mandarin.
On leaning into “honest” cooking
Yao: Year one, how we cooked in the restaurant, I don’t cook like this in my normal time. It didn’t sit right with me; it just didn’t feel very honest to me. I wanted the restaurant to be a more accurate representation of who I am. The food I grew up with and enjoyed deserved a place because it was just as delicious or even more than other things that are revered. We’re a year and a half in, but I think our identity is starting to take a stronger form. We’re cooking food that feels very honest to me and a lot of the staff. It’s allowed me to explore my upbringing a lot more.
There are a lot of things I grew up not liking, but that’s a good motivator for me to recreate or present in a new way that I personally enjoy. I wasn’t a huge fan of dried goods in soups growing up and I definitely didn’t like any sort of fish maw (swim bladder) soup. But our new fish maw dish is a good exploration into things I didn’t like and how we can present it in a way that’s true to itself but newer and well-sourced. Some Chinese people think the fish maw is cut too small, I think it matches the dish and provides what it needs. I’m having a lot of conversations with my parents about things I grew up with and things that they grew up with. And man, this sounds so corny and out of like a scripted movie, but I feel way more at peace. I can’t even explain it, the sense of satisfaction seeing Asian grandparents react well to it feels very validating.
On catering to an Asian and Asian American palate
Yao: I want the food to be a snapshot of what being Asian in Southern California is like. My parents come in occasionally to check the menu and I love gauging their opinions, especially my mom’s. There was a large amount of dairy [on the earlier menu], and me and my parents are lactose intolerant. It’s very noticeable when we have dairy because it is very uncomfortable.
But lately, we’ve been leaning into very spicy food. Why do we have to dull things down or have things be really subtle to be considered a “fine dining” restaurant? Taiwanese food isn’t inherently very spicy, but I want the menu to be more like what I wanted to eat; I have to have Thai bird chiles to chew on when I eat at home.
We have an interesting pantry. From the outside, some things might look traditional, but they’re not necessarily traditional. We’ll start with an idea, like dried scallops or Chinese sausage, but we’ll do it with the items sourced at a very high quality. We make dried scallops from Hokkaido scallops. We pretty much make everything in the restaurant outside of brewing soy sauce or making doubanjiang (spicy fermented soy bean paste).
On having to justify the price tag
Yao: Our price tag is $275. Our food cost is a percentage based on our menu price. There’s high-end Japanese food, there’s high-end French food, and there’s high-end Italian food. It’s so unfair that our food can’t get taken seriously or be valued as much as other cuisines. I just want people to regard any sort of Chinese cuisine, any Taiwanese cuisine in the same light, right? Flavors are subjective, but the execution and sourcing — those are objective things. Whether or not you want to talk about flavors that you resonate with, you cannot argue that the quality of ingredients that goes into that dish is higher than what you’ll make at home or what you eat at the night market. We go to the market, we source fish from Toyosu, we source meat from growers that we actually know, a lot of our plates are handmade and we know who made them. That’s our baseline, it’s not really even murky or something that’s easily debatable. It’s just pure hard facts.
On operating costs beyond the plate
Yao: We offer our staff health insurance and cover 90 percent of it. We pay higher than industry wage — it’s a livable wage. We offer paid sick leave and sustainable hours. A lot of things make up that menu price and I can tell you right now, we still don’t make money. That menu price is not a reflection of us trying to turn a profit. It’s literally a reflection of our costs.
On balancing nostalgia with innovation
Yao: Sometimes people eat certain dishes and say it tastes too close to the original version. We definitely get that all the time, so we try and find a balance between creativity and drawing inspiration from the original. How do we elicit a sense of nostalgia without presenting things so directly?
Traditionally when you go to Hunanese or Sichuan restaurants, there’s always a cold case of spicy pickled stuff; pigs ears get tossed in chile oil and vinegar. I always ask myself, “This is pound for pound tastier than 95 percent of the things I’ve had this year. Why is it that this can’t be served in the context of a fine dining restaurant?” I wanted to make sure that we present it in a way so that people can not just tolerate it, but enjoy it. A mission of mine years down the line is for people to recognize us for trying new things from Taiwanese and Chinese cuisines that they haven’t had before.
On rethinking service
Yao: I’ve taken my parents to [Michelin] two- and three-star restaurants and they’re just like, “This is okay. I could see how other people like this but this isn’t necessarily for us.” That definitely drives what we do every day because I want a space where people like my parents or like other people’s grandparents feel like it was tailor-made for their tastes. I just wanted to make a space where people that look like us feel more comfortable. They can come as they are, come in what they deem as nice clothes, listen to music that they want, and be in an environment where they’re not treated any differently just because they don’t spend more money than others.
Nikki Reginaldo: I want everybody to feel that feeling of when you go to a friend’s house and their mom cuts up like a plate of fruit for you and that warmth of knowing like, I’m in a safe space and being taken care of. I never really wanted this new space to be something too precious with a white tablecloth and kind of like the wooden soldier type of service with no personality.
On the forthcoming Kato wine label
Ryan Bailey: Almost three years ago, I started a conversation with Mike Lucia, a winemaker in Northern California outside Healdsburg, where my family is from. We’ve known each other for 15 or so years now, and I’ve always been a big fan of his winemaking techniques — naturally made but very clean and precise. He purchased a property in Mendocino called Cole Ranch, the only single AVA vineyard in California. One of the things that he has up there is savagnin, a varietal that you don’t see here in the States; it finds its home in the Jura region in France. It is a high-acid, textural white wine that can be made into an oxidative style, or it can be really bright and crisp, and mineral- and citrus-driven. When Mike planted this, I got really excited because one of the first pairings that Jon and I actually came up with was for his mother’s fish recipe at the old space where we paired it with a savagnin. The label artwork is actually Jon’s grandfather’s art.
On introducing an Old Fashioned cart
Bailey: I challenged our staff this last year with a list of goals that I wanted our team to approach in year two. One of the things I decided I wanted barwise was a tableside experience for our guests so that they can have a conversation with Austin Hennelly, who’s just an incredible human being and very knowledgeable and passionate. We decided on an Old Fashioned cart. We had a custom cart made by a local carpenter/furniture designer, the husband-and-wife team Chris and Amber Earl. Our guests will choose between one of three Kavalan bottlings. We’ll carve the ice, which is coming from the oldest ice retailer in Japan, Kuramoto.
On why Michelin still matters
Yao: I do want us to get two stars doing what we’re doing now. I feel like when we first opened, we were trying to check the boxes, but traditionally it’s more of a Western system. We’re trying to flip that on its head and kind of do things our way and hopefully be rewarded for that. I feel like we’re doing what we’re supposed to do. It makes me not wish for anything but it makes me very optimistic for the future. I’m just super excited to see where we’re at next year and the year after, and it gives me great hope to know that we’re going to be in a great spot in a few years. Awards aren’t the end-all be-all but, financially, awards play a part, so it’s not everything but it means a lot.
On shifting perspectives
Yao: It always felt like we were on a rushed timeline, it always felt like we were behind. And I felt like the old space being an incubator space, that we were always meant to do more — and we stepped into the new space and were given all this freedom and opportunities to do something and we kind of rushed it. Obviously, we didn’t recognize that we were doing it haphazardly, but we were gonna try and set out for all this glory right when we opened.
Now, I feel like wherever we are is always the place that we’re supposed to be: We’re never too early, we’re never too late. I’ve learned to be patient and accept those things as they are and appreciate this journey. All this discovery of my upbringing really made me appreciate the time I have with the people around me, especially my parents. I’m just learning to try to enjoy the things around me.
These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.