Congratulations to Jon Yao, winner of this year's Young Chef Award, presented in partnership with San Pellegrino. Yao is the chef-owner of One Star Kato in LA, which he opened when he was just 25. The restaurant was a happy accident: His parents, along with a family friend who was a professor at UCLA, wanted to open a casual café and needed assistance. “[The family friend] had a lot of Asian students and there were not that many Chinese restaurants in L.A. proper, especially near the West Side at the time,” Yao says. “My mom makes pretty good homemade food, so the plan was to translate this into some sort of lunchbox business.”
The logistics and financials didn’t quite add up and the lunchbox concept never came to fruition. But they still had a five-year lease on the space in the corner of a strip mall, close to UCLA. This is how Yao found himself at the helm of his own restaurant. There was no liquor license, and added pressure to sustain his parents’ business, but it was also a dream job: the latitude to do whatever he wanted with the menu. For Yao that meant navigating his California childhood, Taiwanese background and its Japanese influence through the dishes. “I feel like Kato is just like an evolution of how I’m discovering my heritage.”
Read on to find out what drives Yao in the kitchen, what he cooks at home, and his favorite Pixar movie.
Who or what inspired you to become a chef?
I really like to eat, so I wanted to be able to cook for myself and my family. But I also love the craft and daily repetition.
What motivates you in the kitchen?
Getting better at my craft, taking care of customers and the people around me, and providing for my family.
What’s an ingredient you love using?
I like sneaking in dried seafood and anchovies into almost everything that I cook.
What do you have for breakfast?
An iced americano. My first real meal is usually staff meal.
What's your favorite thing to cook at home?
I like making salads at home. I’ll cook a lot of vegetables before the work week so I can have a quick meal at hand if I need it.
What’s your favorite food-related show or movie?
I really like Ratatouille. I really like Pixar movies in general, but Ratatouille still ranks as the best for me.
Hero image: Chef Jon Yao. Photo by Nikki Reginaldo, courtesy of Kato
Presented in partnership with San Pellegrino