Never underestimate how important concise communication is. The day to day operations can become overwhelming and if there is not a clear line of communication with your team, you will miss steps along the way. Keeping lists help greatly with getting things done efficiently and double as a motivator as you can visually see what tasks you are getting done.
As part of our series about the lessons from influential ‘TasteMakers’, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Yoni Lang, chef and owner of Rosella, the recently opened restaurant in the East Village. Yoni was born and raised in Baton Rouge, LA, where he attended Louisiana State University. Growing up, Yoni explored his interest in food while competing as a semi-professional cyclist. For his first job, he started out as a barback at a local sushi restaurant in Baton Rouge and then went on to start his own sushi food truck, where he decided to focus on his culinary career full time. In 2016 Yoni moved to Austin where he worked under Chef Masa Hamaya at Uchiko, and worked his way up to head sushi chef. Following a short time in San Francisco where he worked at Nomica and Sushi Ran, Yoni returned to Texas and worked under Joel Orsini to focus on gardening, fermentation, preservation and full utilization. During this time, Yoni and his girlfriend started a series of sushi pop ups under the name “Wolf and the Fox.” Yoni and Jeff Miller, who had met at Uchiko, had always dreamed of opening their own sushi restaurant. They have come together to open Rosella and Yoni is excited to be in New York City and be a part of the East Village community.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to ‘get to know’ you a bit. Can you share with our readers a story about what inspired you to become a restauranteur or chef?
I don’t think I was ever crazy enough to wake up one day and declare, “I’m going to be a restaurateur/chef.” Throughout my life, whatever it is I enjoy doing, I try to find the bottom of that rabbit hole. I also feel like in order to be proud of what I do, I have to do something that brings joy to people. Anything else feels like a misuse of time. I suppose that type of personality lends itself quite well to the restaurant industry and naturally steered me towards this point.
Do you have a specific type of food that you focus on? What was it that first drew you to cooking that type of food? Can you share a story about that with us?
My youngest memories were encapsulated with food. Hovering over the stove learning how to make an omelet with my mom, or having her pinch my earlobes to test if the challah dough was ready to braid and pop in the oven. Since I’ve worked in restaurants I’ve focused on Japanese food. I’ve always loved how Japanese food can appear so simple, yet be so complicated to do well. I remember the first time I saw sushi: a cucumber roll and a tuna roll my mom brought home late one night when I was maybe 4 years old. I still have such a vivid memory of what they looked like. I thought they were so beautiful and tasted so good that my interest was immediately piqued. My mom was raised in the Bay Area where making tortillas and chili verde was how evenings were usually spent. When she moved to Louisiana, where I was born, she really embraced the food culture and made a big effort to introduce me and my brother to as many different foods as possible.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you became a chef or restauranteur? What was the lesson or take away you took out of that story?
Thinking back over the past few years when we were starting to have serious conversations about opening a restaurant, there were numerous occasions where I said, “I will NEVER open a restaurant in New York City”. Fast forward a few years, and here I am in NYC with a restaurant. Point being, getting where you want to be may not look anything like what you expect it to look like. Looking back on that, I see a lot of my hesitations for being in NYC were very fear based. I was afraid of not being good enough, or it being too hard to succeed. If I had allowed that fear to control my decisions I would have missed out on everything this amazing city has to offer. If you feel strongly about something, whether good or bad, it’s important to know why and to have honest conversations with yourself if you’re unsure.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? How did you overcome this obstacle?
Moving to NYC during the pandemic was a pretty big challenge in itself. The energy of NYC can be a lot to handle even when things are going well in your life. Throw in opening a restaurant and COVID, and things can get pretty stressful very quickly. The most important thing that has gotten me through the tougher times has without a doubt the strong relationships I have with friends, family and my team, and being open and honest with what I need. Having solid friends and family to talk to can quickly help you realize your problems are a lot smaller than you may feel, and that the solution to a problem can be much easier than it seems.
In your experience, what is the key to creating a dish that customers are crazy about?
First off, if it doesn’t taste good, there’s no point in serving it in my opinion. It starts with flavor, and then you can focus on visuals. To go a step further, you want to focus on seasonality. A good flavor combination is great, but if you’re using out of season strawberries, you are selling yourself and your guests short by not using a product in its prime, and your end result will never be as good as if you used a product that is in season. A lot of my inspiration is based on flavors I crave that are reminiscent of my childhood. Like in the movie, Ratatouille, if you can nail flavors from someone’s past that they enjoy, you’re off to a great start. Lesson being: listen to your guests!
Personally, what is the ‘perfect meal for you’?
Sushi! It hits everything I want in a meal: salt, acid and a kick of spice. The combination of fish, wasabi, sushi rice and nori is intoxicating to me, and it’s a meal that doesn’t leave you feeling heavy afterwards. Sushi is also an amazing meal to eat with friends and equally as enjoyable when you can enjoy it by yourself.
Where does your inspiration for creating come from? Is there something that you turn to for a daily creativity boost?
Oddly enough, I’ve found that producing music is the best way to kickstart my brain into a creative mode. I’ve played music for most of my life and it really took a backseat when I entered the food industry. When I was a much younger cook, I would have a lot of trouble coming up with new ideas. Part of that was just experience, but I noticed when I set aside time to sit down and write music throughout the week, the flow of food ideas I had were almost endless. I’ve kept that as a tool in my arsenal so to speak. Not having a creative spark usually tells me I need to spend some time focusing on life balance. It’s great to have little indicators like that to help keep your mental health in check.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? What impact do you think this will have?
Besides the day to day restaurant operations, we are getting our greenhouse back up and running. It’s located in Brooklyn on top of Rooftop Reds and allows us to grow our own herbs and some of our own produce. In the future, I’d love to be able to help other restaurants start their own rooftop gardens. New York has a ton of suitable rooftops that would allow for gardens.
What advice would you give to other chefs or restauranteurs to thrive and avoid burnout?
As I mentioned before, having an outlet outside of the industry is important. While it is very important to immerse yourself, and really commit time to your craft, it’s good to have indicators (ie. lack of creativity) to let you know when it’s a good time to make some changes. Finding balance can be hard since this industry has notoriously long hours. Some more practical advice would be to stay organized. Going into a day with a clear set of goals or tasks will buy you some extra time that you can spend focusing on your mental health and well being. Another one that has really changed things for me has been no alcohol. A harder one for restaurant folks is to minimize or eliminate alcohol. If you’re a regular drinker who has trouble being more productive due to energy or lack of enthusiasm this may be the move for you.
Thank you for all that. Now we are ready for the main question of the interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started as a Restauranteur or Chef” and why? Please share a story or an example for each.
1. Spend time learning about yourself and what makes you tick. This industry is all about being creative, whether it’s a new dish, or a new way to bring income for your business, having a good flow of creativity in your head will aid you in every aspect of owning a restaurant.
2. You cannot do this on your own! Spending time cultivating relationships is very important. Find people who are like minded and stick with them.
3. Be a good person to everyone you come across. Making an effort to get to know someone and figuring out what you can do for them is more important than figuring out what they can do for you.
4. Ask for what you want and communicate your needs. Don’t let something fester inside because something isn’t going the way you want. You are in charge of your surroundings and your environment. Allowing something to continue that causes you frustration just sends a signal to the universe that you’re willing to put up with those frustrations and you will no doubt receive more of just that.
5. Never underestimate how important concise communication is. The day to day operations can become overwhelming and if there is not a clear line of communication with your team, you will miss steps along the way. Keeping lists help greatly with getting things done efficiently and double as a motivator as you can visually see what tasks you are getting done.
What’s the one dish people have to try if they visit your establishment?
Catch of the day: This is a hearty bowl of rice covered in veggies, house-made pickles, a soft boiled egg marinated in local soy sauce, and a piece of cooked seasonal fish that’s been dry aged for maximum flavor and crispy skin. While we specialize in sushi, this more or less encapsulates everything we do with local ingredients, full utilization, preservation and our fish aging program.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Getting more people involved in growing their own produce would be something I can see having some huge positive effects. Besides creating something that tastes delicious, you’re growing something that helps combat greenhouse gases, creates a healthy area for cross pollination to take place between already existing plants and trees which in turn helps the bee population. You’re bringing more awareness to what it takes for a product to go from the farm to a plate in a restaurant which brings more appreciation for good, locally grown produce. Having a sense of community and a point of pride can do amazing things for a neighborhood, and I think that togetherness is a much needed facet that we could all use a lot more of in our daily lives.
Thank you so much for these insights. This was very inspirational!