Invest in your knives, invest in cookbooks, invest your time staging at well-regarded restaurants, invest your time reading as much as you can about the industry and what is going on with food across the world.
As part of our series about the lessons from influential ‘TasteMakers’, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Jack Yoss, Director of Culinary Operations for the award-winning restaurant group Hai Hospitality, home to James Beard Award winning Uchi (Austin, Houston Dallas and Denver) Uchiko, Uchiba and Loro. His culinary talents have taken him across the globe from a young career launch in Las Vegas to Los Angeles, Portland, London and Bali, while working alongside the world’s most renowned chefs.
Yoss’ love of cooking began at the age of 10 while preparing family meals for his younger siblings. His professional career began just six years later when he began working at a Las Vegas hotel restaurant. From there, Yoss became the round cook at Nero’s, an upscale American steakhouse in Caesars Palace. He became the saucier at Wolfgang Puck’s Chinios, also at Caesars Palace, where he acquired extensive knowledge of Asian cuisine and techniques.
A move to San Francisco led him to Postrio Restaurant where he was sous chef from April 1999 to March 2003. In 2003, following an executive chef position at four-star resort Deep Creek Fishing Club in Ninicluk, Alaska, he would return to Postrio as chef de cuisine.
Yoss traveled down the California coastline to Los Angeles in August 2005 to oversee all back of house operations for the 258-room W Hotel Los Angeles as executive chef. For over two years in that role, he was responsible for NINE THIRTY restaurant, The Backyard restaurant, in room dining, as well as banquets and catering. The property was named to CitySearch’s “Best Hotel Dining” list in 2006.
In spring of 2007, Adam Berger and Michael Rypkema, owners of Ten 01 Restaurant, lured Yoss to Portland. With executive chef Yoss behind the menu, Ten 01 was named “Restaurant of the Year” by Portland Food & Drink in 2008 and earned a four-star review.
As a traveling guest chef, Yoss toured Southeast Asia and Europe over a two-year span overseeing the grand opening of W Hotel Barcelona as well as Oregon wine board dinners in Tokyo and Osaka. Yoss also did turns at Wave restaurant, Chateau Montautre, La Fontenille-France, and staged at Michelin starred Nahm-London.
Before joining Hai Hospitality, Yoss served as the chef de cuisine of Starfish Bloo at the W Seminyak Retreat and Spa, one of the most highly anticipated property openings on the Indonesian island of Bali.
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 chef?
When I was in my pre-teens I used to watch a show called “Great Chefs, Great Cities.” It may seem cliché but it really drew me in and I was infatuated with it. However, my father was really my inspiration — he was the best cook that I have ever known. Just made delicious scratch home cooking. He was super organized and a planner and would have something in a crock pot or slow cooking all day so that after his 10–12 hour labor/mechanic shifts, he would still be able to have a fantastic meal for us. My first food memories are picking chicken for his chicken and dumplings and cooking with him while camping. His weekend breakfasts were also legendary!
Do you have a specific type of food that you focus on?
As a chef, your focus should be first and foremost on making food that tastes great, is interesting and that people want to come back for. Whether it is French or Modern American — a burger or tournedos Rossini, does not matter and ultimately the burger draws a larger audience and a dish that people crave daily. I have had great luck in my career being able to work in 10 countries so far in multiple concepts, ranging from Japanese and French to Michelin Thai, so it is hard to pin just one type of food. When pressed I would have to say Indonesian. I spent 5 years there and the people, culture and food drawn from it are all so beautiful. It’s some of the most complex sauce work I have ever done and is very unique, especially in the US as there very little Indonesian cuisine presence here. Ultimately, treat everything you make with the same respect and you can’t go wrong.
What was it that first drew you to cooking that type of food? Can you share a story about that?
I first fell in love with Indonesian food and culture in 2003 when I took a vacation to Bali. In 2009 I was hired on as the Chef de Cuisine for the opening of W Retreat and Spa Bali and fully immersed myself into the food, culture and people. It’s a truly amazing country with incredibly kind people and hundreds of regional cuisines and dialects. Every day there was a story in its own and I was able to spend five years total in that beautiful country.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you became a chef? What was the lesson or takeaway you took out of that story?
When I was a young cook at Caesars Palace, we were without a chef or sous chef for around 5 months. The executive chef of the hotel left us young cooks (god only knows why) in charge of the day to day and he took us under his wing and spent time there when he could. It was not an easy feat considering he was running Caesars and roughly 20+ restaurants. At any rate, I was working the fish section and in charge of ordering the daily fish specials. I really had no butchery training nor skills at that point in my career and was just kind of winging it. I would get the list and order what sounded good or what I had heard of and make my way through it, albeit not prettily. One day I ordered rouget which is French for red mullet. As we were a very busy restaurant (Nero’s) I ordered the usual 100 pounds going into the weekend. Normally I was ordering salmon, large basses, halibut and fish that are easily broken down and heavy. What came was fish that maxed out at 3 inches long and around 3–4 ounces. I ended up having hundreds of these tiny fish to clean and pin-bone and I was so ill prepared for that. It took me days. The whole process was so messy, it was years before I ordered them again.
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?
Making 10 dollars an hour in San Francisco while working at Wolfgang Puck’s — Postrio — was certainly an obstacle. The immediate way I overcame was by having four roommates to afford rent, learning as much as I could while working day and night to afford the city, eating top ramen and not even living paycheck to paycheck. When I look back, it was some of the best and most formative years of my career. The outcome was that I worked my way up to be the first Chef de Cuisine at Postrio, met my future wife there, made a few lifelong friends and truly learned the foundations of being a chef. A special restaurant that shaped my future, it was an amazing training ground.
In your experience, what is the key to creating a dish that customers are crazy about?
Your goal really should be simple — create something that someone wants to eat daily and craves. Once you take the ego out of the food it becomes clearer.
Start with the best ingredients, treat them with respect, do not overcomplicate it and push to create something that you want to eat daily. In addition, ensure you are collaborating with your teams and trying/tasting over and over. Accept other influences and feedback. If you start with that mindset you will get more wins than losses.
Personally, what is the ‘perfect meal for you?
This is hard as truly there really is no “perfect meal’. For me there are perfect experiences so that is the qualifier I suppose.
In Bangkok or a Thai Beach sitting on a plastic chair eating pad krawpow, nam tok moo, pad siew, drinking a super cold Singha with my wife and kids is about as close to perfection as it comes.
Where does your inspiration for creating come from? Is there something that you turn to for a daily creativity boost?
Inspiration comes from our teams — all of them. You just have to visit one of our restaurants to be immediately inspired.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? What impact do you think this will have?
My current projects are growing the Uchi and Loro brand and having the people and processes to do so. As a company we will double in size over the next few years so this is an incredible time to be at Hai Hospitality. The most impactful part that I work on and is daily front of mind for me is growing our current teams and setting succession plans for everyone’s growth.
What advice would you give to other chefs to thrive and avoid burnout?
You will work a lot, there is no way around this when climbing the ladder — you will work even more once you achieve your goals and the learning never ends. You will be a life student in this journey and will need an outlet. Mine is reading. I am an avid reader and read at least a book a week. These are not life changing self-help, historical or cultural books — right now it is mostly James Patterson and Robert Galbraith with the sole goal of escaping into the pages. Another is simply playing with my children. They make you realize the important things in life and not to get overly stressed on the minutia that we can get hung up on at times.
Find a hobby or something that is calming to be able to separate from the job.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started as a Chef” and why? Please share a story or an example for each.
I had really great mentors and got into this for the right reasons which is love for cooking, not fame, nor money or notoriety. I was really under no allusion of grandeur in terms of becoming a chef and was lucky to have some great mentors and opportunities some my way. The below isn’t as much things I wished I knew prior to becoming a chef. It’s more what I have learned along the journey.
Patience — becoming good at any craft will take time and lots of it. Do not be in a hurry for that head chef position. Take your time and learn as much as you can from great chefs.
Invest — invest in your knives, invest in cookbooks, invest your time staging at well-regarded restaurants, invest your time reading as much as you can about the industry and what is going on with food across the world.
Monetary — do not get into this for fame, notoriety or money. Sure- some of those things may come down the road if you truly play your cards right, work you tail off and get lucky. However, as an immediate goal this expectation should be personally managed. Working in kitchens and being a chef is a tremendous amount of work and if you are not in it out of passion and love for what you do you are in the wrong industry.
Listen — listen and learn from everyone around you. Restaurants are melting pots and are filled with talent of all levels that you can learn from daily by listening, watching and learning from the experience around you.
Travel — this is hard when you start out but put away whatever you can for travel, eating new cuisines in your city or staging at other restaurants in other cities. Most cooks would say they can’t save money and I would challenge them that they can. The amount wasted in my younger years at bars or festivals or even on clothes I ruined on the line cooking would have paid for a few trips.
What’s the one dish people have to try if they visit Uchi?
It is cliché to us but the hama chili. This dish of cool hamachi sashimi with ponzu, orange supremes, thai chili and finely diced garlic embodies all our core values when creating food. I say it is cliché as this dish is our number one seller, in all locations and has a cult following. After ordering that, head into the toyosu section on the menu (our daily fish list) and our specials page. One of the things that makes the food so special at our restaurants is that it is created by all of our teams. Our specials page consists of dishes that are created by our cooks, prep, pastry and salaried chefs. Collaboration is at the core of what we do and everyone having impact on the menu ultimately means more creativity in our food. There is so much passion in our restaurants and it is the job of the chefs to harness all of that into our creative process. The specials page is always evolving, as are our tastings monthly where the final dishes are tasted and feedback is given by myself, our concept chef or corporate pastry chef before landing on the specials menu.
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.
Make working overseas easily attainable for Asian and Latin countries, not just the US, all countries. There is such a strong work ethic out there and so many diverse cultures that have a lot to add in terms of cuisine, culture and overall diversity. I learned the most about myself and life in general working overseas, not to mention how much I learned in the cuisines. The strongest work ethics I have worked with are from those continents and would work to make better off themselves, their families and the cities where they work due to cultural proximity. Look at what the spice trade and route did for culture and food across the globe. Now those countries/continents have a hard time getting visas to work abroad and have so much to offer.
Secondly — get people cooking again. With everything so easily and readily available at the click or swipe of a few apps people do not cook or learn how to cook as much as they should in my opinion. Food brings people together.
Thank you so much for these insights. This was very inspirational!