“Learn to let go.” With Tyler Gallagher & Maiko Kyogoku

The key is finding the cross section between the familiar and the new. For me, it’s about making someone crave a dish that they’ve never tasted before and reminding them of something that they love — whether it be another comfort food or maybe a food memory. If you can put a clever spin on […]

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The key is finding the cross section between the familiar and the new. For me, it’s about making someone crave a dish that they’ve never tasted before and reminding them of something that they love — whether it be another comfort food or maybe a food memory. If you can put a clever spin on a classic, all the better.

As part of our series about the lessons from influential ‘TasteMakers’, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Maiko Kyogoku, the owner of Bessou in New York City. Bessou — which means holiday home in Japanese — is a Japanese restaurant located in NoHo. Since opening in August 2016, Bessou has been delighting guests with unique and creative takes on traditional Japanese home cooking inspired by Maiko’s family favorites. Prior to opening her own restaurant, Maiko served as the Director of Private Dining for Bar Boulud and Boulud Sud and also worked with contemporary artist Takashi Murakami.

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?

Growing up, on New Year’s Eve, I remember my family would host a party for my dad’s restaurant staff after the long night’s shift. My sister and I would be in our pajamas, ecstatic that we were able to stay up with the grown ups way past our bedtime! I remember being captivated by the lively and unique cast of characters that arrived at our house a little past midnight. Everyone there was from different backgrounds, and they were immigrants relatively new to New York. The staff would drink like fish and chain smoke. Some would be playing cards. The chefs would conduct horse races, carrying me and my sister on their backs — and my dad and mom would be in their element, serving a homemade feast to their employees like they were family. For everyone who was far away from home, I got the sense that they appreciated feeling like they belonged somewhere. After losing my mother in college, I worked in various fields for different companies, but I never quite found the magic that I felt at those parties at home with my family and the restaurant staff. I think it’s the search for home that made me return to hospitality and ultimately make me want to create my own type of restaurant family.

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?

At Bessou, we serve homestyle Japanese food with inspiration from the world around us. I call it Japanese-American comfort food. It’s the food I grew up eating and the food I love most. In my everyday cooking, I take different ingredients and pair them with classic Japanese dishes. Growing up bi-culturally is like viewing the world through a multi-layered prism. It becomes natural to see the ways in which culture and food overlap in various ways. The Curry Shakshuka we serve at the restaurant, for example, is based on a breakfast I often ate growing up: eggs baked in Japanese-style curry with a side of milk toast. At Bessou, we add stewed tomatoes in the curry to further blur the lines between a traditional Japanese curry and Mediterranean shakshuka. It may not seem like the most obvious pairing to others — but, to me, it makes sense.

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?

The funniest stories from restaurants are “tradgecomedies” because there is a lot that can go wrong! There was a time when our restaurant phones were down for several weeks because of some construction mishap that was happening in our neighborhood. Every phone call had to be routed to my cell phone and I would have to answer calls at all hours, sometimes even when I was dining at a different restaurant on my day off! It was complete madness, but I had to laugh about it — because, well, what else could I do? The lessons I took from that was 1) it takes an infinite amount of patience and endurance to own a business; and 2) we have now switched almost exclusively to reservation via external services or email!

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 ?

When we opened in 2016, we were very much pioneers in introducing a new type of Japanese food to the scene. There weren’t half as many non-ramen, non-sushi Japanese concepts as there are now. We were new operators, young and unfocused. Part of it was that we were lost in trying to make the food of our dreams, but not really tapping into the type of food we were lauding ourselves (everyday comfort food). We quickly learned that it was important to not just do abstract and interesting food, but to make the crave-worthy dishes people wanted to eat every day. Essentially, we needed to find a way to bring everyday Japanese classics together with universal ideas of comfort food — and also make a profit. What that meant was digging deep and really thinking about each and every component we brought to a dish. Emily [Yuen], my executive chef, and I spent countless hours eating, debating, experimenting, battling our own fantasies of the ultimate dishes, and honing them in. I felt like we were philosophers at times, contemplating and studying every dish. We’ve learned a lot about the difference between a chef’s desires versus what works operationally. We now tend to focus on bringing out the beauty in more humble ingredients you might find anywhere, like potatoes, green beans, and chicken.

In your experience, what is the key to creating a dish that customers are crazy about?

The key is finding the cross section between the familiar and the new. For me, it’s about making someone crave a dish that they’ve never tasted before and reminding them of something that they love — whether it be another comfort food or maybe a food memory. If you can put a clever spin on a classic, all the better.

Personally, what is the ‘perfect meal for you’?

The perfect meal for me is a simple grilled fish, a glistening bowl of rice, pickles and miso soup.

Where does your inspiration for creating come from? Is there something that you turn to for a daily creativity boost?

I find a lot of inspiration in nature. I look at textures and colors and different compositions found in the world and see how beauty is brought out in this amalgam of different elements. I often apply that same perspective in creating a dish. Taking a walk through a garden or a hike through the woods helps me center myself and also see wonder in the everyday.

Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? What impact do you think this will have?

We opened a fast casual concept in DUMBO’s Time Out Market earlier this year. We are growing and learning about running multiple venues and hope that it will be the start of other fast casual concepts in the future.

What advice would you give to other chefs or restauranteurs to thrive and avoid burnout?

Have some boundaries. No matter how passionate you are about your work or your business, take time for yourself. Seek adventures, create memories, and remember to be thankful for something every day!

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. It takes a village. Without the help of friends, family and staff, I wouldn’t have survived. These friends hostessed for me after they finished their 9 to 5 jobs, gave me artwork to hang and books to fill my shelves, and bought family meal for my staff. My father still slices sashimi for us twice a week and is our company Uber driver on other days. My sister helps me manage our booth at Time Out Market. Former staff members jump in when someone calls out, and others constantly help me avoid calling a repairman to fix the oven, internet, printer, or lowboy. Without the help of those around me, I would not be here. Thank everyone in your life, and remind them that you love them!
  2. Learn to let go. The business may be your baby, but you can’t run the whole operation by yourself. In order to operate a business effectively, you need to know your own strengths and weaknesses — and you also need to see the strengths and weaknesses of those around you. I know that I am not great at repetitive tasks or executing on details — but I love setting goals and organizing the bigger picture. I also know that I am much stronger mentally and emotionally than I am physically. Focus on utilizing your best qualities and delegating those tasks you know others could do better. Don’t hesitate to let go!
  3. Work will be a way of life. Your work life and personal life will blend together. I live and breathe my restaurants. I may be at home in bed, jotting down an idea in my iPhone notes. I may hear a song and add it to our restaurant playlist. I may eat something and be inspired to make a new dish. This is not some job that you can turn off when you go home. Think about whether you are ok with that.
  4. Practice listening. If I were asked what the toughest part of my job is, it would be that I am entrusted with the wellbeing of many humans and their personal issues, feelings, and agendas. Maybe it’s because the hospitality industry focuses on servicing and pampering others, but I find that many people in the industry have trouble taking care of themselves. They neglect themselves of healthy outlets to self-care. My primary role as the employer is to run a business… but, at the heart of it, it’s also to make sure my staff is happy. My days are often spent listening to employees and their concerns. You are the resident therapist. Take time to care, ask questions and hear about other people’s lives.
  5. Don’t forget about yourself. It’s easy to get wrapped up in work and forget about yourself but remember to take a breather. I am a much better boss when I have my two days off to reset and re-energize. Even if there are times you won’t be able to, remember to take that walk around the block, eat something healthy or meditate.

What’s the one dish people have to try if they visit your establishment

You must try our Chicken Karaage. It’s our Japanese-style fried chicken, marinated and double fried, dusted with our own blend of Moroccan spices. It’s served with a cooling side of shiso tzatziki. It brings a smile to a lot of faces.

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.

If I could inspire people to do anything it would be to cook and eat more variety from an early age! People are so resistant to the unfamiliar, but it is in the discovery of a new flavor, dish or different preparation of a familiar ingredient that might open your mind to different foods, cultures, and ways of thinking. Start early, especially with your kids! I would love to find a way to introduce kids to new foods. Maybe it starts by using a dish that kids love… like pasta. Try introducing yakisoba to a child and explain that it’s a different kind of spaghetti. Get them involved in the cooking and use their favorite ingredients like bacon, broccoli, or corn. I have done this with some of my favorite young people in my life and even the finickiest of eaters have been converted!

Thank you so much for these insights. This was very inspirational!

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