Glass meets the Japanese-Mexican-American Chef John Carlos Kuramoto

Glass meets the Japanese-Mexican-American Chef  John Carlos Kuramoto who’s changing the dining landscape in LA

FOR a city as diverse as LA, the food scene in Los Angeles has, until recently, been seemingly shallow. While celebrity hotspots are aplenty, they’ve also failed to ignite the kind of epicurean allure befitting a town that calls itself the City of Stars. But the constellations may finally be aligning for the LA restaurant scene – and just in time too, as the conversation in Hollywood shifts to substance over style. Diners, like consumers of entertainment, are looking for something different, and craving something authentic and inspired. Something like Ainoko.

A Mexican restaurant with Japanese influences, Ainoko serves taqueria-style dishes prepared and presented at a traditional Omakase bar. At its head is Chef John Carlos Kuramoto, who, at just 30 years old, has worked his way up the ranks of LA’s restaurant industry to open one of the city’s most unique dining experiences. Ask Kuramoto about it and he’ll tell you the story behind Ainoko is about more than just food – it’s personal.

John Carlos Kuramoto, photo: Jesse Giddings

Let’s start from the beginning. Where did you grow up? More importantly: what did you eat?
I grew up in Monterey Park [ed note: about ten miles east of Downtown Los Angeles]. I actually still live there. Monterey Park is in the San Gabriel Valley, which is the epicenter of Chinese food in LA, and it’s also situated between a large Chinese population and a large Mexican population, so I was always surrounded by really good food.

I’m half-Japanese and half-Mexican, and both my grandmothers were fantastic cooks, and they kind of showed me the ropes. They taught me how to eat, number one, and then they taught me how to cook, number two.

What would a typical meal be for you, growing up?
For dinner? Neither of my parents cooked, so that’s the funniest part; we tended to eat out a lot.

What would you eat?
Oh man. Lots of Ramen, lots of burritos, and then lots of Chinese food too. And then I would go over to my grandparents’ house to eat. My Mexican grandmother would make tamales and then chorizo and eggs for breakfast, and things like that. And then my Japanese grandmother made Japanese-style American food, like spaghetti, which looks exactly like normal spaghetti, but it tastes a little bit different.

Ainoko, Kuramoto’s restaurant

What’s in it?
Sugar. You get that nice sweetness to the pasta and somehow it works. That was all part of natural infusion too, seeing my Japanese grandmother making American staples, but with an Asian twist on it. It helped develop my flavor profile.

You mentioned your bi-racial heritage. How did your parents meet?
Well my dad was a tour manager for multiple musicians.

Like who?
Back in the day he did Michael Jackson, he did Michael’s Japanese tours. He did Boston, Heart … older bands.

He was born here?
Born here. Born in East LA.

How did he meet your mom?
My mom went to one of the shows. She got backstage, met one of the managers, then one thing led to another [laughs].

Did you always want to be a chef?
I always wanted to be a tennis player.

Like who? Michael Chang?
Nah, Roger Federer. I like Federer’s game. I wanted to play tennis, but I knew I couldn’t turn pro. So, I thought, “Okay, we’ve got to pivot.” I always liked building things. I always liked making things. And I had been cooking for a while, you know, with my grandparents. There was also a lot of Food Network stuff that I watched, like Molto Mario (a cooking show starring Chef Mario Batali) which was one of my favorite shows. Also, East Meets West, Ming Tsai’s hybrid show, I thought was fascinating because of the flavors and the techniques he would use.

What was your first job in the kitchen?
I interned at the Renaissance Hotel in Long Beach. I was, maybe 16? Yeah, summer of junior year, that’s when I first started. I was on the banquet line. So, we would have like a 500-person banquet, or 1,000-person banquet, and it was like, “Alright, you’re on mashed potatoes..” So you put the mashed potatoes right there, move plate, mashed potatoes, move plate, mashed potatoes, move plate. It was great seeing the whole service style going out. But it was also a chance to learn all the little things, like how to prep a meal, or how to cut things, or how to sauté. I remember tasting lemon curd, and I was like, “Oh, this is fantastic, this is amazing, I’ve never had anything like this.” Right after I graduated high school, I started culinary school — and I haven’t looked back since.

Where did you go to culinary school?
At The Culinary Institute of America, in New York. The program was two years, with an internship between the first and second year. I interned at Ming Tsai’s restaurant, Blue Ginger, which just recently closed. That was the first time really working on the line. Giving me a full restaurant experience, working 12 to 14 hours a day. After New York, I wanted to get my bachelor’s, so I enrolled at UNLV (University of Nevada, Las Vegas) for their hospitality program. While at UNLV I worked at Michael Mina, in the Bellagio. That was my first Michelin star experience, so that was great.

What’s the food scene like in Vegas?
The food in Vegas is fantastic, especially off the strip. Like that was my first experience with izakaya-style dining, and then you have Thai, Laotian, you have all the Southeast Asians, all the Filipinos, plus there’s a great Chinatown.

Next time I go to Vegas I want to do an off-strip dining tour. I feel like it’s very underrated, and people keep telling me about it.
Yeah, go to Chinatown – the original Raku is over there, and then Lotus of Siam is off the strip. That’s one of the best Thai restaurants in the whole country, and their wine list is fantastic. When he was just 23 and fresh out of school, Kuramoto was plucked out for the executive chef position at Michael’s, a culinary institution in Santa Monica, where chefs such as Jonathan Waxman helped usher in what would become known as California cuisine.

Ainoko, Kuramoto’s restaurant

What was it like making that jump to executive chef?
It was hard. Being consistent was the hardest. It’s like, how do you produce your food every single day and make sure it tastes good 50 times over the night, every night?

How did this idea for Ainoko come about, going from California cuisine at Michael’s to this? It’s very different.
After about three years at Michael’s, I starting working at The Nice Guy [ed note: a popular celeb hotspot in West Hollywood frequented by the likes of Justin Bieber, Kanye West and the Kardashians, and run by h.wood Group – also the owners of Ainoko]. About six months into Nice Guy, we started doing Taco Tuesdays. I realised I was doing traditional Mexican-looking tacos but they had a Japanese flair to them. Unintentionally. It was like, alright, if I’m going to make a taco, I want these type of flavors. And it just started coming out Japanese-Mexican. So we were like, “This is great. We never had anything like this. If we were to do something like this, how would it come out?”

I had read a New York Times article with a bunch of chefs from New York who said the best way to serve a taco is kind of  like the sushi bar concept. The chef makes the sushi and then hands it to you and then you eat it right away. And that’s the best way to eat a taco. Because tacos can’t sit. Even for us, from the moment we make the taco to the time it gets to your table, that’s probably like two to three minutes. And so, honestly, that taco is better at two-to-three minutes ago than when it hits the table. So, that’s the whole concept for tacos. Same concept for sushi.

So now you’re serving tacos from behind a sushi bar.
Not only that, sushi is all about the rice, and then the fish is a seasoning for the rice. And, really, that’s what tacos are too. The tortilla is the star of the show. If you have a good tortilla, all you are trying to do is season that tortilla. And so now we’ve taken all these ideas and turned this space into a taco, Mexican-Japanese tasting menu.

Ainoko, which means “half breed” in Japanese, opened to rave reviews last fall, as a stand-alone space inside the Mexican restaurant, Petite Taqueria. The restaurant only does one seating a night, so patrons never feel rushed through the multiple course tasting menu (which comes with tea service). Because the sushi bar seats less than a dozen people, Kuramoto is able to interact with each guest, going over the ingredients, flavor profile and inspiration behind every dish.

Do you ever use the word Fusion?
Yeah, yeah.

I feel like that’s a word that’s been bastardised.
Absolutely. Bad fusion is when it is not very genuine, and when you force things, like, I’m going to take something random here and then take something random here and just throw it together to say it’s Fusion. Good fusion is technique from one culture, ingredient from another culture, and you [Kuramoto clasps hands together].

What has the response been to the concept and to the food?
What I love is, Japanese people, they will come in like, “Oh! I recognise this, this, and this. I’ve never had it like this before.” But now they’re interested to try it. Same thing with the Latinos that come in, they are like, “Oh, we recognise tacos, but we also love Japanese food.” And so, it’s cool. No one’s ever read the menu and been like, “I’ve had that before, I’ve had that before, I went to that restaurant, and It’ve had that.” No one’s ever said that before. And that’s the goal.

Ainoko, Kuramoto’s restaurant

What are some signature dishes that best illustrate this sort of “good fusion?”
We have our “tako taco.” This is a braised octopus taco. So, in Japanese tako is octopus so we want to do a little tako taco. We braise the octopus, grill it, serve it with a hand-pressed corn tortilla, a little miso aioli and a little pickled mango salad, right on top. Today I made a “hamachi crudo” for you guys. We have our hamachi but we do it with a little togarashi peanuts, and then sweet garlic and hot chili oil, almost like a Chinese-style technique, where you take hot oil and pour it straight onto the fish. So, that’s what we do with our hamachi.

What do you think the success of this restaurant says about the LA food scene? For so long, we were known for “Californian cuisine” but this is something totally different.
I think that’s exactly it. I think Ainoko is going to be successful for people who want a different experience. It’s something that people haven’t tried before. People have had sushi before, they’ve had Mexican food before, they’ve had tacos, everyone’s had this food before, but they’ve never had it together with different flavors. Especially in a tasting menu format where you can just go back to back to back. People really appreciate that.

What does your family think about this place?
My parents have both been here and they love it. Like I mentioned earlier, my dad is Japanese and my mom is Mexican, so their lives are kind of like fusion. And they have a son who is literally the embodiment of that fusion. And then turning that into fusion food.

This is the new wave of cooking.
Food is an ever-evolving signature, as is who you are in terms of identity. It’s always such a fluid concept and it’ll always continue to change.

John Carlos Kuramoto’s diverse influences have turned his tasting room into the trendiest restaurant in town.

by Tim Chan

Ainoko opened last year and is taking reservations here.

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