In Photos: The Coolest Chefs Without a Restaurant Take a Culinary Tour of Japan
They draw on what they call the "postmodern sample culture" born from their corner of New York; where the city's first DJs once mixed a new world of music into being, they now chop up and rearrange global food traditions and social critiques into a boundary-pushing way of cooking and thinking. These days, you'll find them curating artist collaborations and site-specific dinners at home and around the world.
The core team — Jon Gray, Malcolm Livingston II, Pierre Serrao, and Lester Walker — recently took a gastronomic tour around Japan as research for their latest project: a knife brand called Ogun, named after the orisha(Yoruba deity) of metalwork. The team studied under master blacksmiths, adding the lessons of traditional Japanese craftsmanship to their growing list of influences.
Oh, and they ate, too — experiencing Japan’s enduringly rich food culture, from French-inspired fine dining to street foods like delicate kakigori and tempura fish sandwiches they can’t stop thinking about. Here's are some memories from their trip.
Photos by Jose D. Cota (@josedcota), Harold Kenyon (@haroldkenyon), and Pierre Serrao (@chefp).
John Gray [left]: We’re designing a line of kitchen knives. We were first inspired by the metalworking tradition of the ancient Kingdom of Benin, but we knew Japan also had a great knifemaking heritage.
Pierre Serrao [second from right]: Everything is hand-forged layered steel. In Japan, being a blacksmith is a lifetime commitment. People spend their entire lives doing one thing, generation after generation.
Malcolm Livingston II [right]: If you’re going to make a blade, you gotta go to Japan first. My wife, Mika, is Japanese, so I go every year.
JG: We went to Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, Gifu Prefecture, and the historic Takefu Knife Village in Echizen.
JG: This is Kinkaku-ji, the golden shrine in Kyoto. We had to get our Zen right while we were traveling.
Lester Walker: Kyoto is straight out of an old kung fu flick, very cultured, very customary. Take your shoes off before you dine — things like that. There was also really cool shopping there, so I scooped up some drip (and some Japanese toys for my son).
JG: We ate at Afuri, a ramen-ya in Nakameguro, Tokyo, near where we saw the cherry blossoms blooming. It’s a chain — there’s actually one in Portland, Oregon now. It’s part of the Chinese influence on the cuisine. Hangover food.
ML: We incorporated that Japanese idea of umami and the layering of flavor into our own cooking.
JG: One night in Tokyo, we dined at Narisawa’s new Bees Bar. Here are some of our team [from left: Harold Kenyon, Jose Cota, and Jon Gray] with chef Yoshihiro Narisawa [second from right] and designer Rocky Xu.
LW: At the end of the day, travel is all about picking up these jewels from the people you meet — people in art, architecture, food, design.
LW: Japanese cuisine is very particular. Going in, I wanted to be as precise as possible — but the Japanese chefs we worked with were more into how we were reinterpreting their dishes. We did a Japanese jerk patty, and they were into it, like, “add a little more miso,” “try using more Kobe beef fat.”
PS: We wanted to play with local ingredients. So we used jerk seasoning, but we also used kombu.
LW: We want to bring the Bronx to the world and the world to the Bronx.
JG: We visited master blacksmiths like this man in Seki, in Gifu Prefecture.
ML: In Echizen, we visited Takamura Cutlery, which is regarded as one of the greatest knifemakers in the planet. I learned about them while I was working at Noma, and had been trying to visit for years.
PS: In Tokyo, we shopped at Tsukiji fish market for a dinner we were cooking that night. We browsed the purveyors and ended up finding fresh ikura — it went on top of corn bread with yuzu crème fraîche.
ML: The knife skills there are amazing. I saw a guy butcher a live eel, still pulsing — the technique is distilled to such a precise movement. It’s so beautiful.
ML: Japan is a big influence on my career because they do everything so insanely well there. We want to go back, maybe for a longer pop-up.
LW: To go to these temples of knifemaking, hearing the history of these old companies and learning how sacred the steel is to them, to be able to hold that knife and create dishes with it — it’s humbling.