Jimi Yui cherishes food. Where others see fuel, he sees the rich fabric of human history, shared relationships, complex cultures, and family lore. Yui, 50, is not a chef—although he is a superb cook—but designs the kitchens in which some of the world’s most famous chefs work. He has done the “back of the house” for restaurants like Mario Batali’s Del Posto and Gray Kunz’s Café Gray, both in New York; Eric Ripert and hotelier Andre Balazs’s Raleigh Hotel in South Beach; and Michel Richard’s planned Central in Washington, DC. Collectively, his clients have made culinary history with their emphasis on seasonal ingredients, impeccable service, and stellar atmosphere.
“All my chef clients have a common thread—that high level of commitment,” said Yui. “I have to do for them what a tailor does for his customer. It’s your suit because you wear it; it’s their kitchen because they perform in it. I want their job to be easier, better…I set the stage for the chefs to perform.”
Restaurants are part of Yui’s heritage. Ethnically Chinese, he was raised in Japan where his grandfather ran a Western-style nightclub that welcomed many of the elite of the American occupation forces, including General Douglas MacArthur. Yui’s mother Betty was a greeter at the club where she met his father James, a Chinese civilian employee of the U.S. government.
After their marriage, Yui’s parents opened The Guest House, a Chinese restaurant in Tokyo that served Pekingese and Shanghainese food. They named their only child Jimi, an unintentional corruption of the diminutive of James. The Guest House was open 365 days a year and Yui often did his homework squeezed into his father’s office or hopping from one empty dinner table to another.
When Yui became a teenager his parents decided that he needed a life outside of Tokyo’s teeming entertainment district. At 17 he went to live with his aunt and uncle in St. Louis and attend The Priory, a Benedictine Catholic school. After high school, Yui went to Cornell and majored in architecture. In his fourth year, nearing graduation, he saw that all of his fellow architectural students were unemployed while “all the hotel students took wine tasting and when they finished had two or three jobs lined up.” He transferred to Cornell’s famous School of Hotel Administration and got experience running a college town café called Mugsie’s on the side.
Yui’s career path changed once again when he attended an informal lecture called “Brownies with the Dean.” The speaker was Cornell alumnus John Cini of the Washington-based professional kitchen design firm Cini-Grissom. “I didn’t even know this profession existed,” remembered Yui. “It was perfect for those who had technical ability but didn’t want to be closing bars at 3 a.m.” At the end of the lecture, Yui met John Cini, who flew him to Washington to meet his partners. They hired Yui on the spot. In his six years with Cini-Grissom he worked for institutional clients like IBM, Smithsonian, and Drexel Burnham Lambert. By the time he was 30, he was ready to strike out on his own.
YuiDesign opened in 1985 and Yui worked out of the Takoma Park house he shared with his wife Ellen, the director of her own public relations firm. Jimi had an office on the first floor; Ellen had one on the second, and “the intercom was pounding on the ceiling.” What he didn’t have was clients—or at least the type of clients that he wanted. Yui wanted to break into the rarefied world of restaurant design, where food is operatic and the chefs are the star sopranos and tenors.
Then one day Ellen read an article about Sony Corporation’s move into the AT&T building in New York. The famous restaurant Quilted Giraffe, owned by Barry Wine, was slated to occupy the penthouse where it would become the core of The SONY Club, an elite corporate dining room. Yui cold-called Wine to see if there was any leftover work. Surprisingly, Wine said that there was one space that no one could seem to get right—the 600-square-foot sushi room in the middle of the building. It had no windows and was attached to the elevator core. Wine’s instructions were simple: SONY Chairman Akio Morita should feel at home there and Janet Jackson should also think it cool.
“All my chef clients have a common thread—that high level of commitment,” said Yui. “I set the stage for the chefs to perform.”
When Yui won the 1995 James Beard Award for his design of the space (The New York Times called it “the most elegant deal-making place in New York City”), he entered a new world. For several years he handled both the front and the back of restaurants but eventually found that concentrating on the kitchens allowed him to contact with the men and women he most admired—the chefs.
It is their pursuit of perfection that mesmerizes him. Their discipline demands that every meal, every plate must excel. “I learned that perfection is not just inspiration—it’s about hard work and commitment,” said Yui. “They produce art on command, not just once, but repeating it with a restaurant full of customers and employees…I learned that creativity is really highly disciplined behavior. A meal is perfect the first time and the thousandth time. The pursuit of perfection is a hell of a lot of work.”
Yui’s work starts in the very earliest stages of restaurant development when his clients propose concepts and sites. Chefs generally come with strong opinions—this is not a field for shrinking personalities and the feint of heart. Yui’s job is to allow them to perform at maximum capacity. “We set the stage for the chefs to perform.” To his task, he brings a vast knowledge of international cuisine. Chefs trained in Europe, for example, work in a very different system from those trained in Asia. And each establishes his own pattern; the restaurant kitchen is a reflection of the chef’s personality and the hierarchy of the staff.
Some things are immutable. Health code mandates that restaurant kitchens be constructed of stainless steel and stone. Floors must be cleanable materials like tile or sealed concrete. Walls and ceilings must be washable and the kitchen cannot contain fissures that are hard to disinfect. Everything is geared towards function. The choice of appliances is as personal as a pianist’s selection of a piano. It is not unusual for a chef to fly to a plant in Europe to see how a stove is manufactured or try out an appliance in a colleague’s kitchen after hours. Yui also has to take into account the chefs’ habits. Plating food is painstaking and they may spend hours hunched over a counter meticulously arranging each dish. In Café Gray, Yui raised the counter height from 36 inches to 42 inches to alleviate back fatigue, a big problem for his clients.
Yui occasionally does residential kitchens but says, “I don’t do vanity kitchens. I’m not interested in doing kitchens that sit in 20,000 square feet where the caterer turns on the appliances once a month.”
The kitchen has its test run during the restaurant’s pre-opening, a period that might last anywhere from just a few days to a month. The design is fine-tuned; what has worked for a chef in the past may not necessarily translate into a new environment. On occasion, a kitchen has to be re-thought or even re-designed. “New space, new geometry, these are all one of a kind,” said Yui. His unflappable demeanor and unfailing good humor are rare among the sometimes fiery temperaments of the restaurant business. “I love passionate people and I haven’t had a bad experience…I get the wonderful side of these creative people. For them to get what they want, we have to have a straightforward, honest relationship.”
Yui’s most challenging job was his smallest, a closet-sized sandwich shop in Tokyo. His biggest job was Arthur Ashe Stadium in Flushing Meadow, New York, a project that encompassed three restaurants, 800 seats total with a common kitchen and individual finishing kitchens. Current projects include the kitchens for the expanding number of Nobu and Morimoto restaurants worldwide (both named for their respective chefs Nobu Matsuhisa and Masaharu Morimoto), and doing concept work for Whole Foods. Every week he spends several days in New York when he is not traveling.
Jimi Yui has taught his sons to be open to all experiences, including food. “I want them to go to a table and be able to experience something new and judge it on its own merit.”
Despite the demands of his commercial clients, Yui occasionally does private kitchens. “I don’t do vanity kitchens. I’m not interested in doing kitchens that sit in 20,000 square feet where the caterer turns on the appliances once a month. If a client cooks for 50 to 100 on a regular basis it makes sense to have a commercial kitchen in a residence—but they have to show the same kind of commitment to food that my chef clients do.” A prime example is Jimi and Ellen Yui’s own kitchen in their Takoma Park cottage. Counters and cabinets are stainless steel and its heart is a commercial Vulcan stove with six burners, a two-foot griddle, an adjacent prep sink, two ovens and a commercial hood. This is Yui’s stage and one of the ways he relaxes is to cook. Although he admits to learning some tricks from his clients, his most important lesson was to “respect your ingredients. You don’t necessarily have to buy the most expensive, the most complicated, the most exotic ingredients, but treat them with respect, cook with respect, bring out the most of that product.”
Jimi Yui has taught his sons Yoshi and Zen to be open to all experiences, including food. Yui recalled that Zen once stepped up to the counter at McDonald’s, ordered a cheeseburger and asked innocently, “Can I have it with fontina?” Budding epicures but not food snobs, they learned never to reject anything without first trying it. “I want them to go to a table and be able to experience something new and judge it on its own merit. Everything is made with heart and effort. If someone makes you a hot dog, it’s something to be cherished…that’s why I love food.”
Alice Leccese Powers is a Washington-based freelance writer and the editor of Tuscany in Mind, France in Mind, Ireland in Mind and Italy in Mind, all published by Vintage/Random House Books. The next volume in the series, Spain in Mind, will be published in the fall of 2006.
Photo by Scott Frances
Photo by Scott Frances