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The Story of a Shin-Issei Who Flourished Inside the American Culinary Scene: Ryo Sato, living in South Pasadena, CA - Part 2 The first Japanese to be named head chef at a premiere LA restaurant

>> Part 1

Mr. Sato, a chef who went to Switzerland on an overseas program after the Tokyo Olympics, spent time in France and England before heading to America in 1971 to work at The Plaza Hotel in New York. After coming to the realization that “unlike Europe, American cooking was very loose and inexact”, he was invited to Chicago and headed there.

After a stint at Maxim’s Restaurant in Chicago, Mr. Sato moved to a restaurant called “95th”, starting work at its grand opening on the 95th floor of the John Hancock Center, which was the tallest building in the world at the time. “It was a 100-story building. Floors 44 and above were residences. Below that were offices. The whole building was structured like a city.”

In Chicago, he worked extremely hard. “Even on my days off, if I was asked to help out, I worked. I even helped out with catering. My only R&R was sleeping. I saved $10,000 a year. I wonder how much $10,000 in late 1970s’ money would be worth today.”

It was while he was living in Chicago that he returned to Japan and was introduced to his wife, Yoshie. Three weeks after meeting her, they decided to get married and returned to America. “Chicago was a city I loved. I had friends; I was earning money. However, the winters could get as cold as minus 40 or minus 60 degrees. Since it was too harsh an environment to raise children in, we decided to move to the west coast.”

He first requested a transfer to an affiliate restaurant in San Francisco, but there weren’t any openings. In the end, he decided to move to a French restaurant in the Arco Tower in downtown Los Angeles.

“The top people at Arco said ‘Come right away’, so I moved from Chicago in 3 days (laughs). I started working and moved up quickly.” By “moving up”, Mr. Sato means becoming the head chef, the highest position. “At that time, business was booming, and we were using special plates that had the Bank of America insignia on them. We made 10,000 meals a day. It was an astronomical number.”

Not every employee welcomed the promotion of Mr. Sato to head chef. “I was basically the only Japanese person there. I heard people were betting on how many years someone like me who didn’t even speak English that well would last. That made me even more determined to continue.” It was the same Japanese spirit that burned quietly within Mr. Sato when he first left Haneda Airport and pledged that “I can’t come back home until I’ve done what I set out to do.”

To belie the perceptions surrounding him, Mr. Sato would put his skills on display. He took his time, and swapped out recipes with his own and switched to new and compelling ingredients. This even gave birth to Mr. Sato’s idea of putting the now common “obento” in picnic baskets at the Hollywood Bowl. “Since this contributed to a big rise in sales, the owner took me by limousine to the Hollywood Bowl.”

Located in high society downtown, the restaurant attracted many famous people, including actress Elizabeth Taylor, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the Soviet Union’s Mikhail Gorbachev, President George Bush and others. In 1979, Mr. Sato was presented with the “Chef of the Year” award by then-mayor of Los Angeles, Tom Bradley.

In 1980, he was selected as a representative of the American team for the Culinary Olympics, which like the sporting event, happens every four years. At the festival, which took place in Frankfurt, Germany, Mr. Sato took home the gold medal for the hot food competition.

“On the American team of 15 or 16 members, there was only one born and bred American.” And, of course, Mr. Sato was the only Japanese member.

Ironically, while Mr. Sato was continuing to achieve the American dream – being honored as “Chef of the Year” among Los Angeles’ formal restaurants, winning the gold medal at the Culinary Olympics and more – he was actually thinking of picking up and heading back to Japan. “My wife and I were talking about returning to Japan when the kids got ready to enter elementary school. In fact, I actually interviewed several times for the head chef position at a theme park that was opening. However, at that stage my wife said America was actually best for us.”

Part 3 >>


©2009 Keiko Fukuda

chef Chez Sato culinary food restaurant Ryo Sato