Jonathan Yao believes that passion and tenacity empowers chefs, interview

MASTERCHEF: Guest judge Jonathan Yao in the “Legends Dinner” airing Wednesday, Sept 1 (8:00-9:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. © 2021 FOX MEDIA LLC. CR: FOX.
MASTERCHEF: Guest judge Jonathan Yao in the “Legends Dinner” airing Wednesday, Sept 1 (8:00-9:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. © 2021 FOX MEDIA LLC. CR: FOX. /

Nestled into an unsuspecting location in West Los Angeles, Jonathan Yao has created a culinary masterpiece at Kato. While his elaborate tasting menu is a truly unique culinary experience, the self-taught chef stands as an example to follow a dream and it can reach its fullest potential. Ahead of his appearance on MasterChef Legends, Yao graciously shared some of his culinary insight.

As seen throughout MasterChef Legends, the chefs who are imparting their culinary wisdom to these home cooks have varied backgrounds. From Nancy Silverton who embraced her culinary obsessions to Jonathan Waxman who encourages chefs to learn from their culinary mistakes, these legendary chefs serve as the inspiration to dream big.

For Jonathan Yao, his culinary journey seemed to stem from a deeply rooted calling to be part of the culinary world. Whether it was learning traditional recipes from family or incorporating food traditions into his tasting menu, the food that Yao presents tells a story beyond the plate. Even in his most simple dish, there is an air of intrigue that has many people yearning to learn more.

Jonathan Yao believes that being a self-taught chef offers a unique point of view.

While some chefs learn via culinary school, the experience of being in a kitchen can be totally immersive. For Yao, as a self-taught chef, his experience broadens his approach to his cuisine.

When asked about his culinary journey, Yao shared, “Since I never worked under any of the people who I consider mentor figures in my life, I think our food isn’t limited. But the opposite side of that would be that a lot of things at the restaurant we had to learn or develop on our own. Most of our food is based on food memories or flavors that are familiar to my family.”

Although many people can appreciate that food memory etched into their minds, the reality is that there is a difference between a dish served on the family table and a meal at a Michelin Star restaurant. While the flavor connections are clear, the nuances are far different. Still, without that deeply rooted connection, the food would never leave that long lasting impression.

Since Yao brings his traditions and knowledge to the kitchen, that concept is relatable to many aspiring cooks. Even if that aspiration to be a profession chef is not part of the plan, the culinary concept applies to anyone who steps behind the stove. Those flavors are key to the overall meal enjoyment.

When asked about celebrating heritage and tradition in food and how those flavors are incorporated into a memorable dish, his response was clear. Yao said, “I think it’s because those flavors feel more natural to the cook. You’re more invested and knowledgeable with things that are close to you.”

While the tasting menu at Kato evolves, a few dishes, in different variations, are usually part of the experience. One of those dishes is steamed fish.

When asked about the evolution of his menu, Yao shared, “(steamed fish) is one of two dishes that we keep on the menu but even though it looks the same the flavors and technique are constantly being refined. I think it’s good to be uncomfortable in order to grow as a person.”

That idea of being uncomfortable is a curious choice for a chef. Although Yao is never afraid to push the boundaries, there is a drive or quest to keep striving for more or better.

Although he has learned much through his culinary journey, Yao shared this advice to aspiring chefs. He encourages them “To be tenacious and to remain passionate and persistent in pursuing your craft.”

As those words marinate in the mind, the professional chef and the home cook can heed that wisdom. Without passion, the food becomes stale and the journey is littered with potholes. It is that desire to fuel the dream that keeps people moving forward.

For Yao, he is fortified in his pursuit of culinary greatness. As he said, “I think I’m all in on the hospitality industry. I can’t see myself doing anything else and I never like thinking about what could be or what if so I don’t allow myself the option of having a back up plan.”

Maybe that idea of not allowing the idea of an alternative has pushed Jonathan Yao to be that MasterChef Legend and has him as a shining example of always staying true to that culinary dream.

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Jonathan Yao can be seen on MasterChef Legends, “Legends Dinner” on FOX. MasterChef Season 11 has featured numerous Michelin Star, James Beard Award winning chefs throughout the season.

Jonathan Yao is the mastermind behind Kato, a tasting menu restaurant experience in Los Angeles. Yao has received numerous accolades including, one Michelin Star, Food and Wine Magazine Best New Chef, and James Beard Finalist for Rising Star.