Morimoto (88 Tenth Avenue, 212-989-8883) executive chef Erik Battes tackles questions efficiently and articulately, his gaze never wandering, his answer never straying from the point, not even to embellish that point with more details. It takes about three exchanged sentences to understand that he’s intense, focused, and driven, a perception he confirms when he reveals that he became a sous chef at Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Perry St when he was 22 years old — and chef de cuisine when he was 24 — and when he says he loves Japanese food for the diligence and commitment engrained in its culture.
The chef grew up in California; his parents were artists who encouraged him to pursue whatever experiences he wanted to experience, though they challenged him to take something to a high level. Through most of his childhood, that was music, but he shied away from it after high school because he was turned off by the unstable career path.
He’d always loved food, he says, so he asked the Wolfgang Puck Cafe in Woodland Hills if he could work there for free. The kitchen agreed, and after he learned the ropes, he enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America, which allowed him to trail in several New York City kitchens. He landed an externship at Jean-Georges because he was willing to devote one day a week to the restaurant before that externship started.
After graduation, he returned to Los Angeles for awhile, but he was soon back in New York, this time as a line cook at Jean-Georges. He moved over to Perry St when that restaurant opened, rising through the ranks, and after five years, he left to work with Laurent Tourondel at BLT. He returned to Jean-Georges not long after that, but he soon found himself looking for a place where he could run the kitchen. “There was an executive chef at Jean Georges, a corporate chef, and then Jean Georges himself,” Battes explains. “It was an amazing experience to cook at a place like that, but I wanted it to be mine.”
In 2013, he joined Morimoto as the executive chef, where he’s had the freedom to apply his own vision to the menu.
Tell me more about your love of Japanese food.
Japanese food is taking something beautiful that naturally exists and showcasing it for its core elements. You can see that also in the way the Japanese view architecture — they take wood and show beauty of wood in its core essence. There’s also a kind of commitment and dedication to craft of cooking — they take a to a level higher than other cultures. It’s a pursuit of something that can’t be achieved in your life time. It’s the pursuit of perfection and dedication.
You say Morimoto is not a traditional Japanese restaurant. Tell me what you mean.
It’s a combination of models. We have dishes that are composed with Japanese ingredients that utilize Japanese technique. A lot of what I do is within that model. But we’re using Western ingredients with Japanese technique. For instance, take our gyoza dish — it’s served with bacon cream and tomato sauce, which are Italian flavors. It’s kind of like pasta.
So what was your vision here?
To make a compelling modern Japanese restaurant that pushes the boundaries of how people think about modern Japanese food. In the kitchen, I want an exceptionally clean kitchen, and I want cooks that want to learn more techniques, to work the next station. I want everyone here for the same reason, to develop and become better.
What was the hardest thing about transitioning to an executive chef role?
Whenever you go into a restaurant and need to change the culture, it’s always an uphill battle. People are used to doing things a certain way. Here, the standard was raised, and everyone had to work harder. That was often a difficult pill to swallow for employees — cooks who shared the same values thrived, and others moved on. We’re at a point now where everyone here sees the same vision — they’re striving for excellence and pushing the restaurant forward.
Tell me a little about your creative process.
I started a new creative process thing with my staff — I spend a lot of time thinking about food and creativity in general. Creativity isn’t necessarily creating something new; sometimes, it’s taking other people’s ideas and putting a spin on them; it’s making a connection no one has before. But I think a lot of people give up on trying to be creative. It’s important to keep an environment in the restaurant where the sous chef team is pushing themselves as well. So I do creative exercises. With [Jean-Georges corporate chef] George Brannan, we’d both eat a cherry, and then we’d write down everything we thought of while eating this cherry. After awhile, you’re technically agile enough to take that piece of paper and make delicious dishes.
Here, I started a creativity bulletin board. It’s sectioned. One section is culinary inspiration — people can put up an idea for a dish, a season, a presentation, a dish someone had at another restaurant — it’s a board for all to contribute to. Another section is projects we’re currently working on. We’ll have a main idea — like halibut or a noodle dish — and then ideas: flavor balancing, texture, aroma, seasonal ingredients — all the things that go into the dish. Then we take it to testing, and I delegate that to the sous chefs. Collectively, as a team, we create these dishes. I think it’s a process used by people in other industries — it’s just much more formal than a chef, who would often just think of an idea and make something. When I include the whole restaurant, we can work on five, six, seven things at once.
Any dishes on your menu that you’re really proud of?
I’m doing a seasonal rotation on yu-burrata, a play on burrata, which is mozzarella skin with a cheese curd center. I use yuba skin, which is made from soy milk; it’s a traditional technique from Kyoto. I wrap it around the cheese and then serve it with heirloom tomatoes, berries, wasabi, and sherry vinegar. It really blends Japanese cooking with Western cooking.
What about a dish here you could eat forever?
We do this dish called the ishi yaki buri bop — it’s a base of rice, pickles, sesame, and spinach, with sliced hamachi on top plus egg yolk, Yuzukoshō (a chile paste), and sweet soy sauce. It’s all mixed together, and you get something like a fried rice at the end. I eat it for dinner almost every night I work. You end up cooking a lot of refined food, but at the end of the day, you want homey food, comfort food.
What were your biggest lessons learned from Jean-Georges?
Everything I know today as a chef, I learned from Jean-Georges. And that means everything from flavor combinations to how to manage a kitchen to how mentor cooks to how to taste food — all of it was learned from Jean-Georges and my mentor George Brannan, the corporate chef.
What about things you’ve gleaned from Morimoto?
I’ve learned about Japanese ingredients. Jean-Georges utilizes Asian ingredients, but Japanese ingredients and technique are expansive; there’s a lot more involved. On top of that, Morimoto is a great showman, and that’s influenced the way I present food. I now go for dramatic presentations that are less subtle.
So have you formed a food philosophy?
I really value the quality of ingredients that we get. I like to seek out product that’s grown by someone who’s obsessed with the quality of their product, and I want to treat the food with that level of obsession.
What’s the most pressing issue facing the industry right now?
I think chefs are losing sight of why it is that we cook. Technique is being thought of more than enjoyment. I think that if you don’t make food that’s main purpose is to be enjoyed — food that’s delicious — then all the other technique is not worthwhile. In the last five to 10 years, we’ve had the modernist food movement and new Nordic food. It’s beautiful food, and some people have the ability to make that food delicious. But when you put foraged sprouts and micro greens on the plate, you make beautiful plates, but sometimes you lose sight of that question: Is this good?
Where would you like the industry to go from here?
I would like the industry to maybe take a step back and go back to some more traditional principles of cooking and approach food in a way that focuses on overall enjoyment rather than something they think is interesting. A lot of chefs have no filter — they make a dish, and they make it good enough that it’s not bad or doesn’t suck. I think people should have a higher standard. They should ask, “Is this the best we can do? Is this outstanding?”
How has the industry changed?
When I first started cooking, we worked off of very generalized recipes. There were a lot of instances where things were roughly measured by volume — or we’d be told to just make potato puree or fennel puree, and we would just make it. In the mid 2000s, chefs started quantifying recipes to the gram. I see the benefit — you get much more consistent product. But what you gain in consistency, you also sort of lose on the end of developing cooks to be great cooks. If you asked them to actually cook something, they wouldn’t be able to do it — they’re so used to following recipes. That’s going to affect the industry in the long run: We’re missing a big portion of understanding cooking. There are gaps in your knowledge if you’re precisely following a procedure. That’s a skill. But cooking with your senses; making something to taste; understanding how much a sauce should be reduced by taste, look, smell, and color — a lot of that is lost. We lose the soul of cooking if we’re too precise. The irony is that I operate the kitchen like this [with precise recipes].
How has media changed, and what’s the impact?
Social media is a big part of being a chef these days — go into the kitchens of most chefs and you will see someone Instagramming and Tweeting regularly — part of building your brand. I have to force myself, but it’s part of being a chef in 2014.
Talk to me a little about the idea of the chef as a brand.
Often times, the reputation of a chef can be driven by PR more than skill or experience or product they serve. There are chefs who are masters of managing their brand, and that carries them a long way. I would like, first and foremost, to be known for product I serve in restaurant, but it can’t be denied that gaining a following has implications on the success of your business.
What do you love most about doing this? What drives you?
Through your career, different things drive you because your job changes. I love the craft of cooking. I love trying to increase my skills, find ways to do things better, faster, more efficiently, managing people, problem solving in general, which is what your job becomes. I have a serious interest in business and financial success. Going blind into culinary school, you have no idea what you’re going into. Most people aren’t equipped to work in this type of environment. You’re forced to compromise family, friends, finances. But my personality was perfect for this environment. I’m an intense, focused person who will not settle for anything less than mastery of a task I’m trying to do. I’m obsessive about it. And that’s about a new ingredient, or making a specific cook better, or a new type of plate. I do everything I do with 100 percent. I would probably be the same way if I was in a different field.
Do you have any advice for people getting started?
I tell this to a lot of people — being a good chef has to do with just your general intelligence and your natural ability (some people are just naturally better cooks), but more than anything, it’s a sheer desire to push yourself to be better. Come in early, stay late, push yourself for speed, set objectives. If you’re a line cook, think, how can I get my miss en place done faster? How can I avoid chef telling me to work cleaner? Come in on your day off to learn butchery and pastry. I found a mentor. If you put yourself in the best restaurant possible, where there’s food you connect with and a chef willing to lead you, then you will be successful. It’s just that most people are too lazy to find that.
You went to culinary school. Would you recommend others do the same?
It’s a good solid foundation, but the real training starts when you enter the industry. For some people, it’s a great idea. I don’t regret it, except for when I look at student loan payment, which I’m still paying. But if someone has the fortitude to go into a four-star restaurant and say, “I will work for free for six months,” then the cook they’ll be at the end of six months is far superior to what would come out of culinary school. But most people aren’t willing.
What are your goals?
I would like to push Morimoto to a higher level. And eventually, I would like to open a restaurant that would turn into many restaurants of multiple scales and concepts. I have interest in a lot of other types of cooking. You can’t necessarily change who you are deep down — I’ll always be influenced by the first chefs I worked for, but I love many types of cuisine, and I would like to be able to explore other avenues.